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What does ‘culture’ or cultural heritage mean? - Srinivas Venkatram

Culture is often seen as a set of artifacts – living and non-living – born of a society or a civilization over time. By ‘living artifacts’ we mean dance, music, drama, literature, which are embodied in a set of practices, norms, ideas, and forms of expression. By ‘non-living artifacts’ we mean the outputs or products of a society over time including literature, works of art, stories, ideas, etc. This has been the traditional view of culture.

In this view, the ‘context’ in terms of time, place, circumstance, ‘periods’, ‘schools’, ‘traditions’, are all important. Furthermore, in this view, preservation and transmission of culture implies preservation and appreciation of cultural products and cultural practices created historically. In this view, culture is always ‘past facing’, focused on preservation of the past against the onslaught of a new world which challenges both the products and practices which are in vogue and demands that both evolve – continuously or discontinuously – in tune with external influences, new technologies, changing social norms, and evolving notions of social acceptability.

We propose an alternative view of culture based on seeing culture as “core ideals” and “contexted manifestations”.

29 April 2017; Srinivas Venkatram

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In this view, we see “core ideals” as the essentials of any society or civilization born not out of its art, but that which gives birth to art. These “core ideals” may themselves manifest in form as myths and role models, or in the formless as “systems of living” that individuals may aspire to. This view of culture postulates that the “core ideals” or unchanging essence of a civilization lives in the “collective consciousness” of purpose, meaning, fulfillment, & greatness, and not necessarily in the embodiments of cultural practices or products of a civilization. In this view, culture is both past and future facing. The future represents the ideal (answers to what is greatness, human fulfillment and the meaning of life as offered by that particular society). The past represents the manifestations (products, practices, forms and norms). In such a view, society aims to build a future based on its ideas of greatness, fulfillment and meaning, using the materials & technologies, and influences of the time. It seeks to preserve the past – through its manifestations – only to record and sense-make its own past, and perhaps to clarify for itself, how its earlier generations articulated its shared ideal. In short, preservation of culture really means first and foremost, preservation of the “collective consciousness”, or ideals of a society. The preservation of this “collective consciousness”, partly through its outputs, but primarily through a shared vision of human life, gives continuity and strength to a society, while leaving it free to grow & evolve through multiple generations, external influences, technologies, and even deeper, through an inner discourse on the very questions of what should constitute the ideals with which human beings live.

29 April 2017; Srinivas Venkatram

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