Cultural History

Authored by: Marsha Morton

The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture

Print publication date:  September  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415629256
eBook ISBN: 9780203629987
Adobe ISBN: 9781135956462

10.4324/9780203629987.ch6

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Abstract

Cultural history originated and developed during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as history's “other.” Conceived in a spirit of opposition, it defended marginalized topics against the prevailing modes of historical writing centered on military events, politics, and leaders. By contrast, culture encompassed ways of life—social beliefs, habits, and practices—and within these, the arts both high and low. The French philosopher Voltaire, who called for a history of domestic family life, succinctly observed that “a lock on the canal … a painting by Poussin, [and] a fine tragedy are things a thousand times more precious than all the court annals and all the campaign reports put together.” 1 Underpinning cultural history was the notion, theorized by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, that individual groups or nations were united by shared traditions of thought and behavior whose essence was encoded in their art and language. While cultural history would develop in many different directions, this sense of a comprehensive whole would continue to differentiate it from the disciplinary histories of art and music, whether singular or comparative. Cultural historians not only embed the arts in a broader social context that customarily includes politics, economics, and religion; they also seek to identify the underlying unifying “deeper general themes” that are foundational to “patterns of life, art and thought,” as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in the 1920s. 2 Committed to the belief that all culture is a product of human agency, cultural historians are concerned with uncovering unconscious mental structures, whether general worldviews or more specific psychological or linguistic frameworks, “that combine diverse expressions of human consciousness at a given time into patterns or networks of meaning.” 3

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