Culture as a Commodity

By Kenn Taylor

On a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, specifically the East Side Gallery, now used as a canvas by various international graffiti artists, I once saw written:

“I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.”

Quite a statement, one that made me think of my home city of Liverpool’s biggest tourist draw: The Beatles. While they were a product at least partially of Liverpool culture and do remain part of the local collective memory, there is also an undoubted and growing Beatles industry in the city. A cultural experience created to be sold to visitors.

Football is also going the same way. As much as Liverpool Football Club is still part of the city’s culture, it is now an entity that exists outside of it. A brand followed from Brazil to Thailand that is far removed from the streets of Anfield itself, and another tourist draw to Merseyside for those worldwide fans. Even Liverpool’s history as a maritime centre is sold to visitors via the museums and the souvenir books of the old docks filled with liners, the remnants of something that was once an actual industry employing thousands, now largely a distant heritage.

Since Liverpool won its bid to be European Capital of Culture for 2008 there has been an increase in attempts to package various aspects of the city’s culture to attract more visitors and boost its fragile economy. This has been met with some resistance from those who are wary of the city’s culture becoming commodified to serve the tourist industry and who fear that this might detract from the new, raw creativity in the city.

These may be local examples, but the same thing goes worldwide; that which was once part of active, live, perhaps even dangerous culture, becomes popularised, accepted, sanitised and sellable. Many places that have had their landscape and way of life represented by famous artists now find themselves selling back that expedience to visitors; the Yorkshire moorland of the Brontës, the rural Welsh communities of Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ version of Dorchester.

Even St Ives, the Cornish fishing community whose remoteness from the metropolitan art world attracted sculptor Barbara Hepworth and others, is now a favoured second-home location of those same metropolitan elite, happy to be somewhere remote and pretty but also reassuringly ‘cultured’.

What was once real culture and lived experience, once transformed into art, becomes something that can be appreciated by others far away. Something people will come seeking so that they too can experience it. To be in the place that bore the art that they love.

Pushed to extremes, these things can be distasteful. Those seeking Bob Marley’s Jamaica can apparently purchase skin care products, headphones and even a Marley-branded ‘calming beverage’ licensed by his estate. While the recent book Eat Pray Love by American journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, detailing how she found love in South East Asia, has apparently sent thousands of other women to Ubud in Bali, Indonesia in search of their dream guy, much to the despair of some locals.

Yet it is also naive to pretend that any artist or any artwork can stand entirely outside of mainstream culture and the wider economy. If any art is of value, interest and importance, even if it is initially rejected or dismissed, however underground and alternative it may seem in the first instance, it will almost always be absorbed into the mainstream eventually. Often to be used in ways the original artist may never have imagined.

James Joyce’s seminal Modernist novel Ulysses, was banned for obscenity in countries across the world, only for less than a hundred years later the Irish national ferry company to name its huge flagship after it. A critic meanwhile once dismissed Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise thus: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” I’m not sure about wallpaper, but Monet’s work is now certainly popular on everything from tote bags to place mats.

This phenomenon is especially strange when it happens in a short space of time. As I started university, the largely unknown graffiti artist Banksy painted a rat on an abandoned pub in a run-down part of Liverpool. Now less than ten years later, the city’s Walker Art Gallery has a sculpture of his alongside works by Rembrandt and Turner.

Such things may provoke aversion from those at the cutting-edge of culture, but we should acknowledge that today’s cult fanzine is the next decade’s collectors’ hardback edition, this year’s subversive underground film is the next decade’s National Film Theatre special screening. Culture may be at its rawest and purest at its beginnings, but it is constantly in flux, dying and reforming. One of the few ways to capture the fleeting, ephemeral nature of beauty in existence is to turn it into art and for ultimately it to become part of cultural history.

Attempts to preserve the spirit of any given place or way of life are often precisely at the point they are ending. Writer Rachel Lichtenstein even admitted that in creating the book On Brick Lane about that East London street’s raw culture, diversity and creativity she was unavoidably contributing to its gentrification as the latest hotspot for urban trendies.

There is almost an inevitability of locations with connections to great artists and artworks selling themselves on the back of their cultural links. Small places such as Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, or Grasemere in Cumbria, former home of William Wordsworth, who in his lifetime was suspected as a spy by rural locals, are almost entirely reliant on such cultural tourism to sustain them.

However, it can also be important for bigger places too. Venice for example was once a great centre of power, trade, technology and innovation, now it is a museum. All it has left to sell is what it once was. Similarly in the UK, York and Chester were the centres of power in the north before the Industrial Revolution, but with the growth of neighbouring cities they are now mostly forced to trade on their heritage.

Even Liverpool and Manchester are now also to an extent places which sell their culture to survive, be it The Beatles or Manchester United. The once brash centres of industrial and social change have become places to be looked back upon now such growth and production is mostly elsewhere. Like Venice the culture that once grew out of their economy and industry is now a vital part of their economy and industry itself.

And why not sell what they have? The case often made against this is that the tourist industry is a weak base compared to an industrial or business one. This may be true, but for all those keen to point this out, few are able to suggest viable alternatives, and a weak economy is better than no economy, which is what many rural towns and post-industrial cities face. A city like Manchester or Liverpool cannot rely on cultural tourism alone in the way somewhere like Grasemere may do, but it can form an important part of the wider economy.

After all, the art and artists linked to such places often to a greater or lesser extent exploited these localities, with artwork frequently inspired by the poverty or rawness of a place. So why can’t these places do the same back, especially when they often have few other options?

I do find the carbon copy of The Cavern constituted to lure visitors here in Liverpool sad when compared with the new, exciting venues in the city, but don’t we all like to visit similar things when in towns and cities abroad? Liverpool would be mad not to have a Beatles museum, even Hamburg, a city with a much more tenuous connection to them, has one. The Beatles are the greatest thing this city is ever likely to produce and we should rightly celebrate and acknowledge that. Liverpool also really needs the visitors, and once they’re here, it’s a hell of a lot easier to engage them in the contemporary culture also.

As for the difference between raw culture and that which becomes absorbed into the mainstream, surely what ultimately those of us who make ‘art’ of one form or another hope, even secretly, is that we may produce something that one day will be considered good enough to last beyond our own existences. To be preserved, catalogued and commodified and to become part of cultural history, even if we know few of us will achieve it. Maybe there is no better tribute to a great artwork of transcendent humanity to end up on a tea towel or a postcard on a student’s wall. Better that at least than for it to be lost to obscurity.

This piece appeared on The Double Negative in February 2012.

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