Culture, The Arts & Digital Libraries

Warning: I have no intention of creating a comprehensive, organised collection of Websites and links. Here I have just logged what I have found and looked at as I meander across the Web.

Our first challenge is to give a sense to the words “culture” and “art”, and the second challenge is to look at “digital libraries” as an integral part of that universe.

I think we can all start by accepting that Beethoven’s symphonies and the paintings of Claude Monet are artifacts of “high culture”. And it is not difficult to find some definitions and descriptions, ....

Can we define “culture”?

We can all agree that “culture” could be defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement”, but we might also like to add that it is also “the characteristics of a particular group or community of people, defined by their behaviour patterns, identities, values, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, rituals, symbols, languages, religions, institutions, social habits, music and arts”. For me “culture” must be seen as also involving the systematic accumulation of knowledge, its communication and sharing within a extended group or community of people, and its integration with formal and social learning over time. It is for this reason that I have associated culture and the arts with digital libraries, as collections or better still “repositories of knowledge”. Today these repositories have become the first port of call for the “digital native”.

For some people “culture” can be equated to “civilisation”, but to others it might mean something more prosaic such as a distinctive “way of life”.

High culture” refers to great literature, classical music, theater, fine arts, architecture, etc. All of these requiring a certain education and set of professional credentials, and all are often identified as elitist and as a basis for social stratification. “Popular culture”, sometime also called “pop culture”, “mass culture”, “media culture”, or even “junk culture” and “McDonaldisation”, includes things like newspapers, sports, movies, television, rock music, comics, advertising, etc.

The reality is that experts can not agree on a unique definition of “culture”. Fortunately I don’t need one. In these pages I simply want to concentrate on the endeavours and objects of high culture such as the arts and architecture. I want also to include artifacts of past societies in terms of their antiques and possessions. So my focus is clearly on the production and consumption of artifacts, and the associated aesthetics. I am not interested in culture as part of the social sciences, and thus I will try my utmost to avoid looking at “fuzzy” non-material topics, such as identity, religious beliefs, social structures, value systems, etc.

These visible artifacts of “culture” are easy to find, describe and examine, but they are often hard to interpret. We can find out about the “what” and the “how”, but often the “why”, the underlying logic, has been lost over time. I admit and accept that my focus will remain superficial, an interest on the visible artifact, the patterns, the technology, and the art. I am not interested in values, human nature, nor the nature of reality, time and space, ...

Can we define “art”?

So defining “culture” is a bit more tricky than initially expected. Perhaps we will have a better chance with “art”, which we can already see is going to be different from “the arts”, e.g. literature, music, dance, theatre, film, drawing, painting, design, photography, architecture. My focus will be on the “arts” and not “art”, and I will not even endeavour to cover all of them. My interests will be in the:

Fine Arts - I will include paintings, sculpture and architecture, but will exclude music and poetry. I will also accept modern additions to the “fine arts” in terms of printmaking, conceptional art, photography and film making.

Visual Arts - This will include ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography, film making and architecture.

Decorative Arts - This covers ceramics, glassware, furniture, “pietra dura”, metalwork, jewellery, textiles, woodwork, enamels, and mosaics. 

Applied Arts - This includes the decorative arts, but adds industrial design, graphic design, fashion, interior design, and according to many experts also photography and architecture.  

Design - Again here we find industrial design, graphic design, fashion, interior design, architecture, and the applied arts, but we can also add engineering design, landscape architecture, urban planning, and even Web and interaction design. 

Crafts - This includes the decorative arts, but with a focus more on the skills associated with making pottery, metal work, weaving, wood turning, glass blowing, making paper, and other traditional handicrafts such as calligraphy, embroidery, stained glass, marquetry, carpet making, repoussé and chasing, to mention but a few.

Before we move on it is perhaps interesting to consider the definition of “art” as opposed the multiple definitions provided above for “the arts”. Why? Perhaps because it will introduce the topic of “aesthetics”, and touch on the nature of the sensory-emotional values of beauty and taste. What do we know about “art” that is uncontroversial? We know that art is expected to have a significant degree of aesthetic interest, surpassing that of most everyday objects. We know that some artifacts have a ceremonial or religious function, with or without an aesthetic interest. We also know that some artifacts and performances can be created solely for their aesthetic interest, and have no practical, ceremonial or religious use. We know that standards of taste change, and therefore an aesthetic experience can change with time. And finally we know that some perfectly natural entities (e.g. a sunset) and abstract entities (e.g. a proof of a theorem) can have aesthetic properties.

