Battle in Print: In defence of American culture - and human aspiration

Alan Miller, 26 October 2009

It has become popular to be anti-American today. From sneering comments about a ‘Fast Food Nation’ and overly obese junk-eating, junk TV-watching citizens to constant references to the country as being inhabited by geographically-challenged dimwits, one wonders if these European snobs (who have so-called liberal sympathisers on the east and west American coasts) believe that the United States is comprised of characters from the movie Deliverance.

Of course, there was disdain in the past for America, although it was originally as a consequence of the fear of the mob and the reaction of the Europeans to Revolutionary America. However, the bold and ambitious outlook of earlier generations of Americans has also been somewhat transformed in a world where we are all encouraged to view strength, aspiration and the sense that we can make and remake the world with suspicion. Today many Americans share the sense that the good ole US of A is a tad embarrassing.

Sadly, much of the criticism originates not from an honest desire to encourage an expansion of culture and deepening and broadening and furthering of it. Rather, it reflects the sense of exhaustion and cynicism of many commentators and in society more broadly today, where it no longer seems substantial social change is possible. Many have tended to reduce themselves, like spoiled children, to blaming ‘crass American culture’.

It seems that whereas in the past there was healthy criticism of American foreign policy or domestic politics, increasingly today it is the notion of dumb Americana dominating the world that seems to pervade. Of course, when the prevailing sentiments in society seem to be ‘small is beautiful’, where less is more and we shouldn’t allow our ‘footprint’ to impact too much on the world, it has become fashionable to blame American large corporations and products for creating a vast and homogenous culture. The sad thing is, that in many instances, such as the ubiquity of the hamburger, that represents one of the greatest achievements humanity has made in a very short period of time (the fact that food went from being scarce and a constant source of worry to being now considered abundant in the US). If only we could replicate that worldwide, the needless death of tens of thousands weekly from hunger and malnutrition could end. One also may wonder what all this has to do with culture.

The cultural sphere has come to be increasingly held accountable for things that it is not responsible for – and while not criticised enough for some things is often eulogised for all the wrong reasons. After all, when people refer to ‘American culture’ they mean many things, though the often targeted ‘bad guys’ are the Wal Marts, Starbucks, McDonalds and ‘big Pharma’ and other large multi-national corporations. What is presented as being so despicable, so reprehensible, is that these companies desire to expand their products and goods to so many people. Indeed, it is their size and reach, more than anything, that infuriate critics – alongside the people that end up frequenting them or consuming their products.

For all too often, unfortunately, this discourse is not about the aesthetic appreciation of culture, but rather a diatribe against humans per se. America is seen as the high point of human achievement in society, in the sense that it has been the most successful, with the highest living standards, and pushing the boundaries of expectations for each generation. (There are of course limitations to this and its horizons have been diminishing for some time, though nevertheless it is still represents the underlying sentiment). Today, much of what we have achieved is seen through a prism of disillusionment and the question that is never far away is whether we have even gone too far (although this is far more of a pontification often by people in air conditioned buildings in the West when advising developing nations that they should not follow in our footsteps).

Rather than applauding our achievements, we are continually encouraged to fear progress and the future, to limit any impact we have on the world lest it end up being detrimental somehow. We tell ourselves generally that humans are a little bad, mad and dangerous…and we have messed up the planet (and history) and we are generally a nasty species. Much of the environmental movement propaganda is unfiltered about how much humans are akin to parasites and termites. America, once admired for being big and bold and demonstrating what you could do to a wild landscape speedily, is now viewed with derision and held as being the epitome of much that is wrong with our world.

However, whatever barometer one uses, when it comes to culture, both artistic and more generally, America has led the world over the past 100 years. From fiction, with such greats as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Melville, Dreiser, Styron and more recently Cormack McCarthy, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Safran Foer to playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and David Mamet. Magazines covering all aspects of the cultural moment include the New Yorker, theParis Review, the National Journal, Poets and Writers, the Weekly Standard, The American Prospect, Humanities are only the tip of the iceberg.

HBO has transformed the experience of watching television – with series after series of brilliant writing and production such as The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire, that not only have raised the bar in the US but also internationally. In film, consider the brilliance of film directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and a host of producers that consistently deliver quality films (over ten times the annual amount of British and Italian output). Many argue that this is simply about more money being available in the US. It is absolutely true that there is an industry which invests in cultural output – that is one of the ways one gets to achieve a standard of excellence.

