Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Wide Disparity of Priorities : Open Thread

Wilde once quipped that the English "have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.” I'd humbly submit that you could easily swap out "language" for "cultural priorities" and in a way that perhaps confirms another Wilde quote about the U.S.:
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
I can hear the right-wingers blood vessels bursting from here as they prepare to call me a "hate-America-first Liberal"...but take as evidence the news that The Times of London this year named British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, as their "Briton of the Year."

Not that I would disagree with Time magazine's choice of Barack Obama as their Person of the Year. Our President-Elect surely deserves this accolade. But the rationale The Times of London gives for choosing a director of a museum for their honor is one I cannot fathom ever being offered by the US media:
By emphasising the importance of an international community of inquiry, of a “republic of letters” as it would have been called in its Enlightment roots, he has helped to create a global society that is quite separate from others that constantly get caught up in the squabblings of government and politics.

Through this society he has managed, over the years, to create important cultural links with countries – including, perhaps most notably, China, Iraq and Iran – that have not enjoyed the warmest of political relations with the West.
Culture as diplomacy. What a concept. What a wonderful, intelligent, peaceful concept.

Mind you I don't blame our cultural institutions for this disparity of priorities. They are phenomenally engaged in such efforts and respected throughout the world (when they're not being sued for smuggling, that is :-). And I don't blame our government either, to tell the truth. They understand full well how culture serves our foreign interests, and when I've worked abroad I've always found our embassies highly engaged in promoting American culture.

No, I blame our media. After all, it wasn't the museums or government of the UK that selected Saint Neil as the Briton of the Year, it was their capital's most influential daily newspaper. Read more of why they made this choice:
Helping to release the power that lies implicit in the world’s ancient artefacts, MacGregor has turned the British Museum into an arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace.
Now compare that a passage from Time magazine's rationale for selecting Obama...it discusses art as well:
Our cover portrait is by the street artist Shepard Fairey, whose roots are in the skateboarding world and whose early poster of then Senator Obama became the great populist image of the campaign. With this cover, Fairey has now created a new iconic image of the President-elect — a rich, multilayered poster that echoes but then expands on his original.

In keeping with the theme of citizen art, we open our Person of the Year package with a dazzling array of images culled from those created by thousands of individuals from around the world and posted on the image-sharing site Flickr. Obama always said his candidacy was not about him, but "you," and now, along with Flickr, we're helping give "you" a voice.
See the difference? On one hand, is culture viewed as an "arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace" and on the other hand, culture is viewed as a means of casually flattering one's paying customers.

Consider this an open thread on how American priorities regarding the role of culture might be changed or at least taken more seriously by our media.

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14 Comments:

Anonymous jaminix said...

I’m glad to see someone is taking on the media! We live in an era of sensationalism and gotcha journalism, poor fact checking, questionable priorities and yes “flattering one’s paying customers”.... but then, aren’t we the paying customers?

1/06/2009 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I find the US deeply mistrustful of the "elite" and the subsequent perceived (and real) snobbery that comes as its baggage.

The US as a consequence seems to gravitate to the low first, and extol its virtues. I do not think the "Pop" art movement could have happened anywhere else as a consequence. I think the "Abstract Expressionist" can only happen in a place where the representational and symbolic were viewed as impediments to direct emotional communication - which requires a destruction of that elite intermediary to comprehend it.

I do think we value culture to a high level, but it is a rather unique high/low and low/low.

But having said that, we may have gone too far - because "pandering" is not "culture" but a distraction. All I can see that if it has no ability to evolve into something that contributes, it is likely to be discarded during one of the periodic American reinventions of itself. Perhaps one is happening now?

And one last thought - could culture lag art? Meaning the culture has to catch up to the art that it produces - so maybe the cure to this low point may just be to make some mind blowing art of some kind and force the world and the US to take a look?

1/06/2009 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Ed,
I think that you are ignoring the possibility of nationalistic propaganda that a media event of this nature entails. It seems that many in the “new media” disparage the “old mainstream press” until it presents something we agree with, then we fawn like boot-licking lapdogs. At least Obama was voted on.

By the way, your true calling may be as a writer. Your last two posts total somewhere in the 4,500-5,000 word category, feature article length. Your adoring readers should chip in for hand massages.

1/06/2009 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

"We are the Media"

I do not see a battle between old and new, but a collapse of centralized control as information becomes democratized through the internet. Time magazine is more or less admitting this collapse in making a rather hollow claim that Time can somehow give a voice to people who have tools of publication and distribution available to them unthinkable 25 years ago.

Now given "the media" is us, and the old style of centralized mass communication giving the majority of its ground to point to point, and filtered - what sort of cultural expression will arise?

In 20 years of these sort of networks under the belt I have seen high quality win out over "mediocre what is on offer" and it is interesting to see some high quality become banal by that switch (Starbucks vs Folgers for example)- but there are dialogues that can happen that are impossible in the old style top down methods. We are figuring this out.

