What’s wrong with tacky culture, anyway?

About a week ago, I finished watching a movie, and I found that my friend and I were on COMPLETELY different sides as to our opinions.

I loved the movie. I thought it was hilarious, warm, and fun.

My friend, however, thought it was … in her words … “tacky.”

How many times have you had this happen?

And when you go to defend your views, it ends up devolving into the classic “well, that’s just your opinion.”

But it got me thinking: can we agree upon culture? Can we agree upon what is good, what is bad, what is smart, what is dumb?

Is there a hierarchy of culture?

That’s the question I was left with.

I decided to take a stab at classifying culture (arrogant, I know!), and here’s what I came up with.

Here are my five levels of culture.

What is culture?

Before we dive into these levels of culture, I want to talk about “what culture is.”

Honestly, I can’t write an article about a topic, if I don’t define what my topic is.

And for culture, there are two different definitions.

The first one is the characteristic and knowledge of a particular group of people. Think “Taiwanese Culture” or “Kenyan culture.”

This isn’t the culture I’m talking about.

The second definition is: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

This is the culture I want to focus on today.

Culture, in this case, is the collection of art, human intelligence, imagination, and achievement.

It’s what we think of when we hear the terms “high culture,” “low culture,” and “popular culture.”

Here’s how they break down into five levels.

Level 1: Basic

Basic culture is, to me, the foundation of culture. It’s the “lowest-common-denominator,” and I do not mean that as an insult.

It’s the type of culture that doesn’t necessarily have any depth or extra dimension beyond what is first presented. It’s the WYSIWYG of culture (for all you non-techies out there, WYSIWYG stands for “what you see is what you get.”

So what are some examples of “basic culture?”

  • Current pop music
    • This is a big one, and it is not to suggest that pop stars lack dimension or talent. Rather, it acknowledges that “pop music” in whatever era borrows from more specialized and obscurer music genres to create a sound that has a broad appeal. Think about how Disco borrowed from soul, funk, and even big-band! Disco is funky as hell, but it reduced its musical complexity in favor of a broader sound.
  • Blockbuster movies
    • I’m thinking about Marvel in particular. These movies are tight, engaging, and tell a compelling story. They do, however, have a serious lack of nuance (it’s good vs bad!) and pull from other genres to tell their stories without fully committing to doing a genre film. These movies perform incredibly well around the globe, again suggesting that they have targeted broad appeal over depth and specificity.
  • Fast Casual Food
    • Chipotle. Those burritos are freaking delicious. But these are not an authentic dive into traditional Mexican cuisine – nor are they pretending to be. Instead, Chipotle is serving up very tasty, affordable, and efficient food. It’s broad. The flavors aren’t complicated. The food isn’t fussy.
  • Purchasing anything for the name
    • This applies to clothing, to art, to wine. It’s not the product itself, it’s the act of consumption. I am thinking about two purchases in particular: Canada Goose Parkas and Dom Perignon Champagne. Look: Canada Goose parkas are amazing coats. They’re one of the warmest articles of clothing you can get your hands on. But, the purchase of the coat has become more about the cultural signifier than the function of the clothing. People want a Canada Goose coat because it’s the hot item, not because it’s literally a “hot item.” The Canada Goose coat isn’t a “basic” item, but the purchase for the “cultural cache” is the inhibiting factor. Likewise, people buy Dom Perignon champagne often for the label. It costs $120 bucks, so it’s gotta be good, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Do your research. Try some other things out. Enjoy your drinks and clothes for their function, taste, and true appeal to you, rather than their appeal to others.

That’s my general breakdown of level one, so let’s move on to level two.

Level 2: Thoughtful

I kicked around a couple of different names for this like “elegant” or “elevated,” but I settled on “thoughtful,” because it ultimately requires an actively engaged mind to create, consume, and be a part of.

Thoughtful culture is the type of culture that doesn’t simply accept the “lowest common denominator,” or the bold, yet flat tastes. Thoughtful culture is the culture that looks to understand the effort, history, and thought process behind creation.

Here are some examples.

