Monday, March 1, 2010

What Is Western Culture?

The Art Renewal Center website and much of what is written on their forum implicitly asks the question, “What happened to art at the beginning of the twentieth century? To answer that question one must take a wide view because what happened to art is not isolated from the ongoing process of cultural decline we see today in Europe and its far flung outposts.

It is often argued that we are simply witnessing a kind of progress in the form of global free trade and accelerated buying and selling, but if accelerated and expanded trade is a positive influence why does it coincide with the decline of Western culture?

What is Western culture? We know what races of people created the didgeridoo, the geisha and the tipi, but “Western” culture often draws a total blank from Americans and many Europeans. They are likely to mistake the ubiquitous commercial “culture” for Western culture. If they are given the names of Bruckner, Yeats, or Bouguereau nothing registers; and if they are given the names of Mozart, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare they will recognize those, but only in terms of “cultured” elites, not the culture of the people. In other words, the entire product of Western Civilization, particularly the high culture of Europe, is not recognized by its people as belonging to them.

In what sense does culture belong to a people? We understand that Chinese culture is the product of the Chinese and the culture of the Bushman is the product of Bushmen so in that sense it belongs to those who have created it; but when there is a discussion of the culture of the Europeans, naysayers tell us that white people who would think that the culture of the West in any way belongs to them are merely attempting to “take credit” for the genius of others.

Such a reading presents an odd disparity. It suggests that, unlike Japanese or African cultures, the European culture is the product of individual genius, not the product of a people, and that this individual genius appears randomly in fits and starts and taken as a whole represents the sum of Western Civilization.

Civilization requires a critical mass of ordinary people of like mind from which culture and genius are born. There is a reason why, among trillions of people born on earth, a Bach is born in Germany and not in Tierra del Fuego. Hundreds of thousands of years of separation have resulted in the distinctive physical and mental qualities that concentrate in a people. The resulting culture is meant to nurture all who are born into it.

No comments: