Friday, June 03, 2005

“Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!”

Or - You Can't Go Home Again

Culture in the Age of Blogging, a Terry Teachout column appearing in Commentary Magazine is informative, insightful, thought-provoking, scary, and affirming, all at the same time. In it, he describes some history, development, and cultural trends of blogs, as experienced by his blog, About Last Night.


This is a blog about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, a diary of Terry's life as a working critic, with additional remarks and reflections by Laura Demanski (otherwise known as Our Girl in Chicago), who is also, among other things, a critic. It’s about all the arts, not just one or two. Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, believed that "in the long run there are only two kinds of art: the good and the bad. This difference cuts across all other differences in art. At the same time, it makes all art one….the experience of art is the same in kind or order despite all differences in works of art themselves." We feel the same way, which is why we write about so many different things. We think many people—maybe most—approach art with a similarly wide-ranging appreciation. By writing each day about our own experiences as consumers and critics, we hope to create a meeting place in cyberspace for arts lovers who are curious, adventurous, and unafraid of the unfamiliar

He explains the theme of the blog, and also why he avoids political issues there. What initially drew me to this article (besides the link so generously provided by Instapundit) was the discussion he has about the culture wars here in the United States, Specifically, the relationship between blogs and those culture wars. He draws these parallels:

Most artblogs, by contrast, cover only one art form—literary fiction, say, or classical music—and thus tend to have a specialized readership. In this respect they resemble political blogs—like Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com/), InstaPundit, and Power Line (http://www.powerlineblog.com/ )—which in turn resemble existing political magazines, being written from a clearly defined point of view. (Daily Kos is left-wing, InstaPundit moderately libertarian, Power Line conservative.) And even as political blogs appear to be read for the most part by people of like sympathies, so most artblogs attract readers interested in the specific form they cover.

As a publishing phenomenon, blogs may strike some observers as reminiscent of a development first observed in the early 60’s, when “niche” magazines began to supplant mass-circulation titles like Life and the Saturday Evening Post. But bloggers are not simply imitating the successful marketing strategies of yesterday’s editors. Rather, their work is indicative of a sea change in American culture, one that has been accelerated in recent years by the web-based information technologies and “new media” that are now an integral part of the lives of most middle-class Americans.

Goodbye, Common Culture

The simplest description of this change is also the starkest one: the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists. In its place, we now have a “balkanized” group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.

The idea of a common American culture is so central to the American idea itself that it was long taken for granted. Just as young people pledged allegiance to the American flag in school each day, so they studied the same historical events, read many of the same books, heard the same popular songs on radio, and watched the same movies and TV programs. No one, whether in or out of school, seriously attempted to deny that our country’s cultural heritage was that of the Judeo-Christian West, and more specifically of what Winston Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples.” Though immigrants from other regions were (mostly) welcomed to our shores, it was assumed that their children, at least, would learn English and adopt Western ways, and so become full-fledged Americans.

At the same time, Western culture remained open to non-Western influence, and America in particular became known for its tendency to absorb immigrant folkways, incorporating them into the common culture and in the process giving them a distinctively American slant. This is the true, now-forgotten meaning of the melting-pot metaphor coined by the playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908: America not only changed its newest citizens, but was changed by them in return. “The real American has not yet arrived,” proclaimed the hero of Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, an idealistic Russian Jew who aspires to compose an “American symphony.” “He is only in the crucible, I tell you—he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman.”

Regardless of his comparison with political blogs, Mr. Teachout's column deals with the Arts (and some say that politics IS an art, not a science). He notes the balkanized groups of subcultures and compares that to the nature of the blogosphere today, as an indicator of overall American culture. As I read this article, I found it difficult to keep in mind that Mr. Teachout was speaking of Art, and mentally expanded his focus into American life in general. His analysis seems to fit admirably.

To be sure, I had not changed my mind about the significance of Western culture, or the dangers of the radical relativism preached by the academics of the 80’s. But something else had happened in the meantime: like a baseball game called on account of rain, America’s culture war was called on account of obsolescence.

“We do not nowadays refute our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them goodbye,” George Santayana wrote in Character and Opinion in the United States. In such manner did Americans, contrary to all expectation, bid goodbye to the common culture that had once united them. Indeed, they seemed almost indifferent to—or unaware of—its collapse

Well spoken. I'm left wondering just how accurate is my extrapolation of his Arts analysis into overall American culture, the life beyond the Arts.

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