Comparative Showcases
Arts and culture
What is Culture? Cultural Products and Practices
 
As evidenced by the multitude of definitions of 'culture' circulating in the Arts and Sciences, the question 'What is culture?' is not easily answered. As a result, the cultural products and practices that are featured under the 'Arts & Culture' topic are of an extremely large variety, and it is no wonder that this topic features the most materials from any of the Key Topics in European History.

 

The Video Active selection of this topic gives insight into which cultural practices and activities result in the production of specific products and texts of European societies. General topics such as television, film, music, theatre, photography, painting and visual arts, literature, poetry, dance, fashion, language forms, customs, religions, leisure activities, tourism, architecture, museums, exhibitions and the latest novelties (from the 1960's juke box (IL, 1967) to e-readers (electronic books) (BBC, 2008) in the new millennium) are popular throughout Europe. The Video Active selection also reminds us of very (nationally) specific products and practices (such as the snow globe production in Vienna (ORF, 2006) or the smallest theatre in the world (MIC, 1983)), as well as the cultural practices of daily life: from living in cities (for example, the special atmosphere of the small streets and cafés in Vienna (ORF, 2006)) to reports about the everyday things and curiosities that occupy 'common' people – for instance, items about car washing and the weight of truck drivers in the daily magazine 'Man Bites Dog' (S&V, 2006). Other programmes do not shy away from more controversial practices, such as the odd striptease act in 'Mikimoto Club' (TVC, 1989). Finally, some programmes showcase cultural events that go beyond national or European borders, such as the Eurovision Song Contest (S&V 1960; see also 'Eurovision Song Contest Begins' for contextual information) or the Live Aid Concert (BBC, 1985). In 1999, two main dancers of the Riverdance group, Joanne Doyle and Braendan de Gallai, spoke of the great importance of their performance during the Eurovision Song Contest for their career in a French report on 'Riverdance' (INA, 1999). The report states that in 1999, the Riverdance group's show L'Hymne au Soleil et à la Lune is playing in capitals everywhere, and contains a mix of Irish folklore, tap-dancing and dances from other cultures, such as flamenco. Television events like the Eurovision Song Contest can thus also propel specific cultural products and practices into the limelight.

 

A common denominator between various European programmes is how these television programmes often look to figures of authority to promote and explain 'culture' to audiences. Well known artists, practitioners and/or celebrities are frequently asked to explain or promote particular cultural artefacts. For example, in the 1950s the Greek government invited celebrities to visit the city of Athens. The news programme which informed the public of the celebrities' visit to Athens (HENAA, 1956) moved across European borders and showed off stunning Greek attractions, such as the city of Athens, the Parthenon and the Acropolis hill, and the performance of an ancient drama at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus as visited by the celebrities. Celebrated artists regularly emphasize the differences between various cultural forms, particularly in the context of ever-changing and evolving technologies and the passing of time. For instance, Ingmar Bergman discusses the differences between directing plays and films in an interview with André Parinaud (INA, 1959), Jacques Brel talks about his career and how the themes of his songs have evolved between 1956 and 1963, next to performing a variety of his songs (INA, 1963), whereas Federico Fellini argues that television has changed the relationship between the public and the screen (INA, 1986) and delivers an analysis of the impatient and scattered 'new spectator', in between takes of his movie Ginger and Fred (1986). Next to promoting and explaining culture, artists can also question the merits of particular cultural forms. For example, in 1956 actress Peggy Ashcroft states her preference for the theatre in a discussion about the differences between theatre and television plays (BBC, 1956), arguing that the magic of an audience let's a play live, which cannot be replaced on TV.

