12, No. 1, December 2010
Consuming Culture and the Impacts of Ingestion
Having spent twenty odd years of my life attending contemporary
cultural openings, exhibitions, performances and happenings,
I began to wonder what the attending audience got out of the
experience and what motivated them to go. This query did not
stem from boredom with my cultural habits but more from the need
to understand why some individuals chose to experience art forms
and cultural experiences, while others did not. If it was purely
entertainment, a matter of leisure preferences, or escapism from
the ravages of modern life, then heading to the local cinema,
music concert or the local pub might just do the same trick.
a number of us don’t, we choose to consume the arts in its multifarious
forms. Why? A desire for knowledge, a desire for an aesthetic encounter or
a predisposition for highbrow tastes? Or none of the above. Many considerations
and studies of culture and arts attendance evaluate the impact of this engagement
in terms of resolving economic, social or cultural tourism agendas. This has
resulted in an increasingly defined position for the impact of the arts in
terms of convertible use-values, efficiencies and profits of input/output mechanisms
and considerations of cause and effect. Neo-liberal ideologies have entered
the sphere of the arts. This has led to the consideration that today’s
cultural producers are ‘the new missionaries’ who solve the multifarious
ills of society with their cultural balm (O’Kelly 2007). This instrumentality
of culture, however, falls short of considering the full totality of the arts
experience as it does not address the intrinsic impacts of cultural engagement.
Assessing Elusive Culture
Assessing this elusive impact is widely noted as difficult due
to the complex, intensely subjective and contextual nature
of this experience. This profile also renders intrinsic impact
assessment as unsuitable for the rigours of positivist quantifiable
logic (Belfiore and Bennett 2007, Galloway 2009, Selwood 2010).
But while proving ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ is
inherently difficult, it is essential to surface the intrinsic
value of culture, in order to contribute to a fuller understanding
of the totality of the cultural experience. If it is not surfaced,
it will remain invisible and mute against the goliath of instrumentalism.
As noted by Matarasso (1997) that which remains invisible is
powerless and thus rendered impotent in a use-exchange value
discourse. As such our values of culture will then settle on
what art and culture are seen to ‘do’ for society
and not what they ‘mean’ to individuals.
Art for art’s sake
And if we remove instrumentality from the cultural value equation
and consider alternative evaluations of the intrinsic power
of art, we are left with the Arnoldian view of ‘arts
for arts sake’ or Kantian ‘disinterestedness’ of
aesthetic appreciation. These alternative considerations of
culture are also found wanting, possessing little consequence
or meaning in the neo-liberal discourses of the twenty-first
century. Cultural policy therefore, remains constrained by
the language of a post-Fordist logic.
The Unique Arts
Distinct from commercial and more popular forms of culture, the
arts do have a significant impact that goes beyond aesthetic
pleasure and instrumentalized agendas. Yet we continue to have
an incomplete and fragmented understanding of this value. While
the intrinsic aspect of the cultural experience is ‘notoriously
difficult to describe, let alone measure’, a need to
find words to articulate this impact and value to individuals
is increasingly recognised (Holden 2006, Ramsey White and Rentschler
2005). The much respected work of 20th century psychologist,
Abraham Maslow, may be of some help in this regard. His well
respected, and much referenced theory of human motivations
can provide a framework against which to propose a value for
the intrinsic cultural experience.
that individuals are engaged in a drive for personal betterment and progression
which begins with a need to establish and satisfy food, shelter and security
needs. He articulated his concepts in a pyramidical form, entitled the ‘Hierarchy
of Needs’ (1943). While lower level needs (1 and 2) are concerned with
basic physiological needs such as food, water, shelter and security, his higher
level needs (3, 4 & 5) suggest that individuals actively pursue self-development
through the accumulation of experiences and resources (tangible and intangible).
In this cumulative process an individual progresses incremental and intrinsic
development through the levels of the Hierarchy of Needs. Thus once an individual
has a certain degree of security of practical personal circumstance, they endeavour
to establish relationships with others and in so doing, develop a sense of
belonging and place within a community and/ or peer or social network. This
third level of Love and Belonging provides a platform on which to develop Self
esteem (fourth level) finally moving towards the fifth level of experiencing
Self-actualization (Maslow 1943).
development Maslow suggests, results from establishing meaningful connections
with external reality. And it is suggested that an individual’s engagement
with arts and culture is potentially a search for a meaningful connection with
society, people, and a mode for understanding the world we live in. These experiences
occur within an aesthetic and intellectual environment which has been legitimized,
often by institutionalized funding, and are where an individual can safely
reflect, and negotiate, mental concepts in an aesthetic and creative form.
As a paradigm within which to consider intrinsic cultural value, this provides
a useful framework. Thus cultural experience, once ingested, becomes a resource
which develops an individual intrinsically.
