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CULTURE [image, unknown] Created by few for sale to many

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New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Issue No. 98 : Editor, Debbie Taylor

Living Images
We may think that we're rich. But the diversity and colour of living cultures in the developing world make us seem poor by comparison. Debbie Taylor warns that by exporting our consumer culture we are depriving the Third World twice over.

Though they could barely stand upright, one of the first acts of homo sapiens was to paint. From France to Kenya, from Peking to Java, smooth rock faces bear the mark of our ancestors' art.

These paintings could not be carried, exchanged or sold. They belonged to the community and were used by the community - as hunting magic, to bring myth and sacred ritual alive, or simply as objects of beauty glowing in the flickering firelight. With early story-telling and singing, the paintings brought a wonderful and frightening world- of death, pain, hunger as well as love, excitement, beauty - within their grasp. Their culture - based on a shared understanding and common beliefs - brought together a community that needed to cooperate to survive.

When people settled in cities their co-operation changed to division of labour, with government of the many by the few. Artists became a favoured caste, inhabiting the inner sanctum with rulers and priests. Paintings, carvings and music were now made for the greater glory of the ruling elite and its gods.

Yet these towering statements of inequality - the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis in Greece, the temples of Cusco in Peru, are all that remain for historians, archaeologists and tourists to admire. Perhaps there was storytelling in the countryside and music in the compounds of slaves that built the monuments, but we will never know. Only the 'pinnacles' of civilisation bear witness to the culture of the past and shape our vision of what real culture should be.

UNESCO - the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - is steeped in this monolithic cultural vision. They support exciting projects like translating world literature and recording African oral traditions.

Nevertheless, much of the $42 million budget allocated for 'Culture and Communication' is spent on conventions, research projects and what has been dubbed 'necrophilia' by one Third World culture expert, referring to UNESCO's obsession with the past - with writing history, financing museums and preserving monuments.

Only UNESCO's infant offspring, the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture, is concerned with supporting living cultural groups. But since it began in 1977 the fund has only managed to spend one fifth of its five million dollar budget. Compared with the estimated $30 million UNESCO raised to move the Temple of Philae from the site of the Aswan dam in Egypt, one million dollars seems a paltry sum.

These skewed priorities - putting tributes to kings before the creations of communities - are not new. By setting artists apart from ordinary people, the earliest civilisations created a dual culture; one awesome and bejewelled for the elite, one scorned or barely acknowledged for the people - those with the time and the heart to enjoy it, that is.

And today in the industrialised world it is much the same. Our system operates with castes of workers, employers and intelligentsia. People dig trenches, assemble plastic toys, add columns of numbers, teach in noisy classrooms, or clean floors - all day, every day. Their lives are suspended as the hours between nine and five crawl by, filled with mind-numbing, exhausting activity. Many are too tired and dispirited when they return home to do anything but eat, drink and watch television. Jobs must be endured so that entertainment can be purchased - not made.

In a divided society where workers work and painters paint, people lose their artistic confidence. Only 'trained' painters, actors, musicians dare to create. A few others attend pottery, drawing, weaving or violin classes. But most merely consume the creations of others; from symphonies and art galleries to pop records and situation comedies. Yet there is no reason why an art-school graduate should be more creative than a barmaid. In China millions of people were encouraged to paint - and millions found that they could.

Throughout history the elite have frowned on the culture of workers and peasants. Chinese peasant prints and ballads were considered 'common stuff' before the Cultural Revolution, and today the products of ordinary people are again viewed with embarrassment by the ruling bureaucracy. In Britain, music hall, bingo and brass bands are all considered unsophisticated and second rate. Country and western music is sneered at in the US for the same reason. The more people become involved in their own culture, the greater becomes their confidence to challenge the assumptions of the divided society. Films of left-wing guerillas in El Salvador show them singing with the villagers at night. Their freedom songs bring soldier and peasant together in a shared purpose and understanding. In the Zimbabwe bush war music was used in the same way. Popular culture in the hands of the people is dangerous. So the elite fight to keep it under control. And the types of control vary from censorship and murder to derision and mass production of the sort of pap that keeps people off the streets. If the intelligentsia are the 'glittering scum on the deep waters of production' as Sir Winston Churchill believed, then many artists are the brightest tinsel in that scum. Thrown up to float freely on the surface, our society grants privilege, suspends censure, and expects to be entertained or enlightened by its artist caste. The masses wait patiently for works of beauty or wisdom. All too often they are disappointed.