In music it is almost embarrassing to begin – from blues and bluegrass to jazz and throughout the musical genres, America has produced memorable great contemporary work that will stand the test of time. The impact of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Dizzie Gillespie, Fats Domino, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson internationally cannot be understated. The US also has manufactured a great deal of dross and utterly disposable nonsense, as have all the developed nations who are too scared to invest and develop artists today and have lost their way when it comes to leadership. Not only is American contemporary music so popular internationally, the world of classical music is very interesting in America. Not only are large scale institutions such as Lincoln Center, with the New York Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Ballet, the New York City Opera and Carnegie Hall internationally renowned, however so too are city orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, St Louis and Los Angeles. Moreover, in most towns across the US there is a lively self-funding community who regularly attend classical music events. Like everywhere else, this is an aging demographic, but the sense in which once you leave New York for the mid-west and south and somehow everyone is a redneck just belies that nasty, anti-ordinary people outlook that used to refer to the ‘mob’ as it understood it as ‘the Great Unwashed’. These days it is far more respectable and acceptable to accuse ‘them’ of being culturally barren and therefore thoroughly flawed. The insidious underlying outlook is the same.

From the spellbinding impact of George Balanchine on dance to Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morrison and other young companies, to the myriad of off-broadway theater groups and ensemble acting companies across America reproducing the classics and contemporary work to full houses, the idea that America is a gluttonous oaf is just simply darn ignorant. Go to any of the major museums and art galleries, particularly in the cities and you will find interested groups of people, highly attended cultural institutions with the best of humanity’s work on display.

I am often reminded of just how silly the view that stupid Americans prevail with trashy culture when I look around the subway at what people are reading, from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and The Economist or The Nation to a host of novels and non fiction books. While the newspaper industry is suffering extraordinary pain, America still has several major impressive publications and is leading the way with internet news sites, blogs and social networks – as well as bio-technology, science and sport: although many of the students are visitors from oversees especially engineers, so essential for progress. Of course there is terrible daytime television, ugly motels, banal and barely utilitarian buildings and dreadfully disposable novellas – this though is surely something to inspire us to want to have more development and progress, with ambition and passion, not less.

McDonalds and Coca-Cola have become synonymous with much that is seen as so flawed in America and beyond. Sugar and salt have become the new bad guys (after tobacco and alcohol) and the golden arches and sugary beverage is bemoaned by the cultural elite when they arrive in developing nations as being symptomatic of the hollowing out of all that is interesting and local and decent. I am all for improving the cultural temperature – of demanding better writing and more exhilarating performance, of daring to dream and take risks and experiment, to avoid formulaic styles and insist on excellence and diligence and applaud it when we see it (and decry it when absent).

However, we should recognise that what passes for a discussion about cultural shallowness is really an attack on the very idea of humans having an impact on the world. The brash can-do idea of America is patently not the zeitgeist of now – it is the antithesis of our parochial and narrow outlook that deems society to have gone too far and in need of some pruning. How sad. The best thing about the American Dream is the idea that we have some control and autonomy over our lives and that we could shape the outcome and improve our lot – albeit in a very limited sense. We should claim that thrilling idea and popularise it whenever possible and take it beyond its own limitations.

We should remind ourselves too, that America is the representation of a fusion of the entire world. Levis originated through the collaboration of two European immigrants forging fabric that had come from Italian dockers and German trousers with studs used by European miners – to create the American generic ‘jean’ that is so popular. This is what America does best, forging, merging, reinventing. Likewise in China, India and Brazil much new development is occurring in a variety of certain fields – China will have more cinemas than the USA very soon. Here we will see an amalgamation of technology and art which will inform a new cultural moment – much of which is already happening. However, we should beware of a similar anti-growth, anti-progress outlook that already overshadows much of the discussion of these developments. Here we see how companies and brands such as Microsoft, Apple, YouTube and Facebook continue to have an impact in changing the landscape – while increasingly new competition emerges from these expanding regions, who now invest in American entertainment and technology significantly.

It is high time we stopped the snottiness that dare not speak its name which is so ignorant - and insist upon a grown up discussion about why we have such a bleak outlook about what human agency means in the world today. We should expose the petulant anti-Americanism for what it is; a childish and dumbed-down assault on ordinary people thinly veiled as cultural critique. Doing so will serve to significantly enhance our cultural capital.


Alan Miller is a director, author, producer and co-director of NY Salon, a forum for inter-disciplinary, open debate. He is also the co-founder of the Truman Brewery, a 10-acre site in London’s East End. Alan is also a film director and has had his work broadcast internationally, with a specialisation in music videos and live events.

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