Monday, March 12, 2007

What is culture?

One of the things about Germany I find rather hard to understand - even thought I've grown up here - is my countrymen's view of 'culture'. So I've wondered what 'culture' really means.

To most countries there's pop-culture and a little bit of high culture (pop-culture being popular movies, songs, books etc. and high culture being the 'classics' of all those and other areas). To Germans there's high culture, nothing for a long time and then 'Kitsch' and 'Schund' (which together qualify as pop-culture), nothing else. We've got a lot of talented writers here, for example, but they are not appreciated (most of them, at least), because they don't write books considered to be high culture.

But what exactly is a classic for us? Goethe and Schiller are mentioned quite often when it comes to that question and it surely is true that we usually base our definition not on the contents but on the creators. Everything written by Goethe or Schiller is considered a 'classic', but not something from a less renown contemporary writer. It doesn't matter whether a book - or even a series of books - is considered a best-seller (like the Winnetou-books by Karl May). If it's not considered highly cultural, it's not a 'classic' and thus pop-culture.

Penny-dreadfuls have been considered 'out of date' in most western countries, but they still more or less thrive in Germany, on the other side. So why do we, who consider ourselves so set on high culture, still buy those booklets printed on cheap paper and usually written during one or two weeks by hard-working and mostly underpaid writers who will never be considered to create art? I think it's because we like 'Kitsch' and 'Schund', but don't want to admit it.

We buy our dreadful stories for about an Euro (the time when they've cost a penny is long past) and claim it's just to "have something to read during a trip on the train" or "have something to do while waiting for something". Those explanations are just excuses, so we can buy those stories about dreadful monsters, cowboys, detectives, doctors and so on and read them without having to admit we like it.

Or take, just as another example, those cheap paperback romance novels. They're usually quite pointless - at least to me, they usually bore me - and not really high culture, but enter any bookstore and browse through the shelves and you'll find lots of them, closely followed by crime stories and other popular genres. They are best-sellers, even though they don't appear on the lists.

So what is culture? It seems that culture is everything artful people produce, not matter how other people see in it.

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