What is the point of culture? It can’t simply mean “the things we do together,” because that is simply life. I think the experience of a culture is really an experience of a certain sort of life.
Culture is an expression of a people’s values, and over time works hand in hand with tradition to convey accumulated insight, knowledge, and wisdom into the future. An enormous part of culture is a people’s decisions about beauty, because to decide that something is beautiful is to decide that it is stands apart as something worthy of reverence.
In the home, something as simple as a beautiful vase might be elevated through its placement on a mantle or set apart in a cabinet. This is an example of reverence. In culture more broadly, artists, philosophers, architects, curators, writers, and poets exist to identify and elevate the beautiful as a way to express their culture’s insights into the nature of life. In this way they reverence those things that possess some permanent, transcendent significance.
Roger Scruton’s BBC feature Why Beauty Matters is a great one-hour invitation to understanding beauty’s role in culture. Scruton offers insight into art, architecture, and philosophy and how all three should ideally work together to elevate a society’s common cultural experience. The BBC has failed to license this for U.S. viewers, but it’s available to torrent and someone has put the whole hour online at least for now. Watch the first three minutes to see if it’s worth it:
In this film, I have described beauty as an essential resource. Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows. Art and music shine a light of meaning on ordinary life, and through them we are able to confront the things that trouble us, and to find consolation and peace in their presence. This capacity of beauty to redeem our suffering is one reason why beauty can be seen as a substitute for religion. …
The sacred and the beautiful stand side by side, two doors that open onto a single space. And in that space, we find our home.
I think of beauty not simply as a decision about what we find aesthetically remarkable, but rather as a way to express what we value, what we believe ourselves to be as a people, and what we believe provides transcendent meaning in the experience of life.