Monday, December 26, 2011

American Culture


 "Mercy Otis Warren" by John Singleton Copley, 1763
 "Mercy Otis Warren" by John Singleton Copley, 1763

At the end of November I had an interesting conversation with a German colleague of mine. We started talking about politics and ended up with the American culture... or rather lack of it. According to my colleague America had no culture.

"The Circus" (detail) by George Bellows, 1912
"The Circus" (detail) by George Bellows, 1912

I have heard such categorical statements before and usually became very upset trying to persuade my prejudiced interlocutors that America had a culture and it was a very rich one on top of that. In fact, there were many cultures in America and some of them were very ancient...

"In the Generalife" by John Singer Sargent, 1912
"In the Generalife" by John Singer Sargent, 1912

This time, I decided not to persuade anything to my colleague and not to get upset. Her statement did not mean that America had no culture. It only meant one thing: she was either ignorant or stupid. It meant that despite her high opinion of herself she lacked a big chunk of knowledge. For an educated German person this must be a reason to be ashamed. 

Can you imagine someone who never heard anything about, say, Henry Miller, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Jacob Lawrence, or Charles Edward Ives? How embarrassing that might be? Even if you were not interested in American culture in particular, these people made invaluable contributions to the world culture as such and not to know anything about them is shameful when you consider yourself well educated and well versed citizen of the world.

"American Gothic" by Grant Wood, 1930
"American Gothic" by Grant Wood, 1930

The word "culture" can mean many things. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as:
  • the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
  • enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
  • acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
  • the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations 
  • the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time,
among other things. 

To make sure that we are talking about the same thing we had to define what she meant by "culture". In the past I talked to Germans who used to compare McDonald's fast food culture with Beethoven and Brahms. The fact that there were fast food outlets like McDonald's in America was according to them a proof for the notorious lack of culture in America. On the other hand, the fact that there ever was a Beethoven or a Brahms in Europe was the very evidence of cultural superiority of the old continent. But how fair is that? Apples and oranges? How can anyone compare the high culture with McDonald's?

"Waterfall" No. III, Iao Valley, Hawaii by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939
"Waterfall" No. III, Iao Valley, Hawaii by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939

For the many Germans I talked to in the past America had nothing to offer, except of course, shopping malls, Disneyland, stupid Hollywood movies, and fast food while Germany, of course, was full of concert halls, opera theaters, and museums. Was it possible that someone who traveled to America and spent most of his or her time in a shopping mall did not have the time for theater or a museum? Surely, they must have heard about the Metropolitan Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chicago Art Institute, or the Metropolitan Opera.

"Report from Rockport" by Stewart Davis, 1940
"Report from Rockport" by Stewart Davis, 1940

I asked my colleague whether she liked literature. When she confirmed that she was a voracious reader I asked whether she has ever heard of Americans who received the literary Nobel Prize. Oh, yes! But they were actually all European writers who lived in the USA, was her answer. This was more than embarrassing, but I did not let her go off the hook so easily. She could not possibly think that Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, or Toni Morrison were Europeans. No, she didn't, but she actually did not think of those writers when she meant that America has no culture. She kind of did not consider the American literature to be that important... I was more than shocked and decided to continue. Socrates would do the same thing.

"Galaxy" by Jackson Pollock, 1947
 "Galaxy" by Jackson Pollock, 1947

We moved on to music. She played an instrument herself, but never heard of Aaron Copland or John Cage. Gershwin or Bernstein were not really making a high quality music and could not be considered makers of culture... When she thought of American music she meant rap and hip hop. How about jazz, lady? She was drowning deeper and I must admit, I almost enjoyed seeing her flounder in her own ignorance...

"Office in a Small City" by Edward Hopper, 1953
"Office in a Small City" by Edward Hopper, 1953

How about the visual arts? She heard of Andy Warhol, but for her someone who painted canned soup wasn't really an artist. The Belgian surrealist René Magritte who painted a pipe was considered a great artist. How was that?

The whole conversation was hopeless, so I suggested that she visited the Whitney Museum Of American Art on her next trip to New York. This museum has an amazing collection of American art and was a good start for someone who would like to learn something about the very rich history of visual arts in America.

"Scene with Nude" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952
 "Scene with Nude" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952

America is a relatively young country. The first European immigrants brought their own aesthetic traditions and went on to create a new, rich culture in their new homeland. In the 20th century many artists escaped the Nazi oppression and found creative freedom in America that was unknown anywhere else. But many famous writers, composers, painters, and sculptors were born in America. And although they studied their European counterparts, they created a very unique and original culture that to this day inspires people from all corners of the world.

By Dominique Allmon ©2011