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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CULTURE & SOCIETY 1780-1950 BY RAYMOND WILLIAMS

BOOK REVIEW

CULTURE & SOCIETY: 1780-1950
by Raymond Williams
Columbia University Press
p. 1958


   I bought this book off Amazon.com almost one year ago to the day.  I paid 25 bucks for this book, and it came in terrible condition- it is literally falling apart on my desk.  I've been actively trying to finish Culture & Society for at least six months- like actively trying to read it- but it is just so boring and turgid.  However, Williams also has profound things to say about artists and artistic criticism.

  I would have to say that this is the single most profound book I've read in the area of Literary/Artistic Criticism slash aesthetics.  Williams is generally labelled a "Marxist" in the U.S., but if so he's a cultural Marxist.  Culture and Society was published in 1958 to considerable acclaim.  In it, Williams traces the history of the concept of "culture" in English artistic and literary criticism.  The table of Contents for Culture and Society is like a road-map for understanding the subject in its entirety:

NINETEENTH CENTURY TRADITION
2.  The Romantic Artist
4.  Thomas Carlyle
6. J.H. Newman and Matthew Arnold
7.  Art and Society: A.W. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris

TWENTIETH CENTURY TRADITION
1. D.H. Lawrence
2. R.H. Tawney
3. T.S. Eliot
4. Two Literary Critics: I.A. Richard, F.R. Leavis
5. Marxism and Culture
6. George Orwell
Conclusion

   Do you know what that list is? That is the exact recipe of influence for contemporary hipsters whether they are actually aware of it OR NOT.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that most  contemporary Indie Artists, of whatever genre/discipline, don't know the difference between Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, but the beauty of Williams argument in Culture & Society is that this DOESN'T MATTER.  Culture does not require "active" appreciation to be "good."  Culture is what people like, there can be no question of elevating the taste of a "literate minority" above the tastes of the "masses."

  In fact, critiques which postulate, "The concept of a cultivated minority, set over against a 'decreated' mass... lead to...  damaging arrogance and skepticism." (italics added.)  Further:  "The concept of a wholly organic and satisfying past  to be set against a disintegrated and dissatisfying present, tends in its  neglect of history to a denial of real social experience."

   Both of these concepts: the "cultivated minority" and the "wholly organic and satisfying past" are ENDEMIC to the mind set of  contemporary Artists who are striving/struggling to bridge the gap from AMATEUR (poor & unsuccessful) to PROFESSIONAL.  That most of them are ignorant of the terms themselves and their genesis speaks more to individual under education then the irrelevance of the concepts themselves.  Kind of like the rules of physics, you don't have to be conscious of how they work to have them effect your life.

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