Your presence here indicates that you have an interest in culture. But what, exactly is culture? I’ve long addressed that perhaps too-broad question with a simple working definition: if Melvyn Bragg broadcasts about it, it’s probably culture. You may remember the English writer, presenter, and House of Lords member from our posts on his documentaries on Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon, or from the mention of his long-running BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time. But while that show certainly has covered scientific topics — evolutionary psychology, genetic mutation, the neutrino — Bragg and his panels of experts spend even more airtime discussing subjects claimed by the humanities. Some of its most interesting moments happen at the crossover, with scientific angles on the humanistic and vice versa; “Goethe and the Science of the Enlightenment” comes to mind, to name but one example. Where conversations like those can arise, I daresay we have culture at its most robust.
But I merely circle around the issue. Bragg’s five-part Radio 4 series The Value of the Culture deals with the question of culture’s nature head-on. Need we call culture anything more specific than the body of things that mankind makes? Does culture work as a force for good? What does culture look like from an anthropological perspective? Must works reach a certain standard, or display certain qualities, to count as culture? What does the gap between the sciences and the humanities mean for culture? How did “mass culture” come about, as opposed to “high culture”? And what does all this say about the culture we have today? Assembling his typically impressive range of luminaries from across the British intellectual landscape, Bragg asks these questions and many more besides, using as a point of departure ninetheenth-century poet, critic, and school inspector Matthew Arnold’s description of culture as “the best which has been thought and said” which provides life its “sweetness and light.” But much has changed in how we regard culture since the nineteenth century, and here we have just the program to get us thinking harder than ever about it.