 

Indeed, television programmes often favour an expert opinion on the topic of arts and culture, and a distinction can be made here between an expert opinion given in an 'expert interview', a 'television lecture', and the deployment of an 'expert panel' to encourage debate on a particular cultural topic. Such programmes offer an opportunity to reflect on television's role as a medium of expert cultural authority, against television's position as a medium between 'low' culture and 'high' culture. Firstly, the popular science programme 'Choose Knowledge' (NAVA, 2006) discusses the hobbies of glass painting, bonsai, caving, kite flying and kite making strictly by means of interviews with well known Hungarian practitioners in these respective fields – from noted Hungarian art historian Vera Varga, Hungarian ornamental glass maker Beáta Galácztp and trustee of the Hungarian National Bonsai Collection Ervin Katona to prominent retired Hungarian speleologist Béla Fónyad and experienced Hungarian kite flier and maker Miklós Szatai. Secondly, in the television lecture 'Eisenstein: The Man with the Five Faces' (KB, 1959), Bengt Idestam-Almquist (a leading film critic at the time) lectures both eloquently and enthusiastically on the five different 'temperaments' of the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein: 'the Westerner', 'the sketch artist', 'the film director', 'the film theorist' and 'the expert on Asia'. The programme also included several clips from Eisenstein's celebrated works and was titled 'possibly the most powerful TV lecture ever broadcast' in a review by Stockholms-Tidningen. Furthermore, one of the first programmes on Dutch television that explained art to the viewer favoured a 'lecture style' by a professor. In the first episode of this programme, 'Public Art Ownership: Silent beckons in paintings' (S&V, 1963), prof. dr. Fr.W.S. van Thienen lectures the audience on symbolism in 17th century art and discusses details of works by artists such as Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech and Pieter Claesz. Both lecturers directly address their audience in front of the camera, next to the use of their voice-over commentary. Finally and on the contrary, current lifestyle programmes and talk shows often prefer the use of an expert panel. For example, the Danish lifestyle programme 'A Question of Taste' (DR, 2005) employs a panel of three critics each week who discuss and pass judgement on the artistic and cultural happenings of that particular week, such as current music, literature, film, art, theatre, opera, ballet, architecture and television. These panellists are chosen from a fixed group of about twenty cultural personalities.

 

Across Europe, numerous television programmes utilizing interviews and in-studio debates testify on the role of television as a public mediator or negotiator of what constitutes 'culture' or 'art' in society. Next to the aforementioned Danish lifestyle programme 'A Question of Taste' (DR, 2005), which employs a weekly debate panel of three critics, the Danish current events programme 'Live: Art, Painting, Smudges' (DR, 2003) discusses with studio guests what 'culture' or 'art' is in the context of an artwork by a two year old. The artwork in question is 'just' drawings on a sheet, but since the boy's father gave the work a clever title it has become a work of art at a juried exhibition. In the studio, the show's host leads a discussion between the artist's father, Max Jensen, and Marie Markmann, member of the censorship committee. The Danish talk show 'What About Culture?' (DR, 1973) also hosts a discussion with artists and other cultural personalities (amongst others, director Kasper Rostrup, writer Leif Panduro and theatre director Sejr Volmer Sørensen) on what we read, see and hear on the topic of arts and culture today. These interviews are broadcasted live from the studio. In contrast, the French talk show 'Françoise and Friends' investigates the question 'How would you describe culture?' (RTBF, 1994), by asking writer Françoise Mallet-Joris, comics author François Schuiten and musician Isabelle Pousseur to give their own definitions of the word 'culture'. Furthermore, the programme interviews young people on the street, who are also asked to give their opinion on 'culture'. Finally, the German politics and issues programme 'Arts Unlimited: Commissioned work of art in the GDR' (DW, 1999) investigates whether commissioned art is either a mirror of its date of origin, or art as such, by means of an report on the exhibition 'Rahmenwechsel' shot on location. The exhibition 'Rahmenwechsel' showcases works of art commissioned by the GDR administration.

