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Friday, October 5, 2012

An International Culture

When you start talking about national and ethnic cultures in the world today, people get a little edgy and protective. In chatting online with a friend from "down under" recently, where they print world maps from that point of view, by the way, I got this distinct impression. The same was also true when I heard from an old Canadian friend not long ago. Both were suffering from a decide ambivalence in observing what appeared to them to be a mammoth American cultural juggernaut. Actually, if it'll make them feel any better, I think what we're really seeing is a world culture with many regional variations. A microcosm of that can be seen here in the U.S. where we have Tex-Mex spreading from the Southwest, moonlight and Magnolia barbecue creeping northward from the deep South, Surf City splashing over from the west coast, mass, urbanized, ethnicity migrating from the Northeast, and country corn popping up far from the Midwest.

Where? Why, Montana, of course.
Each geographical area treasures their local culture partially out of pride, but also for economic reasons, enhancing their stereotypes on the one hand while at the same time resenting them in the next breath. I think Europe is seeing this, Canada and Australia too, apparently. It was bound to happen as global travel, communications, and economics are taken for granted. Even backward cultures have something to contribute to the world culture, but once they've done so, they tend to melt into the mass while the more dominant ones, French, English, American, German, Australian, Oriental, African, and Latino, maintain their distinctive elements while at the same time finding that geography has little to do with their survival in the mainstream.

My wife's idea of native Caribbean cuisine
Take food for example. A restaurant chain here is called the Outback Steakhouse. It has an Australian decor and ambiance while serving basically American food with Aussie names. We eat "Chinese" food the people in China never heard of. We drink wines that sound French but are actually bottled in Napa Valley. My wife, in visiting the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, years ago headed straight for a Burger King for lunch (she's not the bravest gastronome in the world). In any major city in the United States, restaurants are listed by nationality in the phone book and there's hardly a country in the world not represented.

Serpent of Brass,
2009, Vitaly Komar
At the same time, in mainstream art, national distinctions have come to mean little. David Hockney (bottom) is British but paints more American iconography than most Americans. Chris Ofili is English yet paints with African motifs. Thomas Kinkade was American but commonly painted distinctly un-American scenes, often more reminiscent of idealized English country cottages than contemporary, suburban America. Japanese cartoons look only faintly oriental. Russian artist, Vitaly Komar (left) hasn't painted anything much resembling Russian art (whatever that might be) since leaving mother Russia a generation ago. Traditional arts and crafts still reflect native cultures, but they are strictly nostalgic, often made primarily for export or tourist consumption, and if possible, fabricated in whatever country offers the cheapest labor market. It would seem, whether we like it or not, or even realize it, what we're really seeing in the world today is not the ascendancy of the American culture but merely a strong American economic influence in a diverse international culture that is taking hold everywhere with incredible speed.
Road Across the Wolds, 1997, David Hockney. California as seen by a Brit.


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