‘Culture’ means whatever you want it to, especially if you’re in public life

From history to art or creativity to good manners, the lines are blurred when it comes to cultivating culture

“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’” Hermann Goering reportedly said, “I reach for my revolver.” What did he mean? That he didn’t like Mozart? That he couldn’t stand ballet? That he objected to anything more “artistic” than drinking songs? Or that he disliked the way the word befuddles people’s brains?

Nobody seems able to agree what “culture” means. Lord Rogers, the architect behind the Millennium Dome, is one of several people who recently added to the confusion. Speaking before an exhibition of his work at Burlington House, he said, “We haven’t quite got culture as a concept.” He asserted that “the culture minister is the weakest minister in the Cabinet,” said that Ed Vaizey is “truly conscious” that he has no power, and wondered why “we have this horror, this fear, of culture.”

He’s right about Vaizey’s powerlessness (especially when it comes to sticking up for libraries and resisting their closure) but then, Ed’s not in Cabinet: he’s the Culture minister, not Secretary. But the culture ministry is weak – not because anyone’s afraid of it but because, when it comes to the allocation of public funds, “culture, communications and the creative industries” (to give the portfolio its full title) will always be eclipsed by Transport or Health. Nothing to do with fear.

Lord Rogers went on, “London has changed an unbelievable amount in the last 15 or 20 years… We have learned an unbelievable amount from people coming here.” He shifted, you see, into talking about multiculturalism, about which many people, from Margaret Thatcher to Nigel Farage, have confessed to feelings of horror and fear. But their definition of “culture” is never about art or creativity: it simply translates as “foreigners.”

Vaizey’s boss, Maria Miller, landed in hot water when she tried to explain the origin of the First World War without upsetting Germany. Good God, snorted the Twittersphere with delight, a Culture Secretary with only the foggiest idea about her nation’s history! Harrumph! See how they were able to appropriate the word “culture” to mean “a nation’s history”?      

Last week, the cricketer David Gower had a pre-Ashes pop at Australia and said, by no means stereotypically, “How can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture?” That wizened old chestnut never actually meant that the Aussie population lack painters, novelists or oboe players: it was just shorthand for saying they’re a rough, uncouth, sweary rabble. So culture here means “well-mannered” or just “nice”.                           

What the hell does it mean? The Chambers dictionary says its primary meaning is: “the state of being cultivated,” with good things and bad things sprouting forth from a people over time, like bacteria on a laboratory potato. In different hands, however, it can mean art, sport, religion, immigration, manners, clothes, Morris dancing – and a stick with which to beat the insecure.

A talented stripper – and rhetorician

She’s quite a gal, Lindsay Mills, the ex-partner of Prism whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Ms Mills has used her moment in the world’s spotlight as the abandoned girlfriend of a former CIA spook to display her body in several vivid frocks, a tutu, a bikini (with Samurai sword accessory,) and a string of fairy lights, on a blog subtitled: “Adventures of a world-travelling, pole-dancing superhero.”

She sounds like lively company for the geeky, wispy-chinned Ed. But she has a veritable passion for mixed metaphors: “My life has opened and closed all at once,” she wrote, “Leaving me lost at sea without a compass… I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path… It has been an emotional rollercoaster since I stepped off the plane…” Really, with such a flair for grammatical solecism, I’m surprised she ever found a boyfriend at all.

Twitter: @JohnHenryWalsh

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