"Amerikanische Populärkultur gegen Europäische Hochkultur?"
Beitrag von Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Leiter des Österreichischen Kulturforums New York, im Rahmen der politischen Gespräche Alpbach 2003 zum Thema "Euro-Atlantische Partnerschaft"
Alpbach, Political Symposium 2003
EURO-ATLANTIC PARTNERSHIP: CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION
Contribution by Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Director of Austrian Cultural Forum New York
August 26, 2003
The United States is not only a military hyperpower and economic giant, it is also the most successful democracy on the globe. Reflecting on the last century, Europe owes America a lot. America and Europe will always share core values and a vital interest to preserve and strengthen democracy as cornerstone of Western civilization. Objective critical analysis of American conduct and influence in the world is not an end in itself, but a point of departure for drawing the right policy conclusions on both sides of the Atlantic – with a view to rebuilding the natural alliance between America and Europe in our new century.
1) The defining power
"America ... has become the defining power of the world. America defines what is democracy, justice, freedom; what are human rights and what is multiculturalism… In short, what it means to be human. The rest of the world, including Europe, must simply accept these definitions and follow the American lead… But America defines all these things in singular terms - in terms of American self-identity, history, experience and culture, and, more often than not, in terms of American self-interest." (Z. Sardar and M.W. Davies, Why Do People Hate America?, New York 2002, p.201)
2) Some key notions for understanding America
The US embodies a unique blend of might and right that aims at delivering a world of peace and prosperity for all. Americans are individualists who like to look after themselves (e.g. gun culture) and have a basic mistrust of the State and government. The two most important notions for America are money and freedom: Money projects freedom (as idealized, and aspired to, in the American way of life). The success of America starts with self-confidence and patriotism. Education is a highly efficient “machinery” to make people proud of being American. Such forging of national pride facilitates the cohesion of the multicultural American society, it also results in a feeling of superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world combined with widespread ignorance of other cultures, ideals, and values. American self-confidence is reflected in the realm of culture: In the course of the 20th century, America, and especially New York, became the center of the cultural world – if you made it there, you could make it everywhere. The political arena and culture/civilization overlap, with resulting cross-influences: The American ideal of benign democracy and free society is the point of reference for both American conduct at the political level and for the US entertainment industry. Any effective political spectrum, however, has been wiped out, as big-business-sponsored election machinery produces the same sort of leaders owing big to their financial backers and as the “me too” label now applies to both sides of the political divide. Only the gap between the political class and the intellectual elites appears to be widening. Arthur Miller, for instance, asked in an article on Broadway theater and the apparent drying-up of social commentary there (The New York Times, February 23, 2003): "Has the essence of America, its very nature, changed from benign democracy to imperium?”
3) Cultural hegemony
The sheer power of the American cultural industries has made itself felt for quite some time around the globe, mirroring the market-driven cultural forces within the framework of money and freedom on which America is based. A key to understanding the worldwide cultural success story of America is the magnitude and influence of "Hollypop" (I am using this term - an amalgamation of Hollywood and pop culture - in the broadest sense to describe the big-money commercial entertainment industry, be it the movie business (Hollywood), the music industry (such as pop music), or other disciplines of entertainment). It goes without saying that Hollypop includes artistically outstanding creations, but the price of it is the merciless thrust of mainstream productions of very modest quality. There is no use lamenting: Popular culture is what it is all over the world - it appeals to the masses in order to make big money. Americans are probably more adept at creating commercial success than their European counterparts and certainly have the more powerful machinery including their language. Though a few European companies have entered the first league of global entertainment conglomerates, American culture is still the dominant feature. The companies selling Hollypop products and American life-style in general have almost ideal conditions for global success. The vast and rich American home market generates the huge amounts of money needed to sponsor lavish and spectacular productions and sustain the most effective machinery of sophisticated branding and worldwide advertising imaginable (critics would add that these products are the lull of democracy, to keep the masses including students happy and docile through entertainment). Basing sentiments of anti-Americanism in Europe on Hollypop, fast food, and the like is as cheap and trivial as Europe-bashing in the United States. If people outside the US are learning more about US society in movies, television series, rap, and books, all the better. The trouble is only that it is basically a one-way street. Companies promoting American culture are business-oriented; they cannot be directly blamed for their all-encompassing spirit of entrepreneurship in the popular cultural sphere. At the same time, the practical effects of their global business crusades make them automatically the most efficient "agents" of American cultural policy.