Cultural Consumption and the Hierarchy of Needs
was considered as a valuable research proposition and was the
basis of field research in 4 funded visual arts venues in Dublin,
Ireland, in July 2010. 95 individuals, self completed a questionnaire
constructed around Maslow’s higher order
needs of Belonging (Level 3), Esteem (Level 4) and Self Actualization
(Level 5). The findings demonstrated that individuals in consuming
the experience of art, do accrue intangible resources which add
to their sense of themselves and their place in this world. These
intangible resources are accumulated as an individual receives
fulfilment from establishing meaningful connections with his
or her external reality through the visual art experience. This
experience is, in a sense, transmogrified into an intrinsic impact,
which enables an individual to progress an agenda of self development
and fulfilment through extrinsic activities, as per Maslow’s
did demonstrate progression through the Hierarchy of Needs, with the satiation
of one layer, for example the third level of Love and Belonging, acting as
a platform and context for the satiation and satisfaction, of the fourth level
of Self Esteem. A high percentage of individuals acknowledged a sense of belonging
and connectedness to a network through their attendance at visual art events
and anecdotally, individuals commentated that this experience ‘brings[them]
more in touch with others,’ as well as giving a real reflection
of peoples’ lives/thoughts/feelings and reactions to their existence.’ Individuals
also noted that the experience helped them to ‘see things from the perspectives
of others’ and to think outside the box.’ When feelings of belonging
and connectedness were present so too were the conditions for opinion development.
The exposure to the thoughts of others expressed through creative mediums sparked
an intellectual engagement and reflection in attendees. These thoughts and
opinions, research participants acknowledged, they shared with others which
in turn enhanced the self-esteem of the interviewee and their sense of themselves.
Research participants also made a direct correlation between the occurrence
of the visual art experience and feeling more tolerant of the opinions of others.
the experience of contemporary culture therefore, was found to give individuals
greater feelings of connectedness; belonging to society, and to their peer
grouping; knowledge generation; stimulated and shared opinions; a greater sense
of creativity as well as tolerance for others; and feelings of in-tuneness
and harmony with the world, albeit temporary and transient, but none the less
extant. Conversely, the fifth level of Self-actualization was attainable even
when the lower levels were not satisfied and complete. It could therefore be
suggested, that in the consumption of the visual art experience, feelings of
in-tuneness can be ‘fast tracked’. As a state of experience, this
is perhaps a temporal possibility. The focussed and reflective conditions of
the visual art environment perhaps offer a focussed and immersive as well as
intellectual, and/or sensory environment which potentially blocks all other
distractions and allows a moment of suspension from reality.
Intangible resource accumulation
This cultural engagement process accrues resources which impact
intrinsically on the individual and intangible resources similar
to those outlined by Bourdieu (1984) are garnered. These intangible
resources are embodied as social and cultural capital and are
subject to activation, use and maintenance by individuals.
Intangible resource accumulation, Bourdieu (1984) notes is
also used by individuals in symbolic displays of power as a
useful tool for distinction and differentiation in an increasingly
homogenized society. Class stratifications and distinctions
are rapidly decreasing and are now almost defunct. And there
is a concurrent rise in the consumption of culture as a tool
of social differentiation (Veblen 1918/1965, Lizardo and Skiles
2008). Traditionally, cultural consumers tended to be drawn
from the elite demographic of upper class, educated and financially
secure ‘univores’ (Peterson and Kern 1996) who
were mono-focused in their cultural digestive habits. But today’s
cultural consumer displays a more ‘omnivore’ appetite
through their breadth and quantity of cultural consumption
across varying and diverse art-forms. These omnivores tend
to be educated to third level, plus 35yrs and the majority
are female. Di Maggio (1982) suggests that amongst the reasons
for the use of culture by this particular demographic is that
females mobilize the experience of cultural to further their
identity differentiation amongst other females. Professionally,
men are more able to do this through their work experience.
Therefore, educated females potentially use the experiences
of cultural engagement to progress an agenda of self development
and identity differentiation, accumulating intrinsic resources
through extrinsic activities.
Pinnock (2009) and Shockley (2005) both note that these resources
are only available to those with the cultural competencies
to access the fuller meaning of the experience. Cultural competency
is achieved by exposure to, and time investment in cultural
consumption, within and across art-forms. Thus an individual
displays loyalty, and garners knowledge, in a preferred pursuit
over others and will continue to invest time in this pursuit
once a significant level of meaning for the individual has
been secured through this engagement (Pinnock 2009). Therefore, a
priori cultural competency needs to exist in order that
the fuller meaning of the cultural experience results. This
in turn encourages additional development of competencies which
further reinforce repeat and frequent consumption of the cultural
experience. Thus a circular process of stimulation and consumption,
leading to further stimulation and consumption, aids individuals
through a self development and fulfilment process.
the nature of how these engagements are consumed, and the quality of this interaction
are fundamental to the experience received. This intangible interchange of
experience- what the work ‘gives’ and what the viewer ‘receives’-
are inherently subjective and fundamentally context and time-specific. Where
an individual ‘is’ metaphorically speaking, at any point in time
in their intellectual and social development, can determine what they ‘receive’ from
a cultural work. This is what makes the intangible nature of the cultural experience
so difficult to determine- it is a matter of taste, of background, of where
we are ‘in our lives at that moment’. It is a matter of what is
available and accessible to us, geographically and intellectually, in terms
of physically where we are located and mentally, what we know, have learnt
and can understand or decipher. But none-the-less, the benefits and intrinsic
impacts of these cultural experiences are only available to those who can access
them physically as well as intellectually. If not psychological exclusion and
hierarchy of needs therefore, provides a useful paradigm within which to consider
the intrinsic impacts garnered as a result of the consumption of the cultural
experience. We can then reasonably conclude that these experiences have a personal
ontological value that goes beyond instrumentalised social, economic and political
gains. But the challenge remains to enter these intrinsic values into the discourses
of policy makers in a meaningful, substantial and agreed way.
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