Professor Colin Sparks on Shakespeare, video games, and a broader definition of culture
Is culture only produced by “dead white men”? Is embroidery as important as oil painting to our understanding of culture? Can the definition of culture be expanded to include video games and film, and not just paintings and great works of literature? Chair Professor of Media Studies argues for a broader view of culture.
As Americans sometimes say, this definition of culture is culture produced by dead white men. I want to argue today that that’s a mistaken view of culture. I want to argue not only that it is mistaken but it’s not helpful in understanding how culture is produced and the culture which is being produced today. The first thing to say about these works is: of course, they are great achievements of the human spirit. I’m not denegrating Pushkin, I’m not denegrating Milton – these are great human achievements. However, they are only part of the history of human endeavor, part of the history of human attempts to understand and live in the world.
Visual representation in western culture has centered around the painting, and particularly around the oil painting. This isn’t the only tradition of visual representation in the west. There are other traditions of visual representation, notably, embroidery. Now we don’t have to argue whether embroidery is as good as, or better than, oil painting. We simply have to recognize that this is a form of representation which half of the human race in the West, in Europe, in the 19th century, engaged in.
I think that a broader definition of culture, a definition that doesn’t focus excusively on the past, doesn’t focus exclusively on a narrow range of works, a definition of culture which talks about the way that people today live their lives, opens us to understand a whole range of human activities which otherwise appear incomprehensible, which otherwise appear pointless, and senseless, and distractions. These are, potentially, at least, as enriching, as valuable, as any other form of culture.