‘Cultured’: desirable compliment or derisory criticism?

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I took at first to be a pretty benign question: do I like going to the ballet? Well, yes, I was proud to say, I really love it. I’ve been going to the ballet regularly since I was in high school. My friend continued: do I enjoy going to the symphony? Well, yes, I do, when I can. What about the opera? Not as much, but I’ve been before. Then my friend asked: do you enjoy going to these things because you actually appreciate the art there, or because you like to be seen as being cultured?

Art aficionados reading this should know that I put up a passionate defence for the worth of art galleries, George Balanchine, philharmonics and the Ring Cycle, which admittedly is hard to do all at once. But my friend was not to be convinced by any of my protests—for him, being cultured was by and large synonymous with being pretentious at best and more likely a snob. For his part, he made the argument that there was as much ‘culture’ to be found in the American National Football League as at the Met. Finally, we agreed to disagree, and I returned to my room to weep with frustration into my piles of ticket stubs and programmes.

Can anyone be cultured simply for culture’s own sake, and not just to be a pretentious art snob? Though the divide between ‘high’ art and more popular art forms—reality television, pop music, perhaps even Snapchat—might seem wider than ever, this isn’t a new question. In 1778, characters in Fanny Burney’s Evelina were complaining of the well-dressed phonies who wouldn’t shut up at the opera, deriding it as “nonsense”. And when the established old-money families in New York City refused to admit the nouveaux riches of the Gilded Age into the venerable Academy of Music Opera House, those nouveaux riches got their purses out and built the Metropolitan Opera House in 1880. Glitzier and posher than the old Academy, they made sure to include many private boxes so that the wealthiest operagoers could focus on the real attraction; inspecting other attendees.

So for centuries, fine art has been as much a temple of haute couture as a breeding ground for intellectual poseurs. At the same time, art has marched on, producing classics and masterpieces that remain relevant today. It would be foolish to pretend that in the art world there aren’t people who are drawn simply to appear refined and cultivated. But it’s even more foolhardy to imagine that the only thing sustaining high art for the last several centuries has been narcissistic snobbery. I’m not privy to his private thoughts, but just as I don’t think that Monet painted all those haystacks for the attention and the reviews, I don’t believe that they continue to captivate because they have Monet’s name attached to them. Underneath the babble and chatter of society, artistic value is real, and drives people to both create and appreciate for reasons deeper than a desire for savoir faire.

Part of the problem may be that in speaking about being cultured, we assume too restricting a definition for what culture can be. Films, pop music, Harry Potter and more—there’s room in every modern medium for cultural appreciation, discussion, and the proper dose of snobbery.  Limiting what we consider ‘culture’ doesn’t just do an injustice to the richness of art forms excluded from the definition, it also artificially limits what art and culture can be. Restrictions like that don’t do anyone a favour but only make art and culture seem more distant and unattainable to the casual observer. For a better idea of what it means to be cultured it is better to look at the realities of modern culture.