The cultural expressions and institutions that will arise after this cleaning house we can't imagine - the change is happening so fast it is hard to imagine even what sorts of media will arise, and what sorts of expression will be possible, and what sort of permanence is possible?

Painting was freed by photography to become what is is in the modern world, I wonder what will emerge by the reduction of the power of the mass media and the rise of the peer to peer media?

1/06/2009 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

What's the name of that new guy on Fox who's not a jackass? The one Sully likes? Anyway, I caught him in a video answering one of the myriad Fox jackasses, who was blaming the media for the Democratic presidential win, by saying that the media is always there to be blamed. Really, you want a major American newspaper to make a statement on behalf of the powers of culture to an uncomprehending readership? The British papers can get away with that because their audience's median reading level is higher than that of butter.

Besides, doesn't Time's gesture agree with your anti-elitism, fondness for relational aesthetics, and reluctance to assert standards? Sure, I think it's crap, but I would.

1/06/2009 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

It's not the media, Ed, it's our educational system. The British media can get away with extolling 'the republic of letters' because the average British citizen is actually literate.

That Time magazine quote reminds me forcefully of my brief stint teaching in an inner-city public school, where I was expected to 'give the students a voice,' but not given the time or the resources to actually teach them a useful skill, like reading, writing or thinking for themselves. Emphasis on 'self-esteem' is all to the good, but the system still hasn't figured out that children develop self-esteem by accomplishing challenging tasks, not by being fawned upon when their performance rises above the level of comatose.

The American media may not be doing the absolute best it can do, but when confronted with a majority readership whose eyes glaze over when confronted with a compound, complex sentence, there are only so many 'letters' it can print and still keep food on the table.

1/06/2009 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Not counting Alaska, the area of the US is 35 times larger than Britain. The US population is 5 times larger. As a result, Britain has a population density roughly 7 times larger than the US. Does any of this matter?

1/06/2009 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

You know the Brits still pay homage to a very, very, very outdated Royalty system, so nobody's perfect.


Cedric C

1/06/2009 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger wisesigh said...

One reason for Time to pick Obama (among others) was the game changing way that his campaign utilized the internet and social networking, something which will be of lasting influence and is a cultural phenomena (and probably will not be peculiarly American going forward), so the nod to audience participation in Time Magazine's content via Flickr seems apt, not simply catering to or flattering the customer.

In the US, I would not be surprised to read about the republic of letters in the NYTimes. In the UK, I'm curious if one would see The Sun, as opposed to The Times, doing so, but perhaps one would.

1/06/2009 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger elizabethbriel said...

America has a cultural cringe (insecurity about its own cultural merit related to perceived "higher cultures", i.e. British), yet also possesses an ambivalence to all things labeled "culture". This split was painfully visible in the recent election, and less so in others. We currently have a huge urban/rural/exurban divide in priorities.

George, I think you have a point, yet the population density of Hong Kong for example is among the highest in the world, and the appreciation of culture there is linked explicitly to dollar value, rather than to culture for its own sake.

Wisesigh, good point about the cultural diversity in the UK; what gets exported from the UK tends to be its high-brow culture, whereas the US definitely exports its Hollywood-esque products instead.

British culture has its lofty points, but can be equally infuriating at times...this written by one who lives with a British partner.

1/06/2009 06:09:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I just want to state categorically that Franklin and I did not communicate at all prior to commenting on this post, and that his comment had not made it past moderation when I wrote mine. We are independent elitist a**holes.

1/06/2009 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Any nominations for an American Captain of Culture who you’d vote for as “dude of the year”? Thomas Krens, Jerry or Roberta Saltz-Smith, Philippe deMontabello, Oliver Stone, Tyler Green? Anybody? (Besides Ed.)

1/06/2009 11:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tina Mammoser said...

I need to think about this for a while, but think I agree in essence. I'm an American who has now lived 15 years in the UK - choosing to stay here after my postgrad studies.

While the UK has its fair share of illiteracy and low-brow media (the US is not special in that respect) I don't actually think that's the issue. There's something inherently different and more broadly thinking about the UK. I'm think part is deep-seated in history: the US was a colony that built up its identity fairly recently whereas the British are coming from a post-colonial point of view. They've been more involved in world-views already (even if it meant imposing themselves on it).

In every realm I've experienced in both countries (academic, corporate, small biz, artist) the attitude is much less self-focused in the UK. There seems to be a higher goal than simple achievement and domination over peers, though I can't say what that is really. But a better acceptance of networking, collaboration and non-competition are at the heart. Sorry for the vagueness, I'm just exploring my own thoughts a bit here.

1/07/2009 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher/Mark said...

Neil MacGregor is gay, and he must have turned down a knighthood, too.

Good for him.

1/07/2009 04:55:00 PM  

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