There are four small six-inch cubes of stone in the grounds of Southampton University in England. The gardeners have erected a low fence around them to mark the site in case they run them over with their lawnmowers. Carefully chipped by a sculptor of note so that they are not perfect cubes, they cost $2,000. Like emperors with new clothes, the governors of the university feel that they got a good deal - he was such a notable sculptor. The gardeners just shrug and mow round them.

Art has become the art of the elite. Its fashions come and go, and its products change hands for ever-increasing prices in the auction rooms of New York and Zurich - an alien world devoid of meaning to ordinary people.

But individual artists are not to blame. Imagining they are free to create as they please, they are instead made to dangle and dance like puppets to the tune of the investor. As fashions change, artists are trapped in an ever-narrowing quest for novelty, while true self expression becomes a myth. 'I live only to compose' wrote Pierre-Jean de Beranger a popular French songwriter in the early eighteenth century to his patron, 'If you dismiss me, Monseignieur, I shall compose in order to live'. He might have added, 'and my songs will cease to be free creations'.

Theatre offers the widest scope for audience involvement. But just a glance at the seating arrangements - with their lofty tiers and aisles - illustrates how its popular origins have been left behind. The only participation granted to the audience is arhythmic clapping at the end of the performance. In an African village, there is hardly any distinction between perform and audience. Perhaps someone holds the drum that guides the music, and someone else may lead the question-and-answer singing. But everyone joins in the performance - clapping, shouting, chanting, dancing, improvising - taking possession of their song.

A pervasive myth is that our consumer society is free as well as happy. We imagine that we are free to choose our jobs, our houses, our lifestyle. But for most people the choice is between working in a Renault or Ford car factory, living in an identical house on this estate or that, using one brand of toothpaste or another and switching channels on the TV.

Yet this is what the developing world aspires to. Most Third World governments still equate development with modernisation, and what could be more modern, advanced and developed than North America and Europe?

But the West's 'high culture' pedigree goes back only a few generations compared to parts of the Third World. With monstrous Eurocentric arrogance, Kenneth Clark's best selling book and TV series, Civilisation, chronicles the development of world culture since the fall of the Roman Empire 1,500 years ago with barely a reference to Africa, Asia or India. Yet the first book was printed in China 1,100 years ago - 600 years before printing was 'invented' in Europe; Japan's renaissance occurred 600 years before Italy's; and India's great epic poets were writing 1,200 years before Chaucer.

Cultural 'imperialism' has taken its toll. Having imposed one God, derided native traditions, and enslaved local people, the Europeans left the Third World in the hands of people they had fashioned in their own image.

Behind the black masks were white faces and white values - the values of our consumer culture. 'Never before', write Dutch media specialist Cees Hamelink 'has a process of cultural influence proceeded so subtly without any blood being shed, and with the receiving culture thinking it asked for it.' While the ears of Third World city elites are firmly tuned to the cultural messages on Mitsubishi transistor radios and the Pan Am in-flight movie, few ears in the West listen for the music and images of the developing world. Ironically, in an age when communications satellites circle the earth and the technical possibilities for cultural enrichment are the greatest, we are witnessing an impoverishment of culture in the Third World and the West: as the globe shrinks, so does its diversity.

The biggest purveyors of international uniformity are the multinational advertising agencies - and they score the heaviest cultural death toll. The ten largest agencies - nine from the US - account for 28 per cent of global advertisements. And multinational producers of consumer goods - like Proctor and Gamble, General Foods, American Home Products, General Motors, Unilever, Ford, and Colgate-Palmolive - are their ten best customers. In Third World countries 70 per cent of all advertising is controlled by US agencies, and the percentage of transmitting time devoted to adverts in the Third World is three times that in the West.

The 'multinational consumer' in the making. Photo: WHO/P. Almasy
The 'multinational consumer' in the making.
Photo: WHO/
P. Almasy

The multinational companies employ their multinational advertising agencies to produce the multinational consumer. Their ideal bionic man wants biological washing powder, cornflakes for breakfast, American pop-music on his radio, tinned lager, plastic shoes, chocolate, instant coffee, aspirin and toothpaste. He is embarrassed by his village roots and sneers at traditional art and music when he goes home. On festive occasions the gifts he brings from the city are acrylic blankets, plastic beads, perhaps a portable record player. When he visits his family, the men put away their drums and flutes, the women put away their coloured clays and basketwork. And everyone clusters around the record-player to hear The Stranglers in concert.

This is where the greatest damage is done here, where the old world meets the new, and where a new generation trades its rural poverty for another, deeper and more enduring kind of poverty.


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