The True Meaning of Culture

Nick Papageorge (1L)

The email I received trumpeting the “Alumni-Student Cultural Night” at Fasken Martineau was intriguing. On its face it was a mere invite to tour the firm’s art collection, but that seemed too simple. After all, culture is an amorphous idea few can well define. So then, this invitation was undoubtedly beckoning me to go on a noble quest to find The True Meaning of Culture.

When I arrived at the firm I began my quest in the room with the open bar, upon which sat a truly riveting artwork: a Canadian beer placed next to a Dutch one. This must have been an allegory of the close friendship between the two countries, although a more nihilistic interpretation might see it as an ode to what was on sale at the LCBO that day. This initial encounter gave me the impression that culture had something to do with Perrier and mass-produced beer. However, I knew there had to be more to it, and so I joined the tour.

As we were shown the next work I was reminded of what Marx famously said about art: “I don’t get it, I could have done that—bourgeois rubbish.” The work was comprised of metal sheets fashioned into incomplete numerals and attached to the wall in a row. We were told they had been cut like this to weigh the same, thus declaiming that all numbers are equal and of equal weight. This had me nonplussed, in no small part because all numbers are not equal. If they were then I wouldn’t have had so much difficulty with calculus. Perhaps culture has a strong nonsensical element to it.

Not all the works had me scratching my head. The works of a thousand coloured pencil strokes looked that much more impressive next to a square black canvas with a white stripe down its sides. Perhaps culture is a relative phenomenon.

As we moved on, we were regaled with stories of how some of the artwork had been restored after sustaining damage from having coffee spilt on it, being leaned against by people’s posteriors, and having grubby hands aimlessly dragged across them. Perhaps culture is a bit messy.

At some points our host informed us that banks and other law firms in the city housed similar artworks by some of the same artists on display here—but invariably, the ones housed in this firm were second to none. Perhaps culture is a game of one-upmanship.

The firm itself is situated in a steel-and-glass monolith, a ubiquitous Toronto structure with which contemporary architects declare: “We’re not even pretending to try anymore.” We learned that to raise money for new purchases better suited to this modish space the firm had sold much of its old artwork. Perhaps culture is a continuous process that demands you sell off a work by the Group of Seven in order to acquire a photo of the Gardiner Expressway to sit next to your most intricate work and “modernize” it. And so here I found myself back in culture’s nonsensical realm.

Alas, by the end of the tour I was more uncertain about what culture really is than when I arrived. Maybe the answer was contained in one of the last few works, but I had to duck out before seeing these in order to make it to a prior engagement. I thus departed the world of what some call “high culture” so I could wallow in what is surely culture’s nadir: a Toronto Maple Leafs game.