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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“The soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture”*…


What does it mean to be “cultured”?  Are you?  The questionnaire above is from Ashley Montagu’s 1958 book, The Cultured Man

Montagu—a well-respected anthropologist and former student of Franz Boas, who was influential in his profession’s midcentury rejection of the idea of innate racial hierarchywrote many popular books, of which The Cultured Man is one.

The book contains quizzes for 50 categories of knowledge in the arts and sciences, with 30 questions each; 25 of the questions test knowledge and five test what Montagu called “attitudes.” The test-taker could refer to the answers at the back of the book and tap the list of references Montagu offered as correctives to those who found themselves deficient in a particular area.

Distinguishing his project from that of the quiz shows that were popular staples of radio and TV in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Montagu wrote that a person considered “cultured” would not just be able to readily summon facts, but also to access humane feelings, which would necessarily come about after contact with culture. “The principal mark of the cultured man is not so much knowledge as his attitude of mind in relating his knowledge to the world of experience,” Montagu wrote. A “cultured man” would be curious, unprejudiced, rational, and ethical.

“The function of these questions is not a static one,” Montagu wrote, encouraging readers to see the experience of being tested as an educational opportunity. “Their function is both dynamic and constructive: to tell you more or less exactly where you stand as a cultured person, and precisely in which directions you need to move from that position. No one grows who stands still.”

More, from the redoubtable Rebecca Onion, at “How Cultured Are You, by 1950s Standards?”  It’s interesting to note, as Ms. Onion does, that while Montagu was a powerful mid-century voice for antiracism and multiculturalism, his idea of “culture” is essentially Western, and almost totally lacking in representation of non-male, non-white voices…

* Plato, The Republic


As we hit the books, we might spare a thought for a cultural observer extraordinaire: Jonathan Swift, the satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet, and cleric who’s probably best remembered for Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal; he died on this date in 1745.



Written by LW

October 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

“‘Tis not alone my inky cloak… Nor customary suits of solemn black”*…


Michelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio used ivory black to convey asceticism, piety, and inspiration in his 1605-6 painting, St Jerome Writing.

Suddenly, black was everywhere. It caked the flesh of miners and ironworkers; it streaked the walls and windows of industrial towns; it thickened the smoky air above. Proprietors donned black clothing to indicate their status and respectability. New black dyes and pigments created in factories and chemical laboratories entered painters’ studios, enabling a new expression for the new themes of the industrial age: factory work and revolt, technology and warfare, urbanity and pollution, and a rejection of the old status quo. A new class of citizen, later to be dubbed the “proletariat,” began to appear in illustrations under darkened smokestacks. The industrial revolution had found its color.

Black is technically an absence: the visual experience of a lack of light. A perfect black dye absorbs all of the light that impinges on it, leaving nothing behind. This ideal is remarkably difficult to manufacture. The industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries made it easier, providing chemists and paint-makers with a growing palette of black—and altering the subjects that the color would come to represent. “These things are intimately connected,” says science writer Philip Ball, author of Bright Earth: The Invention of Color. The reinvention of black, in other words, went far beyond the color…

As the means of producing the color black changed, so did the subjects that it was used to evoke/represent. Get the basics at “The Reinvention of Black.”

* Shakespeare, Hamlet


As we paint it black, we might we might retreat to the colorful, remembering that it was on this date in 1969 that “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” opened in the Catskills in New York State.  The organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair– or Woodstock, as it is remembered– had hoped to sell 50,000 tickets; but by the week before the event, had moved 186,000.  A last-minute change of venue presented them with a hard choice: hastily erect more/stronger fences and install additional security on the new site (the now-famous Yasgur’s Farm) or offer the event for free.  The night before the event, with attendees already arriving in huge numbers, the promoters cut the fence.  Ultimately an estimated 400,000 people enjoyed a (somewhat rainy) weekend of performances from 32 acts.  It was, as Rolling Stone opined, a defining moment in Rock and Roll.


Written by LW

August 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I think it’s cool to wear roadkill”*…

Anna Paquin, modeling a piece from her line of “found fur” clothing and accessories

Approximately 50 million animals are killed every year for their fur; by comparison, 1 million animals a day— 365 million a year– are killed on the roads of America.  As Culture Change puts it, “only meat-eaters take a larger toll than its motorists.”

Where many animal lovers see, simply, tragedy, Anna Paquin sees opportunity as well.  Determined to create a clothing category that might sound oxymoronic– “ethical fur”– Paquin has founded Petit Mort, a company that recycles roadkill into fashionable clothing and accessories.

Wrap yourself in Anna’s story at “One Woman Is Revolutionizing the Fur Industry. By Using Roadkill.”

* Ke$ha


As we bundle up, we might spare a thought for Hypatia; she was killed on this date in 370 CE.  A mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, she was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria.  She was murdered by a mob of Christian anti-pagan fanatics on the steps of an Alexandria church called The Caesarium– as a result of which, she has become a symbol of martyred Reason and of feminism. Stephen Greenblatt suggests that her murder “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life”; Kathleen Wider proposes that her murder marked the end of Classical antiquity.

Neo-platonism is a progressive philosophy, and does not expect to state final conditions to men whose minds are finite. Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.



Written by LW

March 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migrations from one environment to another”*…

email readers click here for video

All roads lead from Rome, according to a visual history of human culture built entirely from the birth and death places of notable people. The 5-minute animation provides a fresh view of the movements of humanity over the last 2,600 years.

Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues used the Google-owned knowledge base, Freebase, to find 120,000 individuals who were notable enough in their life-times that the dates and locations of their births and deaths were recorded.

The list includes people ranging from Solon, the Greek lawmaker and poet, who was born in 637 bc in Athens, and died in 557 bc in Cyprus, to Jett Travolta — son of the actor John Travolta — who was born in 1992 in Los Angeles, California, and died in 2009 in the Bahamas.

The team used those data to create a movie that starts in 600 bc and ends in 2012…

Learn more (e.g., that more architects than artists died in the French Revolution) at Nature.

* Ellsworth Huntington


As we take the long view, we might recall that on this date in 1597, the Hanseatic League (a northern European confederation that was a forerunner of Germany) expelled all English merchants.  The expulsion was a product of on-going tensions with English and Dutch trading interests, and a direct response to Elizabeth I’s closure of the Steelyard, the League’s trading post in London.

The Hanseatic League



Written by LW

August 12, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”*…


The MIT Media Lab’s Pantheon Project aims to restore some of that knowledge…

You were not born with the ability to fly, cure disease or communicate at long distances, but you were born in a society that endows you with these capacities. These capacities are the result of information that has been generated by humans and that humans have been able to embed in tangible and digital objects.

This information is all around you. It is the way in which the atoms in an airplane are arranged or the way in which your cell-phone whispers dance instructions to electromagnetic waves.

Pantheon is a project celebrating the cultural information that endows our species with these fantastic capacities. To celebrate our global cultural heritage we are compiling, analyzing and visualizing datasets that can help us understand the process of global cultural development. Dive in, visualize, and enjoy…

Readers can lose themselves in Pantheon, exploring the relative cultural output of different regions in specific domains, like innovation:

… or the cultural output across all domains of a particular nation:

… even the overall rankings of individual contributors to culture over time:

There are, as Pantheon’s keepers freely acknowledge, biases built into the methodology; they continue to work to overcome them.  Still, it is a fascinating– and altogether absorbing– resource.  Check out the rankings engine here; the visualization engine here; and these videos, by way of background:

* T.S.Eliot


As we consult the league tables, we might recall that it was on this date in 2010 that the overdue fines on two books checked out but never returned by George Washington from the New York Society Library (the city’s only lender of books at the time of Washington’s presidency) reached $300,000.

The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on October 5, 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.

“We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” the head librarian Mark Bartlett said at the time. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”

The Library’s ledger: the bottom-most entries, ascribed to “President,” show show the withdrawal date, but no return. A search of the holdings confirms that the volumes are still missing.


Written by LW

April 17, 2014 at 1:01 am

Color me _____ …

Feeling  _____?  About to head out for a night on the town in _____?  Then dress in _____!

From Zoho:Lab, an interactive version of (R)D favorite David McCandless’ “Colours of Cultures“…

click the image above, or here, for full-screen interactive version

And for a grid version, click here.

As we reorganize our sock drawers, we might recall that on this date in 1896 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that color mattered in a different kind of way: it ruled that separate-but-equal facilities were constitutional on intrastate railroads.  For half a century thereafter, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation in the U.S., across which laws mandated separate accommodations on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools.  While the Court’s majority opinion denied that legalized segregation connoted inferiority, a dissenting opinion from Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that segregation in public facilities smacked of servitude and abridged the principle of equality under the law.

At a Rome, Georgia bus station, 1949 (source)

Named virtues…

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, is charged with administering “the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage“– a duty they discharge by convening a committee once a year to select from member nations’ nominations those traditions that are needy of conservation.

Consider, for example:

Castells are human towers built by members of amateur groups, usually as part of annual festivities in Catalonian towns and cities… The human towers are formed by castellers standing on the shoulders of one another in a succession of stages (between six and ten). Each level of the tronc, the name given to the second level upwards, generally comprises two to five heavier built men supporting younger, lighter-weight boys or girls. The pom de dalt – the three uppermost levels of the tower – comprises young children. Anyone is welcome to form the pinya, the throng that supports the base of the tower… The knowledge required for raising castells is traditionally passed down from generation to generation within a group, and can only be learned by practice.


On consideration, the committee ruled that Castells satisfied the criteria for inscription on the Representative List:

R1: Human towers are recognized by Catalan people as an integral part of their cultural identity, transmitted from generation from generation and providing community members a sense of continuity, social cohesion and solidarity;
R2: Their inscription on the Representative List could promote intangible cultural heritage as a means of reinforcing social cohesion, while encouraging respect for cultural dialogue and human creativity;
R3: The safeguarding measures being implemented and those planned are carefully described, and the commitments of both the State and the communities are well demonstrated, all aiming at ensuring the viability of the element;
R4: The nomination was elaborated through a process of consultation and cooperation with the bearers of the tradition who have provided their free, prior and informed consent;
R5: Human towers are registered in the Inventory of the Ethnological Heritage of Catalonia, maintained and updated by the Department of Culture and Media.

For a peek at 2010’s newly-anointed treasures, announced last week, readers can visit this Foreign Policy roster of “10 Traditions You Never Thought Needed Protecting.”

As we wonder if the castellers are now required to wear blue helmets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that Hollywood’s homage to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of cross-dressing– Mrs. Doubtfire— premiered.



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