4) “Collateral damage”
A devastating side effect of cultural hegemony is the eradication of local cultural segments in many parts of the world, brought about by both the direct success of American cultural brands and by mimicry, i.e. the strong tendency of local companies to echo the popular cultural patterns of "America," thereby sacrificing yet another segment of local culture (such as a dialect, a regional food specialty, or local music). Critics have compared these mechanisms to the functioning of a virus, endlessly self-replicating and alarmingly adept at co-opting the production machinery of its hosts. Again, nobody can be directly blamed for such behavior, and yet the combined overall effect of these developments on world culture is disastrous. When people suddenly realize what has been lost, it is in many cases too late. The loss of cultural diversity also looms large in America itself, as expensive cultural undertakings, even productions with a certain amount of mass appeal such as American musicals on Broadway, find it more and more difficult to survive; the debate on replacing live musicians with recorded music is a case in point. Nobody wants the world to be culturally poorer, yet we will probably have to live with such a prospect. There is no recipe in sight for avoiding the collateral gradual extinction of large segments of the cultural heritage of mankind.
5) Perception gap
Among the major cultural shifts that are underway in America, the growing influence of the Latino population is probably the most relevant in our context. In addition, divergences in American and European education patterns lead to different "cultures of upbringing" in the course of generations. The result is an increasing propensity to misunderstanding between the US and Europe. In the same vein, European and American cultural interests appear to be drifting apart. Take classical music in America: As funds disappear, so do orchestras. Some cultural figures say it is hard to sell classical music in places where much of the population has no direct connection to the northern European cultures that produced most of it. New York is still a stronghold of European culture in the US, but even in New York it is losing visibility. Not only is classical music coverage in newspapers and magazines being cut back, the style of reviews tends to reflect a disturbing interest in packaging rather than content (it is interesting to note that non-American singers are increasingly adapting to what they suppose are American audience expectations). Another example of different taste may be the fate of the musical “Dance of the Vampires”. Highly successful in Vienna, the musical became a mega-flop on Broadway, and not only for reasons of changes in the production.
6) Power language and the culture of youth
"A language is a dialect with an army behind it," is a famous axiom among linguists. In our Internet era, (American) English has become the lingua franca of the globe. Even if the spread of American English is the product of superpower, the fact remains that the American language and, indeed, American culture at large are immensely popular in many parts of the world, including Europe. Apparently, American movies, pop music, teen fashion, and fast food culture are decidedly "cool" or "hot", particularly with youngsters even in the remotest regions of the world (at least where societies have opened up to the American-led mechanisms of the market economy). Why is American mass culture so popular with young people? There is a simple explanation: "America" has always been geared to the future, and so is youth all over the globe. It's a natural meeting of minds. "America" is a culture of youth, where youth, and not old age, clearly sets the tone. This is the logical consequence of the future-oriented American mind and of the unique partnership between freedom, capitalism, and technology that is the basic recipe for American economic and cultural success at the global level. For younger generations all over the world (with the exception of a few countries blocking the inflow of American culture, something ever more difficult in our digital age), showing off American cultural brands has been both an easy way to superficially adopt a worldwide success story and a demonstration of being different from the parents' generations, of breaking away from local cultural traditions. For example: An interesting article about “The ‘Starbucks effect’ in Vienna” (in The Oregonian, December 30, 2002) considered Starbucks “a jarring contrast to the traditional coffeehouse” and focused on the striking lifestyle difference, defining Starbucks as a place to work (with three vital ingredients: schoolbooks, laptops, and cell phones), whereas the traditional Viennese coffeehouse is portrayed first and foremost as a place for melancholy – “to kill time before time kills you.”