Do these constraints help define “art”? Probably not. So what else can we say about “art”? Well some art and artworks are representational in that they mimic or imitate something. As such these works are dependent upon, and in many ways inferior, to the original object. And since we only have a perception of what is real, the artwork is an appearance of an appearance of what is real. Some people would argue that as a copy of something we already can perceive, an artwork can not yield any additional knowledge. Yet art must have a purpose, so is it designed to enhance our metal processes? Or perhaps it is intended to support some form of social communication? Could it be that “art” is simply too diverse a topic to admit to a single definition? Perhaps defining “art” would actually stifle artistic creativity. Certainly the historical definition of art and aesthetics (painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and music) has changed, and, as we have seen above, includes now topics as varied as film making and industrial design.

I personally must admit to liking the idea that defining “art” is unnecessary. You have artworks that belongs to a particular “artform”. And if you need a new “artform” to include a new type of artwork, you just go ahead and create it. This of course begs for a definition of the word “artform”, but that can be overcome by simply saying that it is defined by all examples of a particular type of artwork in it. This is pragmatic, and it also supports the idea that if you can’t get a clear definition of “art” then there is no need for one. If you can use the concept of an “artform” that contains all examples of a particular type of artwork, for historical understanding, analysis, communication, aesthetic appreciation, etc. then that could be sufficient. We do not need to try to find a definition of “art” that is purpose independent. So rather than define “art” we should perhaps more usefully look at some of the properties of a work of art (some of the below properties can be challenged):

- possesses aesthetic properties

  1. -expresses emotion

  2. -is intellectually challenging

  3. -has a complex but coherent meaning

  4. -is original

  5. -is a product of a high degree of skill

  6. -belongs to an established artistic form

  7. -and is produced with the intent to make a work of art.

Of course this list does not really answer the key question, “what is the artwork for”?

I try to keep to a simple view of what art is. I tend to look at art in a historical and institutional context. Firstly an artwork must be part of a historical narrative, it must be created by an artist in an artistic context, and it must have a relationship with other already established artworks. Secondly an artwork must have a subject and a style, it must be presented and try to engage with an audience inciting them to “fill in what is missing”, and it must in some way fit within some kind of “art-world institution”. In many ways this logic is fragile, but it does reflect a reality. Today art institutions such as theaters, museums, galleries, exhibitions, etc., actually do define what art is. And it is equally true that art practices have historically always been concerned with the aesthetic, and it is those same institutions that have traditionally been the seat of aesthetic judgements. But we should be careful not to equate too closely art and the aesthetic, some artworks are not in themselves aesthetic (e.g. “ready-made” and conceptual art) and other things might be have aesthetic properties but not be art (e.g. a well cut lawn).

So, with all this navel-gazing, where does this leave us? Firstly it is almost impossible to find an acceptable definition for art. Secondly aesthetics is not perfect, but it does account for art’s traditional features. Thirdly, art must have some kind of historical context, even if it is to simply preserve our heritage and traditions. Fourthly, art is there to provide beauty, to entertain, and to educate and enlighten us.

Not sure where this little trip has taken us, but this is good enough for me.


Can we define “digital libraries”?

There is a good chance to come up with a valid and useful definition of a “digital library”. For most experts a digital library is another name for an electronic library in which the collections are stored in electronic media formats (e.g. not print, microfilm, etc.) and are accessible via computers. Some authors equate it to a type of information retrieval system (e.g. the act of obtaining a specific set of information resources from a collection of information resources). Other authors see it as a kind of “virtual organisation” that comprehensively collects, manages and preserves rich digital content, and offers specialised access functionalities to targeted use communities. Naturally you can find hybrid libraries that hold both physical and electronic collections.

An important additional feature of a digital library is that it may contain content that is either born-digital (e.g. originating in a digital form) or digitised (e.g. converted to a digital format from a physical medium such as paper, old photos, video recordings, music records, etc.).

An additional, but equally vital, element in a digital library is the need to ensure that the digital information held in the collection continues to be accessible for as long as necessary. This broad topic is usually called “digital preservation”.