Saturday, November 20, 2004

I'm Always the Last to the Party

Okay, so I'm 2.5 years late to this. Nevertheless, it deserves recognition of its own.

The cosmetics thing at the beginning - i'm sure my unimaginative office neighbors would see this as western cultural imperialism, or false consciousness or SOME shit, but that just means they don't read enough. Prettification is a truly universal human instinct, for all genders - and only Viva La Muerte! a/o Akbar! psychos (and now, apparently, their v. special confluence, the ba'ath [who by the way have metastasized to Paris - c'est apropos, non?] would try to stamp it out.

Now, Aerik and others will surely object that this has nothing to do with Iraq.
And for large parts of the country you may be right. But Fallujah was apparently a Revlon-free zone as well.

"How depressing was it," asked Anna Quindlen in a December Newsweek column, "to see Afghan citizens celebrating the end of tyranny by buying consumer electronics?" Apparently, if you’re somebody like Quindlen -- who confessed in the same column that "I have everything I could want, and then some" -- the spectacle was pretty dispiriting. Liberty itself descends on the land, and the best thing its people can do is go shopping? It was just too vulgar.

Read ze 'ole, 'ow you zay, 'zing?


Okay, one more bite. Now go read it.

What, then, is the appropriate cultural path to democracy? Barber told the Post that if the U.S. must export culture it should at least export its "best." There’s an obvious problem with the list Barber offers, since many of his examples of cultural quality -- jazz, novels, Broadway theater -- were themselves assailed as intolerably vulgar by contemporary critics who were disgusted at their appearance. But Barber surely realizes that, so we can assume he’s getting at something else. He’s singing in praise of culture that doesn’t pander, of culture that teaches and leaves us thinking, of visionary art that lifts us morally and makes us better by challenging us. In short, he’s a champion of what might be called contemplative art. That is not an art of commerce; it is an art of patronage, of enlightened taste. If you can imagine those Afghan video smugglers loading their mules with fewer copies of Titanic and more dubs of PBS programs, then you can imagine Western liberal critics being more optimistic about the prospects for Central Asian democracy.

Is Barber right? He is about one thing: The issue here is taste. But taste in this case has nothing at all to do with perceived quality. To approach it that way is to run an endless round of Hell’s nine circles, only to arrive back at oneself. Thus Barber concludes that what the world should do now is attend his favorite plays.



The point of the various musical countercultures under the Soviets was not simply to hear music. What the authorities never understood, and what many cultural critics in the West similarly don’t understand, is that the fans who inhabit such "vulgar" and disruptive subcultures are not being exploited. It is the fans who are using both the music scene and the paraphernalia that surrounds it for their own expressive purposes. If there is no one to sell them the paraphernalia -- the clothes, the imagery, the recordings -- then the members of these subcultures will not go without it. They will create it themselves.

There was simply no way for the Soviet system to come to terms with this and remain true to its authoritarianism. In the end, it wasn’t the musical subcultures that were delegitimized but Soviet authority. The inability of such a system to allow its citizens to construct their own cultural identities -- that is, to meet their "consumer demands" -- was a major factor in robbing communism of credibility among its own populations.

Isn't that inevitable in Iran etc. also?


Blogger Nettie said...

Interesting commentary...

10:51 PM  

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