  • Fine Dining
    • By fine dining, I’m talking about Michelin-starred restaurants where both taste and presentation are the stars. These restaurants focus on creating stunning dishes that coax out all the different flavors an ingredient can provide. Creating these dishes requires mastery of the craft. Properly appreciating these meals requires an understanding of the meal, its ingredients, and the hands that made the food. It’s an active form of consumption that rewards the dedicated learner.
  • Historical masterpieces
    • By historical masterpieces, I mean pieces of music, visual art, architecture, and literature that we (as a society) have decided are treasures worth preserving. Yes, we’ve had the added factor of time to help us come to a consensus, but these masterpieces still leave us breathless when we view them. For me, some of these Masterpieces are
      • “The Last Supper”
      • Beethoven’s Eroica (and Beethoven’s 5th, definitely!)
      • Angkor Wat
      • Shakespeare’s plays
      • The Iliad and The Odyssey
      • Oedipus Rex
      • The works of Michaelangelo (I couldn’t pick one!)
      • The City of Venice
    • These are all examples of culture that we instantly and viscerally identify as aesthetically stunning. But, upon further investigation, we come to a deeper place of appreciation as we see how these pieces have influenced our progression, and continue to influence our culture even to this day.
  • Family traditions and heirlooms
    • One of our writers comes from a Polish-American family. Every New Year’s Day, his family makes a big Polish meal of roast pork, potato dumplings, braided bread, and cucumbers + onions in vinegar. Is it the most elegant meal in the world? According to him, no. It’s, in fact, a little on the bland side (though they’re working on amping up the spices). But it’s important. It’s a reflection of the legacy of Eastern European immigrants to the United States, and the food they elected to eat in remembrance of their homeland. Again, once you start learning about the history and thought process behind the culture, the appreciation grows in tandem.
    • This goes for family heirlooms as well. Sure, those Murano glass figurines in the window sill are lovely, but when you factor in that your Great Grandmother purchased them on a boat trip she took to Venice after the second world war, they take on newfound importance.

Level 3: Deep, but divided

We’ll call this “deep” for short, but the “divided” part is a critical component of level three.

Deep culture is where you take a “deep dive” into art, food, philosophy, music, comedy, or whatever facet of culture you are interested in.

Remember when I spoke about disco, and how it borrowed from funk? “Deep” culture, is where you start deep-diving into those roots, mining its depths until you get to the real, fully realized dimensions of that culture.

The tradeoff, unfortunately, is that you lose breadth. You can’t (or rarely can) create something broadly appealing once you go down the “deep culture” rabbit hole.

Additionally, “deep culture” can also be part of a cultural vanguard, in that it’s breaking ground on what will be accepted as a cultural standard-bearer in the future. But at the present, it’s not there yet. It’s hard to identify these “deep culture” elements in the present, but it’s sure easy to see ones from the past.

Past examples of deep culture on the cultural vanguard:

  • Gustave Eiffel and the Eiffel Tower
    • Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower was hated when it first arrived. Now, it’s an icon. It’s a historical masterpiece. But, at the time, that wasn’t the case. Gustave Eiffel was at the cultural vanguard, delivering something that folks didn’t realize they would come to cherish.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • Similarly, Kubrick’s trippy sci-fi adventure was deeply polarizing upon its arrival. Now, it’s considered one of the most profound and beautiful movies in existence. Like a quality wine, it just needed some age.
  • The Thing
    • Ok, so this one is less of a “cultural masterpiece,” but John Carpenter’s The Thing was reviled when it was released. It was so hated, it lost the director work. Now, however, it’s considered a genre-defining movie with unbeatable practical effects and a deeply unsettling story.

Current examples of deep culture:

