The Labour government in Britain has decided to rename the Department of National Heritage; it is now to be called the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
It reportedly required a lot of discussion to decide on this new title, as one may guess from the impression it gives that it’s been generated by a committee and a calculator. It’s exact enough in terms of the remit of the ministry, which includes funding for the arts, regulation of broadcasting and support for sport. Its first Secretary of State, under the previous Tory administration, was David Mellor, who found his post so enjoyable that he once unwisely said words to the effect that nobody ought to have this much fun while working. Thereafter he was known as the Minister for Fun, a title which rebounded rather badly when he was later discovered to have taken part in some funny extra-marital activities with an actress.
It’s not surprising that the department has been renamed, as the eighties buzzword heritage was already shop-worn in the extreme even when it was founded, and was always inappropriate anyway for a department with such a rag-bag remit, only a part of which had to do with the heritage (inherited from the old Ministry of Works, which looks after ancient monuments). The surprise in the new name is the inclusion of the word culture.
The British sometimes seem to sympathise with Hermann Goering, who is reputed to have remarked that “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver!” (which is actually a re-formation of a line in a German play of the thirties). Culture is something mildly distrustful best left to foreigners; the British stick to warm beer, cricket and the football pools.
This distrust arises in part because culture, though ostensibly a moderately inoffensive word, is actually one of the most complex and value-laden in the modern language. Originally it meant much the same as “cultivation”, as in the tillage or husbandry of crops. From this point it diverged into two main sets of senses, a literal one relating to the propagation of living things, and a figurative one of improving one’s mind through education and exposure to the fine arts, humanities, and the principles of science.
There is a related sense to this in modern usage of the totality of the customs, artistic achievements and general civilisation of a country or people, commonly used in sociology, with the sub-division material culture used by museum curators and archaeologists to identify the physical objects associated with that people, whether useful or not.
Perhaps part of our suspicion about this renaming exercise is that the word is also currently used to indicate any group of people linked by some common characteristic activity, belief or circumstances, frequently in a pejorative sense. We have yob culture and drug culture, gun culture and victim culture, net culture and cyberculture, rave culture and queer culture, and many more.
Hostility in Britain to the word culture seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, with complicated connections being forged between it and class distinctions, which caused many people to reject its implied claim of superior knowledge and refinement. Around the time of the First World War this was intensified because of a jingoistic reaction to its use in German, and from the thirties in reference to Soviet Russia. Nearer our own time, the word gained even more negative associations through the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
It has taken on Orwellian undertones: calling a government department the Ministry of Culture sounds like totalitarian doublethink for a body which would be forceful in telling the populace what kind of culture was acceptable and what was not. The new Labour government is already showing distinct signs of authoritarianism; we must hope this isn’t an augury for the future.