What Is Culture For?

What Is Culture For?


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Our societies frequently proclaim their enormous esteem for culture. Music, film, literature and the visual arts enjoy high prestige and are viewed by many as getting close to the meaning of life. But what is culture really for?

This book proposes that works of culture were all made, in one way or another, with the idea of improving the way we live. The book connects a range of cultural masterpieces with our own pains and dilemmas around love, work and society, and invites us to see culture as a resource with which to address the complex agonies of being human. It provides us with enduring keys to unlocking culture as a way of transforming our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780995753532
Publisher: The School of Life
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Series: Essay Books Series
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 4.40(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

The School of Life is a global organization helping people lead more fulfilled lives. It is a resource for helping us understand ourselves, for improving our relationships, our careers, and our social lives—as well as for helping us find calm and get more out of our leisure hours. They do this through films, workshops, books, and gifts—and through a warm and supportive community. You can find The School of Life online, in stores and in welcoming spaces around the globe.

Read an Excerpt


Much to the consternation of sophisticated people, a great deal of popular enthusiasm is directed at works of culture that are distinctly cheerful (songs about hope, films about couples that work through their problems); and in the visual arts, cheerful, pleasant scenes (meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children). The bestselling postcard of art in France turns out to be a reproduction of Poppies by Claude Monet.

Sophisticated people tend to scorn. They are afraid that such enthusiasms might be evidence of a failure to acknowledge or understand the wilful dimesions of the world. But there is another way to interpret this taste: that it doesn't arise from unfamiliarity with suffering, but from an all too close and pervasive involvement with it - from which we are impelled occasionally to seek relief if we are not to fall into despair and self-disgust. Far from naivety, it is precisely the background of suffering that lends an intensity and dignity to our engagement with hopeful cultural works.

Renoir's idyllic picture of friends having a picnic together in the shade on a sunny day isn't imagining a fantasy world in which people magically never have troubles or sorrows. They may have boring jobs or tricky partners; they may have long hours of loneliness. It's just that, all the same, they can truly enjoy this opportunity of pleasant friendship in a lovely place. Renoir isn't being sentimental. He's not implying that life as a whole is a picnic. He's portraying a much truer and more helpful idea of which we often need reminding; that despite the manifest failings of life and the world it is still possible for us to experience true pleasure. Which leads to the odd conclusion: if (by some strange chance) normal life were to become consistently delightful we would no longer need sweetly charming, hope-inducing works of art.

One of the less discussed powers of art is that, from time to time, it can bring tears to our eyes. It's normal to think that what makes people cry are sad things; that's certainly the way it works when you're a child. But the older we get, the more we start to notice an odd phenomenon: we start crying not when things are horrible (we toughen up a little), but when they are suddenly and unexpectedly precisely the opposite: when they are unusually sweet, tender, joyful, innocent or kind. This, far more than grimness, is what can increasingly prompt tears.
In reality we rarely have the problem of being naively contented with our lives, or with the world in general. On the contrary, we are remorselessly confronted by our own failing and by the radical imperfections of society. Rather than needing a stern dose of disenchantment, we're more likely to require art-tools that can feed and sustain our beleaguered optimism.

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