Eminent psychologist Steven Pinker once described art as ‘cheesecake for the mind’. Many people think of culture as a luxury good, high up – and therefore low down – on Mazslow’s hierarchy of needs in comparison with basic physical requirements. Most of the time they are right. When they aren’t, the necessity for a detailed understanding of cultural processes suddenly becomes urgent. The horrible events in rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris this January give the lie to Pinker’s characterisation. When a dozen people die violently, a country plunges into serious unrest, and the world recoils in horror at the violent consequences of a series of satirical cartoons, two things are evident. First, culture matters, if not always and in every manifestation, then certainly at signal moments. Second, that the predominantly secular West has trouble grasping the pivotal role of culture in an era of unprecedented social mobility and media saturation. The End of History is proving to be the beginning of another kind of history. Like it or not, culture is central to current events. ‘Dying for a piece of cake’ is a metaphor of easy consumption. Dying for freedom of speech involves a more complex set of priorities. Pinker’s dessert turns out to contain some unpleasant ingredients: razor-sharp shards of broken glass.
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