Monday, February 14, 2011

American Cultural Dreams

As John Brown discussed in class last week, America does a very poor job of promoting its cultural highlights abroad. The US is very good at exporting heaps of its cultural goods, like movies, TV, music and the like. However, much of this is, as we all know, not very good and not representative of American culture and life (I know my time in high school wasn't anything like The OC or even Dawson's Creek). This tends to give the rest of the world a (very) negatively skewed idea of American culture, even if the rest of the world feeds demand for these poor exports (I'm looking at you Germany and your inexplicable love of David Hasslehoff's music).

The main reason that America is bad at promoting it's cultural affairs, is that it largely ignores them. So why is a country that is such an avid advertiser of its ideals of freedom and democracy, so lacking in cultural promotion? I think a large part of it comes from the ingrained, but false, belief that America doesn't have a culture, general or high culture. While the US may not have the same long-standing traditions as many other countries, as Kristin points out in her latest blog post, this is largely because the US is much younger than most other countries and was founded to break from many of the practices of Europe. However, every society and group has a culture. The US culture (as I'm sure many of us have learned in Cross-Cultural Communication) is low-context, monochronic and stresses individualism. These characteristics in and of themselves lead to a less cohesive and more fragmented view of the "American culture," which is furthered by the mix of other traditions and beliefs brought to the US by immigrants over the past 200+ years. So not only do we not have a clear concept of our own culture, but we tend to think much more individually than Russia, which values the common bond of a single Russian cultural identity, according to Brown.

I also agree with Krisitn that the US does have a "high culture" as evidenced by well-respected American literature, music (not pop, but classical and jazz artists and composers), theater and sometimes, even movies, if you look beyond the typical Hollywood garbage. However, I don't believe these arts are valued enough, at home or abroad. Americans' general emphasis on economic achievement tends to devalue the arts, which are usually more economically precarious. Although the conscious decision to not establish a ministry or department of culture in the US may have been to prevent government involvement in cultural creation and assessment (which is a fair concern), it has meant that the country only has business to promote its cultural products. Unfortunately these companies tend to think of profits over the American image (of itself or abroad). This means that we have hundreds of iterations of reality shows (I can't even keep track of how many versions of The Real Housewives of... there are), which are cheap to make and draw big audiences. 

Therefore, in order to better promote American cultural achievement, I think we need to start at home by cultivating a better appreciation and understanding of American culture. This would mean better arts education in schools, more emphasis on the practices of and influences on American culture in history classes and more government funding for arts and culture projects. Not only would this give Americans a better understanding of themselves and their society, it would also promote critical evaluations of that culture and society, something I feel is sorely lacking here. In turn, a better understanding of these concepts and increase in the belief of the value of American culture would help us realize what good cultural products we do have to offer the world.  This knowledge can then be included in the State Departments' diplomatic functions to spread this message (not to "Americanize" countries, but simply to share it). However, it seems that there need to be some major changes to society, education and the government before any of these things happen, so right now, we're stuck with Baywatch and the Jersey Shore as the spokespeople for American culture. If that's not an incentive to change, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, how does one explain the Germans' fascination with the Hoff?

    Two quick points: First, I think it's important to distinguish between high and pop culture here, and second, I think John Brown's argument wasn't that the US lacks high culture, but rather that it doesn't actively devote a lot of energy to promoting that high culture abroad.

    Not that I disagree with your conclusion. I'm all for more arts education and cultural promotion. But I think it's going to be hard to find support for those programs in a period of pro-austerity politics....