We all have days where we want to get away from everything that’s happening in our lives, and even more relatable as of late. Many of us turn to films, books and music to do so, retreating into the depths of creative culture as a way of escaping. But should escapism really be the purpose of culture, or should we be actively consuming and creating things that actually reflect our reality and address its problems instead of just running away?
Firstly, I want to address the assumed subcategories of culture. Some would subdivide culture into two constituent parts. On the one hand, we have mainstream, pop, or “low” culture; on the other, the “high” culture so highly revered by academics. I bring up this divide as I think there’s a danger when talking about culture’s purpose to separate it into these two halves. In short, some people may argue that “low” culture can only mindlessly entertain, whilst “high” culture is there to raise awareness of society’s issues in a way that, they would argue, “low” culture is far too mainstream and far too base to be able to do. This distinction is dangerous, narrow-minded, and incorrect.
Take a popular series like Derry Girls, for example. This is undeniably mainstream and provides a form of escapism in its comedic portrayal of its lovable characters. We can live vicariously through them, witness their ups and downs, laugh with them, and generally forget about the world for a bit, stuck in our little Netflix bubble. However, using 1990s Ireland as her backdrop, the creator Lisa McGee also forces us to consider the terrible impact of the Troubles through a teenager’s eyes. Of course, we can choose to watch the show without real discussion of this, but the opportunity is there and that’s the important thing.
To use another example, let’s turn to Taika Waititi’s latest release, Jojo Rabbit. This film grapples with many frightening aspects of history which threaten to make a reappearance on today’s political stage, yet does it in such a way that we both cry and laugh along with the characters. We escape from our lives into theirs, forgetting for a brief moment our own personal problems, and yet are simultaneously confronted with other ones. This is entertainment, but a thought-provoking kind. Waititi perhaps sums it up best in an interview with Vanity Fair: “People say that comedy is not an effective tool or is not something to be taken seriously as an art form. It’s one of the most powerful tools that we have to fight against oppression, bigotry and intolerance.” Comedy can be used as an escape, but that is definitely not its only function.
Similarly, sometimes a director leaves a sense of moral ambiguity in their work. It is then up to the consumer whether to use the piece as escapism, and enjoy it as is, or to probe it and question it further. Culture’s purpose can be twofold, fit for different audiences; it isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all model.
It’s also possible to add in our own moral judgements to the culture we consume. It might happen subconsciously, whilst watching an old rom-com on Netflix for example: making fun of it and poking holes in its out-dated, possibly sexist tropes still counts as considering society’s problems.
Of course, there is also a risk that directors or writers may try to shoehorn in moral lessons or polemic themes where they don’t quite fit, or drive home a point far too hard. When it’s forced in like this, it feels inauthentic and somewhat futile, and the audience may well refuse to engage. I think some things have been created purely as entertainment, something to pass the time, and there’s no harm in taking a break from it all now and then without having to worry about the deeper meaning. Why shouldn’t we escape reality every once in a while?
Moving away from film for a moment, I want to take a look at a broader definition of culture. Music, for instance, is well-known for evoking our feelings and addressing pertinent issues. Protest songs provide a neat gateway into reflecting their contemporary reality and addressing its problems, something which isn’t limited to the 1960s. Even Dua Lipa’s new song “Boys Will Be Boys” feels like a direct hit against the sexist ideas that still exist in our society today. Other music, however, is created for us to just enjoy without needing to search for deeper meaning. I challenge you to analyse some of your study playlists on Spotify!
Even a brief dip into literature produces a wave of content designed to entertain, yes, but also to address the problems of the society in which it was written. Take Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, to me a damning indictment of the Victorians’ strict moral code, or Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, just one example of a Young Adult field story bursting with socially aware, thought-provoking ideas.
To look at things from a creator’s perspective, I’d argue that we’ve never been in a time where more has been created with a questioning or reflective purpose in mind, stretching right through from films to literature. Even stand-up comedians manage to simultaneously make us laugh whilst exposing our flaws and making us think about the bigger picture. Take James Acaster and his skit about the British Museum, for example: the bitter truth in what he says makes it a more sobering realisation that we are laughing at ourselves, and with good reason.
So, let’s recap. What is culture’s purpose? To entertain, to inform, to raise awareness of polemic issues, or to provide a means of escapism? Personally, I think culture is aptly equipped to do all of these things.
In the end, I think it comes down to moderation. I’m not going to jump on my high-culture horse and say that everything we consume culturally should serve a greater purpose and address every problem our society faces. Yes, culture can create change, but sometimes we do just want to watch TV and relax. That said, I think we have a certain ‘cultural responsibility’ to consume and create things that do reflect reality and address our problems now and then. With a creative community that’s arguably more attuned to doing that than ever before, I think we’ll be all right.