Commerce or culture: which comes first?


A thought that comes to me today: One way to reimagine the C.P. Snow line about two separate cultures, those of hard sciences and softer ones, is to think of a dividing line between culture and commerce.

Is it culture or commerce that matters more in affecting human life? Which must come first?

As I look at it, it seems I have an answer, one that persuades me at least.

The wheels of culture do not turn the world. Instead, it is vulgar commerce that drives us. Merchant adventurers have sought gain since even before the Silk Road of China and hungry travelers like Marco Polo, and still do.

The drive for profit and the traversing of mountains and sand dunes for time immemorial:

The trading caravans of Mohammed the Prophet and the gains of the desert tribes.

The deep mines of South America and the extravagance of royal courts in Europe.

The tobacco profits and debts-laden Virginia planters importing English cultural wares.

The beaver pelts of Canada and the fashions of France.

Commerce is the need for gain, the push for security in a volatile world fraught with risk and the possibility of nevermore sneaking up behind you with an axe.

Culture requires some modicum of safety to spend: Without some semblance of a blanket to ward off cold and grant protection from the elements of fate, time and energy in a human society cannot be devoted to cave paintings or Impressionist brushstrokes.

How this line of thought handles signaling theory, I haven’t considered much. But I imagine much culture is the byproduct of the materially affluent seeking ways of expressing their status to their peers and others.

It’s no coincidence we say that we are “paying attention” to something–we are indeed paying a price. Attention is a peerless currency, one which artists spend on a piece of work only after the materials and the mundanities of life are paid for.

Why would European monarchs be patrons of the arts, employing composers like the precocious Mozart–can you imagine they’d do so if the music written didn’t grant them some small piece of immortality or fame? Without the rich man’s patronage, how much of the great artwork of the past simply never wouldn’t been created?

Why would Pope Julius II hire Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel ceiling if his own name wouldn’t be forever linked to it?


Enough for today.


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