August 9th, 2005


Beauty Week 6: Global and local

Here's artist and musician Jarboe (quoted on the excellent Peripherus Max blog): "Why does anyone in the age of internet technology and also readily available physical travel define themselves as a one town artist, or an artist from/in a particular place? I am a GLOBAL artist. Yes, I resided in the belly of the beast, NYC, for many years but I also travel and have traveled extensively for my work as an artist for 21 + years. If anyone has their head in a dark space, it is any artist who views themselves as pertaining to one small place in this world. No matter what the name of that place may be. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

This question of whether art (and by extension beauty) is global or local is one that concerns me. In some ways I feel like a global artist, having worked in London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Tokyo and so on. In others, I feel like I'm basically a storyteller, tied to the English language, and that my "art" works only where English is spoken. Even my activities in visual art venues are really just an extension of what I've always done, which is language art, storytelling. That relies heavily on English, which in turn limits my career to places where English is spoken. I'm also politically troubled by the idea of English as an international lingua franca. I'm a cultural relativist and proud of it, and I want to see cultural diversity and difference preserved, including linguistic difference. I'm also not such a fan of capitalism that I think the free market looks after everything in the best interests of diversity and cultural preservation. There's an interesting passage on David Byrne's blog journal Don't Call It A Blog in which he talks about finding out that Talking Heads' "Burning Down The House" had been supported by payola, and how realizing that systematic bribes of "cash, coke and women" controlled the radio he'd grown up with made him question his whole identity:

"I wondered if every pop song that had moved me on the radio, from when I was in my teens, had been paid for. Oh jeez! Therefore, other than a few free-form stations around at that time I was being treated like a Pavlovian dog — what I had believed were my subjective passions and discoveries were actually the result of a concerted program to pound certain tunes into my innocent brain. I had been totally manipulated! What I thought were decisions and loves that were mine and mine alone had been planted in my head by sleazy characters I could barely imagine. Free will? Hah! My entire past was called into question. Who am I? Am I not partly what I like? And if those things I like were not completely of my own choosing, then what am I?"

Byrne's identity crisis is really just an individual consumer waking up to something economist J.K.Galbraith puts like this: "The modern industrial society, or that part of it which is composed of the large corporations, is in all essentials a planned economy. By that I mean that production decisions are taken not in response to consumer demand as expressed in the market, rather, they are taken by producers."

If Galbraith is right that consumer economies are just as "planned" as anything decreed by government bureaus, why should we object to governments intervening in cultural markets to protect the local language and preserve cultural diversity? This is a debate that's been going on in France for ten years, but is only now becoming a hot issue here in Germany. It was in 1996 that Jacques Toubon, France's Culture Minister, imposed language quotas on French radio:

"In 1996, when the culture minister of the time, Jacques Toubon, decreed that French radio must devote at least 4 per cent of its airplay to French-language pop music, with 20 per cent consisting of new French music, the loi Toubon became the definitive statement of French anxiety about the impact of the US on French identity. On the radio, la chanson française was in, and anything remotely resembling British rock or American R&B was out. The law was adjusted slightly in 2000, in response to complaints from radio stations, and the percentage breakdown between non-French music, French music and new French talent now varies, depending on whether you are an adult radio station, an adult/youth station or a youth station. Essentially, though, it serves the same purpose: to protect French heritage and nurture French culture."

In 2004, the same debate (and Jacques Toubon too) hit Germany, as Deutsche-Welle reported:

"Music industry officials estimate that only 10 percent of German radio's play lists is sung in German, falling way short of France, Italy and Spain's 50 percent native language ratio. That's why a chorus of music industry leaders have gone to the German parliament to sing the praises of a law, like France's, which would make sure their sound keeps getting pumped around the nation. However, the government is cautious... the public stations, naturally, don't want to be told what to do."

"Over 500 artists signed a plea against what they dubbed "scandalous under-representation" of German-speaking artists in a radio format carved out of "the Anglo-American mainstream and the usual oldies." Supporting them was Jacques Toubon, former French culture minister, brainchild of France's quota. He told the parliamentary committee that thanks to his law, French music sales have picked up and new French artists are no longer trees falling in the forest that nobody hears."

Marxy tells me that in Japan "the charts are pretty much all Japanese music, but the market is like 80-20 or maybe 70-30 Japanese/Int'l at this point" and that "the Japanese pop market changed from primarily Western to primarily Japanese in 1967, which is a pretty good marker for when Japanese "pop culture" really started to move."

I think I resolve this question of whether art should be global or local with an "and/and" answer. The more you travel, the more you actually want places to have a local flavour. Why else bother even going to the airport? Stay-at-homes have an interest in the local becoming international, so that they can experience exoticism without the hassle of travelling (going to their local foodcourt, say, or surfing the internet). But travellers want the foreign to remain relatively foreign.

But I also think that the synthetic way people represent their local cultures to others is the way they increasingly view themselves: cultural self-consciousness is a result of exposure to the Other; The Japanese are almost Japanese. And I rather enjoy the trend of the last few decades for things like US culture and the English language to be replaced, in the privileged position of "the designated particular that represents the universal", by each country's own narcissistic, alienated, rebranded, plasticized, other-directed, self-image. An export (or "American-friendly") version of our own culture is made to stand, instead of America itself, for "the universal". Instead of trying to "be America" we are all now trying to see ourselves as America sees us, which in many cases (including the enemies of America) means constructing ourselves as "the Other" and consuming our own culture as virtual strangers. I think this applies to Japan as much as it applies to Islamic fundamentalism.

We're all different and that difference is always beautiful... if we're at peace. The world is at peace right now, isn't it? Oh, okay, it's not. Back to the idea of "my nation's values are better, more advanced and more universal than yours'," I guess.