7) The human vacuum
While American culture of optimism, cheerfulness, and dynamic looks has all the ingredients for being embraced by young people in Europe in their pursuit of happiness, Europe has yet to come up with an inspiring concept to spark the enthusiasm of the current generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Even if American political hegemony is considered “uncool” by many young people on the old continent (within the entire political spectrum), that critical attitude does not negatively translate into the realm of American popular culture. It cannot be excluded, but is highly unlikely and undesirable that the European “Starbucks generation” will ever get fed up with US policies to the point of boycotting everything “American.” "America" has always kept up the promise of individuality, freedom, and choice. Paradoxically, many standard American cultural products are the exact opposite of individuality, thereby reducing the range of cultural choice and eventually, by way of insistent "soft manipulation," freedom. The question that European young people will have to wake up to is the danger to their cultural diversity. Starbucks coffee tastes great, and you have a long list to choose from. Undoubtedly, there is cultural variety in the store, and yet, it is the same experience all over the world, a clean standard of to-go products. The cheerfulness of the people behind the counter cannot mask the human vacuum behind the very concept! In truth, the American-led model of “benign market technocracy” holds limited benefit for Europe – because America will always be better at the American global capitalist game than Europe, with projections playing entirely into the hands of America: According to a recent study, the median age in the US in 2050 will be 35.4 (a slight increase from what it is now), whereas in Europe it is expected to rise from 37.7 to 52.3! The US will boast a population of 450 million in 2050 whereas Europe’s will stagnate. The saddening conclusion: An aging Europe may find itself on the sidelines. Is Europe doomed to failure?
8) The European condition
(EU-)Europe is still a fragmentary set of identities, its construction depending on respect for diversity of character and attitudes. If even the founding members Italy and Germany cannot avoid picking a fight in 2003, how will integration work after the next and future enlargements? (The New York Times commented on July 13, 2003: “Trash Thy Neighbor: The New Europe Sounds Just Like the Old.”) It will take time to forge European pride in view of existing national vanities – but is a distinct European identity necessary or even desirable? The cultural strength of Europe is both on the traditional and the avant-garde edges of culture. Traditional achievements in the arts - classical music is a case in point - need constant and unrelenting support, in particular when it comes to education. The other major European asset is the cultural avant-garde (or “cutting-edge" culture). Whereas the main focus of American culture and life-style is mainstream branding, Europe's rich cultural diversity makes for a fascinating landscape and point of departure for new ways of cultural thinking and artistic creativity. This does not mean, of course, that America is not producing avant-gardes anymore, but often US artists prefer to do their avant-garde work in Europe. Cultural funding is part of the problem. Private sponsorship of the arts is an important undertaking (and Europe can still learn a lot from the US in that respect), but it rarely serves the avant-garde. Both the traditional and avant-garde edges of culture, as opposed to commercially successful cultural mainstream entertainment, need considerable levels of government funding. Current experience shows that in times of deep deficits, some US states are proposing the most radical solution, i.e. an end to arts spending altogether! Unfortunately, an economic downturn means that private funds, too, are much harder to come by. By maintaining sustainable levels of art funding, many European governments make sure that even in times of recession, traditional cultural achievements are kept alive and fresh ideas continue to flow in the realm of cutting-edge art.
9) A new big idea from old Europe?
