What do we really mean when we talk about Columbus culture?
I mention culture here a lot, but because of space constraints I never really get to dig into it as a concept. If public response is any indication, about 20 percent of you are missing the point or are simply exhausted from searching for parking in the Short North, so let's unpack culture directly for once.
At its base, culture exists wherever living things exist: human beings, octopi, bacteria. It is a natural result of natural activity. Being human beings, we've redefined that word many times over as suits our needs. That's OK, since language is a part of culture, and as societies evolve, so should their words. I like the definition that we've more or less arrived at in the past century, which roughly goes something like this: Culture is the values, arts, customs and institutions of a particular people, place or situation. It's why your soulless job gets to send you memos every week about your “workplace culture” even though no one in the office can run a single Rakim lyric.
Culture can be created intentionally, but in the event that no one wants to open an artist enclave in your town, your town will take up the reins regardless. All artists are doing is steering culture that was going to happen anyway, so the first thing we should all be doing is stripping away the notion that culture consists of art galleries and symphonies. Those things are part of a culture, but no one lives in the Ohio Theatre.
Most debates about life in Columbus stem from an ill-realized notion of what culture is, and I mean debates about anything: politics, art, racism, cuisine and so on. All of that is part of the culture of any given community, and Columbus has culture in spades. The question is whether or not the culture that exists is productive or valuable or fair or liked.
Part of the reason why Columbus debates these things so poorly is because much of our culture is pretty comfortable for most of the people who live here. Despite our crumbling schools, police abuse, drug deaths, rampant gentrification and political corruption, enough of the right people aren't adversely affected by these things to prioritize them in the work that makes the city function. Culture is ultimately not about art, but priorities. And those who get to set the priorities get to guide the culture.
Still, culture is a natural outcropping of human activity. Where there is a barrel trashcan a barbecue can be had. And where a barbecue exists, so can the exchange of ideas, values and language. And where such things exchange hands, new culture can be molded, even within the larger, normative agenda. It is how we created the blues (under slavery) and jazz (under segregation) and hip-hop (under poverty). Culture doesn't belong to power. In fact, it is frequently drafted by an underprivileged people before it becomes a “national treasure.” Remember that the next time you see a smoking barrel in a neighbor's backyard and are tempted to Barbecue Betty the affair and call 911.