  • Truly authentic cuisine
    • This isn’t a “let’s go the Michelin-starred French restaurant for the anniversary” type of cooking. This is the “Gordon Ramsay trekking through the Mekong Delta to taste the best Pho in the world from a Vietnamese chef.” This is calling every cheese shop in NYC to find sheep’s milk ricotta for cannoli. It’s the commitment to getting it right, to not taking the easy shortcut, to not bastardizing the dish, even if it feels impossible. It’s substituting Cocchi Americano into a Vesper Martini, because you know Lillet Blanc removed quinine from its ingredients. It’s that deep-dive that borders on obsession and insanity for getting it right!
  • Experimental music and theatre
    • I’m not talking about Broadway, nor am I talking about a concert that you’d find at the O2 arena (or Madison Square Garden). I’m talking about that kind of weird, avant-garde theatre and musical expression that you find in the peculiar little venues off the beaten path. It’s the type of art that’s breaking rules because it has studied the rules. It’s the type of art that leaves you thinking “was that even good?” And honestly, maybe it’s not! But it makes you start re-examining what your definition of good is. It leaves you curious, unsettled, but on the precipice of expanding your appreciation for art.
  • Contemporary art
    • Similar to the above point, contemporary art is often difficult to parse for those not super-versed in its histories and techniques. But once you have begun to climb down the rabbit hole, you’ll start to understand how contemporary art functions. It becomes less of a “is this good” and more of a “is this effective?” When you engage with a piece of contemporary art, you engage with the message the artist hoped to convey to you. Are you listening to it? Are you receptive to it?
  • Protest
    •  Protest is a profound and powerful element of culture, world-wide. Given that much protest draws from a huge pool of people, it might seem counter-intuitive that it is classified as “deep.” However, the protest is often an indictment of the prevailing culture as a whole. It’s an indictment of a culture of power, of racism, of corruption, and abuse. The protest seeks to upheave that prevailing culture, and it almost always starts from the ground-up. As a result, the origin of the protest is both spontaneous and fragile, as its strength lies in numbers – something that isn’t assured at the outset. Understanding that, the protest’s inception must be filled with such a deep-seated passion and rage that it is able to overpower the logical fear of being snuffed out by the establishment. It’s raw, it’s power fueled through pain.

Level four: Unique

Unique culture is culture that is an expression of human creativity and imagination that comes from a unique and idiosyncratic place.

It can encompass counterculture, but I like to think of it as more an organic expression of something tied to an individual rather than to a group.

Here are some examples.

  • Counterculture
    • This is a partial example. Counterculture is a reaction to the prevailing culture of the day, and can be a powerful form of self-expression. However, counterculture has a tendency to operate as pop culture, producing its own trends, its own followers, and its own in-groups. Hipsters are a great example of this – it’s not terribly unique to dress in a fashion that millions of others also dress. On the other hand, rebelling against the current fads of the day by crafting your own counterculture look can be powerfully unique.
  • Gaudi
    • Not “gaudy” (haha), but Gaudi, the Spanish architect who typified Catalan modernism. He certainly had influences from neo-gothic and orientalist architecture, but his designs were wholly his own. He created undulating, branching, arcing buildings and parks that borrowed from nature, his imagination, and his religious upbringing.
  • Friedrich Nietzche
    • I’m not the biggest Nietzche fan, but I can respect his bold philosophy and decision to publish work that flew in the face of the prevailing views of his era. He was a radical who rejected a divinely-ordained moral order, and championed the concept of the “ubermensch,” a state that humanity could strive for.
  • Albert Camus
    • Camus’s absurdism is jarring, even to this day. His essay on Sisyphus remains a defining text on the joy that life can bring when one accepts there is no universal meaning to life. It’s discomforting, but also liberating. His philosophy was certainly inspired by the horrors of war he witnessed, but it comes from a place of unique and original thought.

The final level

The fifth and final level of culture is “understanding.” By this, I mean, understanding that these levels aren’t fixed, nor are they siloed.

It’s the understanding that you, as a person – a creator – a consumer – can travel between these levels and appreciate the culture as it is presented to you. You can enjoy a “level 1” Chick-fil-a sandwich while reading some “level four” Camus. It’s not hypocrisy. It’s the mark of a well-rounded individual.

Each “level” of culture provides us with valuable entertainment, nourishment, education, and enlightenment. It would be a mistake to suggest that any one level is more important than another.

So is there a hierarchy to culture?

I know that I just spent the last 2,000 words writing on the “levels” of culture, but I believe that viewing culture as a “hierarchy” is misinformed.

Instead, I believe that culture is structured from the broad to the specific. “Basic” is the broadest level of culture, while “unique” is, well, as unique as it gets. And “understanding” is the ability to traverse these levels of culture while appreciating all that they have to offer.

So when my friend called that movie “tacky,” I have to step back and acknowledge that, yes, the movie was operating on a “basic, level 1” culture. But that doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it broad. It’s up to each individual to decide if they enjoy that level of culture and art.

It’s important to understand that there are complexities and nuance to culture, and I hope that by showing you a (flawed) breakdown of how culture goes from the broad to the specific, you can trace how an increase in knowledge and creativity can spur a more complicated form of culture.

But, I want to reiterate that it’s unwise to state that one form or level of culture is superior to another. They’re just different.

Don’t confine yourself to any particular level, and don’t confine yourself to any particular definition. Instead, use this as a springboard to explore art, food, music, philosophy, and human ingenuity more deeply.

Now get out there and explore!

Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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