Thursday, May 3, 2018

Superior culture

Many nations, especially those with a strong economy and world position, feel that that their culture is superior.  A short list of countries that have viewed themselves as the beacon for others include ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, France, English, America, Japan and China.  This point of view can also be expressed by the use of its opposite, i.e., all other cultures are primitive by comparison and, consequently, need to evolve in the direction of the supreme leader, whichever country that may be.  The pejorative descriptions include primitive, simple, naïve, barbarian and undeveloped.  Thus, this world view is that our culture is the true path while the others were never or are no longer valid.

Alas, this perspective is highly inaccurate. First, national culture is not an equally distributed or identical set of values. While most societies have an elite with the education and financial means to enjoy the fine arts, below this niche is a mass of people with little time, energy and knowledge to enjoy those pleasures. Instead, they tend to relish the simple pleasures of life, often linked with alcohol and violence, verbal and physical.  Coliseums, stadiums, bars, brothels and Internet are their venues for release.  Given a choice between watching a concert or a local football (either American, British or Australian, as relevant), the latter is by far the more popular choice.  As part of the festivities, abusing the opponent in the most crude and primitive terms is an essential part of the fun. It is no fun to be a Yankee outfielder standing in the grass of Fenway field taking constant abuse from the fans without any limit of good taste or respectability. So, no matter how high the high culture, the lowest common denominator is ever present.

Moreover, until the age of the Internet, an extremely short period of 30 years, most people knew nothing about the vast majority of other cultures. What did the typical English or French citizen know about the complexity of Japanese ink drawing?  What did the average Chinese know about Leonardo de Vinci?  What did the American in the Midwest and even on the coasts know about Debussy?  As my mother would say, they knew gournicht, nada. So, how can a collective culture decide that it is superior to others?  The answer, to quote my mother again, is chutzpah, sheer gall. As in many matters, a feeling of superiority is often the result of ignorance, not merit.

Even if cultural merit could be discussed in an objective, civilized manner, superior and inferior are extremely difficult words to be defined.  In terms of visual art, complexity of process seems to be one criterium. A painting by Titian is more intricate than an African mask. Yet, a print by Andy Warhol is less. So, mere sophistication is not sufficient.  Possibly, time investment is a factor.  While the paintings on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo may have involved thousands of hours of backbreaking work, so did the making of a totem by West Cost Indians. Multiplicity of instruments or media does not measure the level of music as the harmony of a Beethoven symphony is matched by the subtlety and beauty of a Chopin piano prelude or an Arabic oud performance. Objectively, better and worse are hard to define objectively.

Culture, like religion, should be approached with modesty and a sense of perspective.  Every person has preferences, which is quite legitimate. However, to reach the conclusion that ours is better ignores the ambiguity of ours, our lack of knowledge of others and the intrinsic problem of defining high culture. Instead, it is possible and desirable to be proud of your own culture while seeking the beauty in others, no matter how “primitive” they are.

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