America will continue its path of economic and cultural success, and the changes predicted are likely to reinforce its dominance, with the faint thrill of the American dream still attracting people from all over the world in search of a better life. I do not suggest that Europe should not take part in the worldwide game of big business – there is simply no choice in our global village. I do suggest, however, that Europe should not resign itself to just emulating the success of American popular culture. It should devote more energy to the creation of a new vision of its own. There is no more promising turf for developing a visionary cosmopolitan outlook for our new century than EU-led Europe. Aspects of such a new cosmopolitan outlook could later on become attractive to other regions of the world (just as the euro is increasingly seen as an alternative to the US dollar). But any such new cosmopolitan “ideology” has to be successful in Europe in the first place, and it can only succeed there if it builds on the best European qualities, bearing in mind demographic patterns that differ markedly from those in America. Paradoxically, Europe’s much-ridiculed obsession with legal frameworks that decisively shape the culture and civilization in Member States and neighboring regions alike (“combine and conquer”) may turn out to be a key for European success in the longer term. On the basis of its vast internal market (with the next grand enlargement forthcoming!), Europe’s call is to develop a superior socio-economic system without sacrificing the variety, depth, and subtleness of its cultures. It is therefore all the more important that the democratic foundations of the EU legal machinery be significantly strengthened. What could that next big idea shaping a different cosmopolitan outlook be all about? It may be the result of a decade’s brainstorming, and yet some of its ingredients are already pretty clear:
· It has to include a new social contract between current and future generations, respecting also the interests of the young and unborn (crucial in Europe in view of the predicted median age of 52.3).
· It has to focus on the Internet as a basis for enabling women to combine job and family/childcare in hitherto unimagined ways.
· It has to promote the opening of the European mind by marrying the new “art of thinking” by Internet-educated brains with the solid positive aspects of European tradition.
· It has to find smart ways to attract young people to cultural achievements of the past and make them proud of these achievements, without stifling their impetus for the new. (Europe should not repeat the mistake of dismissing the arts as extravagant in today’s schools despite the studies showing parents’ belief that music, dance, and the other arts make their children much better students and better people.)
· It has to uphold active democracy (e.g. by making better use of the Internet) against the spell of “soft manipulation” that tends to bury democratic instincts under mountains of big-media-sponsored mass entertainment.
· It has to translate genuine concern for the environment into more effective policies, both in Europe and for the benefit of the world at large.
· It has to find innovative ways to reach out to the developing parts of the globe.
· It has to fine-tune the effects of the market economy (the immense income gaps seen in the US would undermine the fabrics of European society in the longer term, a problem of particular relevance in the newly-capitalist countries of Eastern Europe).
· Most important and difficult of all, these and other features and tasks have to be embarked on in an entirely novel and imagination-sparking way.
Both the heart of the next big vision and the brilliant thinkers to unfold it have yet to be found. It goes without saying that young and dynamic role models are needed to inspire younger generations in the search of a European cosmopolitan outlook. My hope is that “peaceful economic and cultural competition” between America and Europe will not only prove beneficial to both sides but will also make the global village a better place to live in.
10) Vital Euro-American Partnership
Capitalism has always thrived best in a framework of competition. Europe should not be afraid of cultural competition with America, as long as there is a firm understanding on both sides that they are political partners who have much more to lose than to gain from canceling their alliance. Such competition could unleash positive intellectual and political forces from which both sides of the Atlantic could benefit in the longer term. The more successful a new European cosmopolitan approach gets, the more seriously Europe will be taken in America. In addition to competition, however, the political and institutional contacts should actively promote the re-building of strong Euro-American partnership, including cultural dialogue. Education and reciprocal cultural interest are longer-term keys to fostering a culture of understanding and better communication between politicians and important economic and cultural players on both sides of the Atlantic. Ambitious projects of cultural exchange (such as the new building and programs of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) contribute to making key personalities in different fields better aware of cultural achievements of the other Continent. What matters most right now is to avoid "glob-isolation," i.e. the paradox of basic misunderstanding and resulting "splendid isolation" separating America and Europe in our age of globalization. The American-European partnership must continue to be a cornerstone of Western civilization.