Somebody once told me that I didn’t have any culture.

It happened way back during my college days, but I remember the incident as vividly as if it were yesterday. Some classmates and I took a trip up to Chicago one weekend (apparently it was one of those all-too-rare weekends when none of us had any term papers to write), and while we were there one of our number suggested that we pay a visit to one of the city’s famed art galleries.

I didn’t really want to go. To be honest, I don’t think any of us – with the exception of he who had made the suggestion in the first place, that is – really wanted to go. But none of us wanted to be rude; besides, it was his car and we were afraid he’d make us all walk home.

Anyway, during our visit we happened upon a really ugly painting. It looked as if someone had used a spare canvas to wipe his brushes on – or, worse, as if some TV evan-gelist’s wife had used it to scrape the makeup off her face – and then stuck it in a frame just for fun.

I mentioned this to one of my companions and we both had a good chuckle. And it was at that point that we suddenly found ourselves being chastised by a rather distinguished-looking older gentleman standing just behind us.

“Some people just don’t have any appreciation for art,” he muttered to himself, just loud enough so that he knew we would be sure to hear.  Sort of the way my mother used to when I didn’t get my room clean quite to her satisfaction.

I was still trying to stifle my mirth as I turned to face the fellow. “You mean to tell me that you really like this horror?” I asked.

“It is MAG-NIF-I-CENT,” he replied, ennunciating each syllable in that endearing way all zealots do. “Of course, one must understand it before he can appreciate it – and one muct be properly educated before he can understand it.”

He then proceeded to show me and everybody else in the place just how educated he happened to be. He spoke at great length about how the painting’s inert mass was so obvious, but in a very subtle manner. Or something like that. He ruminated at length on its spatial concept, and pointed out that the cosmic flow of the thing was just so grandiose that it took his breath away.

Then he spun around and looked me square in the eye. “But the most important thing is the MESSAGE. What does it say to us?”

“It doesn’t say anything,” I responded. “It just sorta hangs there, quietly giving us a really bad case of retina burn.”

My friend laughed again as my older opponent called me both “uncouth” and an “artistic illiterate.” He also suggested that I would probably never amount to anything in this life, all because I wasn’t willing to reach down, grab my bootstraps and haul my carcass up to his level of sophistication.

Then he spun around and stormed off in a huff, while I very politely blew him a raspberry.

Now I told you that story to tell you this one:

Back in 1864, a fair-to-middling English poet named Matthew Arnold described “culture” as being the qualities of an open-minded intelligence, a capacity to enjoy the best works of art, literature, history and philospohy that have been handed down through the ages.

The dictionary sitting here on my desk, on the other hand, defines “culture” as “knowledge and enlightment with regards to artistic endeavors acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.”

Now I have only one real problem with either of these definitions – neither takes into account the tastes of the individual. Somewhere down the road, the word “culture” has come to suggest a certain sense of snobbishness among those who feel they have it.

And, boy, I really hate that.

I don’t mean to suggest that all art lovers are snobs, because they aren’t. I’ve known some very down-to-earth, uncouth, socially unacceptable art lovers in my day. But contrary to what they tried to teach us back in my Fine Arts class in college, art is different things to different people. And anybody who says or implies that another person is “not cultured” simply because they happen to disagree on what is and is not good art does not have an open mind.

And according to Arnold’s definition, you’ve got to have an open mind in order to possess culture.

I’ve heard a lot of lectures and read a lot of books and participated in a lot of arguments that have tried to answer the question, “What is art?” I suppose that we could gather all the da Vincis and all the Shakespeares and all the Beethovens and all the John Smalls of the world together and debate what art really is, and only be able to agree on one thing: that art is something that lasts.

Shakespeare, after all, has survived billions of butcherings by high school and collegiate lit classes. De Vinci’s paintings still draw gasps of admiration. And Beethoven somehow managed to outlast my wife’s piano lessons. 

Then again, “Superman” comics is nearly 60 years old. The series “M*A*S*H” lasted nearly four times as long as the real war which served as its setting. And my weekly newspaper column may survive another few issues, so long as the Republicans don’t storm the office and demand my head on a lance.

So which among them truly qualifies as art? It all depends on who you ask. I make no claims concerning my own contribution to the above list (I don’t dare – my wife would never let me live it down); but as for the others…

Who knows?

I happen to think that Boris Vallejo, famed painter of great science fiction paperback book covers, is every bit as talented as any of the so-called “Masters.” Given the choice between listening to the musical compositions of John Williams or those of Mozart, I’ll take Williams every time. And I’d much rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs or Louis L'Amour than William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens any day. 

And so that’s what I choose to surround myself with. Not because Vallejo, Williams or Burroughs are necessarily better than de Vinci, Mozart or Shakespeare, but simply because I enjoy them more.

When you get right down to it, that’s what has always bothered me the most about those who claim to have more culture than I do… I haven’t met one yet who looked like he knew how to have a good time. They’re all so somber and dried-up looking, and what fun is that?

If being “cultured” means I can’t take part in the things I enjoy, then I’d just as soon remain the uncultured slob, thank you very much. While all the critics and the literati are busy trying to impress one another other with their crustiness and their “spatial inertness” and their pretentious gobbledygook, I’ll be off in my own little corner of the room having a good time.

So don’t talk to me about how I don’t have any culture, brother, because I don’t care. I know what I like. And “culture” is just a bowl of yogurt.

(Copyright 2011 by John A. Small)