 

Questions about cultural or national identity surface as part of this discussion in European television programming. In Germany, national identity has been a conflict-ridden issue. Following World War II, Germans have had considerable problems with coming to terms with the past and finding a common national feeling. The cultural magazine 'Arts.21: Typically German?' (DW, 2006) reports on how the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany has changed this in a positive manner. The German television programme 'People and Politics: Do the Sorbs lose their cultural identity?' has also expressed concerns about the loss of cultural identity of the ethnic minority of Sorbs living in the federal states of Brandenburg and Saxony. Interviews with members of the Sorbian community emphasize the importance of preserving their culture to the Sorbs, from traditional dress to Sorbian customs, language, popular theatre and music. While the Sorbs receive some state funding for programmes to preserve the Sorbian culture, they are concerned that they lose their identity. A comparison can be made here with concerns expressed in the French cultural programme 'Estonian Identity' (INA, 2003). Estonians are afraid that by entering the European Union, they will be 'lost in the crowd' and will lose their cultural identity. Next to images of the city of Talinn in Estonia, the programme features an interview with historian Marek Tamm, who is convinced that joining the union will, on the contrary, preserve the country's identity, as well as an interview with then-president of Estonia Arnold Ruutel, concerning the ideas of a few intellectuals regarding a radical change of identity.

 

And finally, questions regarding what 'culture' is often get mixed up in discussions on what cultural products and practices should be or should do. Such discussions offer opportunities to reflect on television as a normative medium for cultural forms and practices, as they frequently include criticism on specific forms of culture – ranging from a jury deciding whether a recently issued gramophone record can be titled a 'smash hit' or 'fiasco' (S&V, 1961) to growing complains about Vienna's common cultural sight of horse-drawn coaches (or 'Fiaker') polluting the street and hindering the traffic leading to new Fiaker regulations and protests by coachmen (ORF, 2007 & 2004). In particular, television dramas and plays which are considered 'controversial' have received mixed reactions from both television broadcasters and television audiences. In the news programme 'Town and Around: Vox Pop reaction to controversial TV drama' (BBC, 1965), interviewer Michael Aspel attempts to fathom the audience's reaction to the Ken Loach drama play 'Up The Junction'. The play, which the BBC adapted from the Nell Dunn novel, caused a large numbers of viewers to complain about the programme's bad language and particularly the depiction of sexual promiscuity in their own boroughs near Clapham, South London. While some inhabitants quote the play as 'good', most interviewees complain that the play did not show 'anything good' about the area they live in. The depiction of abortion in 'Up The Junction' particularly had a major impact when it first aired as a 'Wednesday Play' on 3 November 1965, and the play has since then been called 'mould-breaking TV'. The BBC also provides Dennis Potter (who has written numerous plays shown on the BBC) with a platform to express his puzzlement in the current affairs programme 'Tonight' (BBC, 1973), after his play 'Brimstone and Treacle' is banned by the BBC. The television play in question centres around two parents who are taking care of their daughter, a young woman who lives a vegetable existence since a hit-and-run accident. Their existence is dramatically changed when Martin, a young stranger whose genial appearance hides devilish depths, wants to help taking care for her. In 1976, BBC TV's director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, decided not to transmit the play because he felt it would cause outrage. Although the play was brilliantly written and made, he found it nauseating. According to Potter, while the play was found 'nauseating' and therefore it could not be shown, no specific reasons were provided for why the play could not be aired. However, on 25 August 1987, the play 'Brimstone and Treacle' is finally aired during a BBC1 retrospective season of Dennis Potter plays (BBC, 1987).

 

The Video Active selection on this topic showcases how concerns and questions about arts and culture are expressed in an often similar fashion in European television programming. It is emphasized that, while the notion of 'culture' has often been used to distinguish between 'high' or 'elite' culture and 'low' or 'mass' culture, today's definition of culture is both broad as well as flexible, and for instance includes popular and commercial forms of culture. As a result, the materials on the Video Active portal help us to understand culture as products and practices of art in Europe. These representations of arts and culture on television give insight into television's cultural identity and the role of the medium television in society; as a public mediator of culture, as well as a normative medium for cultural products and a medium of expert cultural authority, against television's position as a medium between 'low' culture and 'high' culture.

 

Berber Hagedoorn