Notes on Culture

Reconsidering the power of creativity and culture for the New Year

I can’t think about how creativity is born, where my own creativity comes from or how to inspire myself without thinking about a highly ambiguous concept: Culture.

Culture can mean high culture. That is, lasting culture—great works of art that have entered a pantheon; paintings inside museums; books and compositions that have become canonical. This kind of culture is meant to be appreciated, and it looms large in education like New Mexico’s mountain peaks.

In another sense, culture rests at eye level. Describing a local culture, for instance, generally means the objects, habits, utensils and maps that make up everyday life. This broader definition indicates everything you see and do that relates to social and environmental life, and whenever I think about these dual meanings—one aesthetic, the other anthropological—I think about the winding paths we take in navigating who we are, and my own path cultivating creativity.

Most people will first encounter so-called high -culture in school, labeled under powerful headings like “The Classics.” Unsurprisingly, the heavyweights of belles lettres at my Georgia high school were Shakespeare and Milton; I preferred Milton. I also read chapters by major 19th century novelists, their works ranging from captivating to some which bored me stupid, and I became interested in Faulkner—probably because he wrote about Southern race relations; in college, I was enthused by the Existentialists.

But my college didn’t have a Black Studies program, and after leaving school, I felt a powerful need to compensate for that absence. Faulkner’s vision of race relations was a poor substitute, I learned, and I instead devoured books by Wright, Baldwin and Morrison. I spent the next 10 years reading the Afrocentric canon.

Of course, thinking that reading would be the whole story behind how I (or anyone) became cultured is shallow. We accrue culture no more from the books we read or the museums we visit than by the languages, dialects, fashions, familial and regional institutions or social relations surrounding us. Culture is the influence of the everyday, and by using more than one definition, we make our way.

We will often begin investigating cultural resources particularly deeply if we’re artists. I believe it’s fair to say that most artists initially go through a period of questioning the ruses and guises called culture. We feel—or don’t feel—an affinity with the culture into which we were born. We critique being Black, white, gendered, rural or urban, asking whether we can’t imagine ourselves without labels, or wishing we could. We look for answers in cultural products, like books and movies; we study high culture, impressed by its insights, or dismayed by its lack of understanding of our specific experiences.

Then for artists, I believe, something cathartic happens. No one can thrive creatively while stuck in the mindset that culture always indicates the past. By this logic, no living person has any right to make it, and even I couldn’t write until I appreciated how culture wasn’t necessarily the providence of foreign people created only in distant times. I inched toward this revelation by reading 20th century classics written by Black Southerners, like myself. I identified with them, but most importantly, I learned to appreciate how the dual definitions of culture, whether we spell it with a Big C or a little c, were interdependent.

Artists transmute the everyday culture of any time into the material with which they create their own contributions to lasting culture. The past and present, likewise, remain interdependent: Culture is equal parts the past we inherit and a present we have the power to shape. And yet, for artists, the dynamic is still more complicated, like layers of an onion always unraveling.

Still today, African American literature is my foundation. I know it better than any other subject, and its writers were seminal to framing my reality. I won’t say it’s my exclusive influence, however, or that different kinds of books haven’t been seared into my imagination. The plethora of tomes stacked beneath my bed consists of many historical periods with Morrison’s Beloved sitting on top of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. This scattered collection represents no less than my individuality, my personal canon, and it’s what happens whenever books intersect with individuals; the culture we inevitably make with our personal tastes if our relationship with its offerings isn’t passive. My process, thankfully, is ongoing and engaged.

Is it less important when books were written than when we happened upon them? Or why we remembered them? Or what was happening in our lives when we cracked their pages? Possibly so in this dimension, where historical chronology—or so-called canons—are less significant than individual responses. We’re talking about a realm of near-complete subjectivity which might be least useful from an academic perspective. Our own relationships to culture sometimes play havoc with traditional or more comfortable categorization, and yet, from a creative point of view, this sense of privately cultivated culture is the most important one. It’s the energy that spawns new springs, new life and new metaphors.

That’s precisely why we need more than one definition—because they inform each other, they must be tempered by each other. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the new year than by extolling their virtues, but let us be mindful. Let’s respect the inherited classics, sure, and let’s honor the communal artifact. But let’s appreciate the unhinged energy that gives us the power and courage to remake the future.

Santa Fe Poet Laureate Darryl Lorenzo Wellington: Mayoral Inauguration Reading: 9:30 am Thursday, Dec. 30. Free. Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W Marcy St., (505) 955-6200

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