Some Thoughts on Culture(s)
Boulders and Bones is a 75 minute piece inspired by the works of visual artist, Andy Goldsworthy. I thought the piece was amazing. I am not sure that I have the vocabulary to describe modern dance very well. This is not a story ballet like Cinderella or The Nutracker or even the Rite of Spring. The dancers have great technical control and skill. There were times when the dancers performed without any musical accompaniment and I thought this was an amazing showing of craft. I live in awe of this kind of creativity and the ability to create a 75-minute dance performance inspired by the works of a visual artist. This is not seeking to tell a story but taking one artists work and having two other spheres of performance interact because there was also an original cello composition to go along with Boulders and Bones. To me, this is is the kind creativity that makes humans human.
Over the past week in OT and social media, I’ve issued some complaints on the nature of American culture as compared to stuff that exists in other countries. The first complaint was about my preference for BBC History Documentaries over the stuff that you find on the History Channel or even PBS. I like Ken Burns and American Experience documentaries, which can often be interesting and informative but they are also often very much rooted in narrative fact without much of a thesis and sometimes the presentation can be a bit dry. BBC documentaries often seem to be pitches by British academics to the general British population. Kind of like free open lectures. You can have Mary Beard discussing the daily lives of ordinary Romans during the Empire. Or you can have an academic discussing the history of the domestic service and explaining that she became interested in the field because her great-grandparents were “in the service” and she wanted to expose the reality from idealized fiction like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Or my favorite was about art history, symbols of power, and the French Revolution. Maybe some of these will eventually get broadcast on PBS but not always or usually.
History Channel documentaries are not nearly as intelligent. They tend to focus narrowly on military history and go for a lot of Michael Bay bombast with overly dramatic music, a thurdering narrator, and poorly acted dramatic reenactments. Even when they have academics, there tends to be an issue of going into silliness. I remember a documentary about the Romanovs which started with promise but quickly went into silliness by suggesting there was a prophecy that foretold the birth and reign of Ivan the Terrible. The prophecy was read by a mediocre actor doing a cartoon prophet-priest kind of voice with maximum cackling. Since then, the History Channel has descended into reality shows and complete nonsense about aliens.
The BBC is not completely free of commercial pressure. They do produce a number of popular TV shows like Doctor Who but they are free of enough commercial pressure that they can produce and show documentaries and other stuff that is a bit more high-minded.
Alan Scott rightfully called me out on Sunday for sneering too much against geek culture and I probably did overstate my criticisms of geek culture for the sake of argument and to in order to pick a fight. I am not a complete enemy of the stuff. I do like a good game of Catan or something else every now and then and can and do see superhero movies and enjoy them. I also like some Star Trek and Doctor Who.
My theory is that every cultural subset has its own set of negative stereotypes that keeps it on the defense. The stuff that puts me on the defense is when people say my tastes are not organic or that no one can sincerely like high culture stuff. There does seem to be a common-enough attitude that it is okay to say “No one really likes art movies, literary fiction, modern art, dance, etc. People only say that they like that stuff to SEEM intelligent.” The reason I dislike this kind of line is that there is no way to prove otherwise once someone has this thought or theory. If someone feels like it is truly impossible to enjoy an Edith Wharton novel, a Shostakovich symphony, a modern dance performance, a Richard Serra sculpture, or a Meredith Monk performance, how is one supposed to prove honest and sincere enjoyment?
Geek culture is probably still on the defensive from the time when liking SF and Fantasy marked you as a real social outcast.
There is a popular facebook group called “I fucking love science”. I see a lot of people on facebook share posts from this group. Something has always rubbed me the wrong way about the group. After thinking about it for way too long, I’ve decided what I dislike is the tone of the group. Everything is presented in a tone that feels like it comes from an overly-sugared and overgrown eight-year old. There is no analysis or historical connections being made but just a series of facts presented at maximum speed and hyperbolic “isn’t this the coolest” language. I am not even sure why it is necessary to use Fucking in the name of the group either, what purpose does it serve? A friend of mine pointed out that this kind of childlike wonder might be what helps people be good scientists. He might be correct. The physicist Hans Berthe famously described physicists as being the “Peter Pans of the Human Race.”
This kind of childlike wonder is possibly not what helps people succeed in the arts and humanities. I am interested in more subtle connections like seeing that Edith Wharton’s Julius Beaufort from the Age of Innocence was based on the real life August Belmont (who was the son-in-law of Commodore Matthew Perry who “opened” up Japan for trade). I discovered this independently and was pleased with myself when I made the connection. This is not exactly the kind of stuff that easily translates into clickbait and simple shareable memes for social media. The study of art and history is having the knowledge and vocabulary of what came before to see how it changed those who innovated after. This also exists in science but in a different way.
Perhaps in the end cultural disagreements are about buying and selling and you have different groups acting as buyers and sellers for stuff that the other does not want to purchase- and both groups end up perplexed and scratching their heads while wondering “Why doesn’t he or she want this stuff? It’s great!!!”
Photo: Manuscript of Embers by Samuel Beckett. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.