Year XLIV, 2002, Number 2, Page 69
Culture and Power
The history of the part of the world that dates back to the Greek-Christian mould provides us with a demonstration of the fact that culture — in the most elevated sense of the word — flourishes in places of power, and withers in places that power has abandoned. The clearest examples of this correlation are the decline of science and the arts in the territory of Ancient Greece once the latter, at the close of its historical period as a city-state, had lost its de facto independence (being conquered first by Macedonia and subsequently by Rome); and the general decline of civilisation in Italy following its exclusion from the process of the birth and consolidation of the modern state in Renaissance Europe. It goes without saying that the acquisition and loss of power and cultural growth and decline are not phenomena that occur strictly contemporaneously. The birth, flourishing and death of a culture is a slow process, which presupposes the formation of a cultured society and of a tradition that power cannot create overnight, a process whose inherent inertia allows it to persist even after the power system has changed. This is why Greek culture continued to prevail for a relatively long time even after the Peloponnesian War, which signalled the end of Athens’ power in the Mediterranean; equally, the Italian Renaissance continued bearing its extraordinary fruits well after the invasion of Charles VIII and well after Machiavelli’s dream of unity proved unrealisable; indeed, it lasted, thanks to Papal patronage, even up until seventeenth-century Rome. That said, the above-mentioned correlation does exist: indeed, despite the spread of Greek culture to Rome and all over the empire of Alexander the Great, the geographical territory of Ancient Greece, following the Macedonian and Roman conquests, disappeared from history’s cultural stage for two thousand years, while Italy suffered a similar fate for three centuries. This is a fact of incalculable significance, because culture is the sphere in which the human mind expresses its greatest potential, and because it is culture that renders human life worth living. When a region with great artistic and scientific traditions is reduced to a cultural wasteland, the generations to come are consigned to a destiny characterised by dehumanisation and barbarisation of social coexistence.
We are currently witnessing the unfolding of a similar scenario in Europe, vis-à-vis the United States. Some aspects of it are so obvious that they have become widely acknowledged: first and foremost, there is the case of scientific research, which is in a deplorable state throughout Europe. Thanks to the close political, historical and linguistic ties it has with the United States, Great Britain is a partial exception to this, both in the field of scientific research and in culture generally. It is no secret that a promising young European researcher must either make the painful choice of renouncing his vocation, or be prepared to emigrate to the United States (or, secondarily, to Great Britain). In this way, the states of mainland Europe bear the cost of educating valuable young scientists, only to allow them to produce their scientific fruits on the other side of the Atlantic (where, moreover, secondary schools are in a very sorry state, barely equipped to fulfil their educational function).
This scenario is glaringly obvious in the sphere of popular culture, too, a term that covers the way we dress and eat, the light music we listen to, the films we watch and the language we use in our daily lives. We are referring, of course, to the Americanisation of society, which is a much maligned, but little understood phenomenon. It is to be noted, in this regard, that the danger lies not only in the vulgarity of popular American culture. When a product targets a hundred or more million people, it is very difficult for it to avoid the risk of becoming vulgar, and in any case, our equivalents of certain manifestations of American popular culture far surpass the latter in terms of vulgarity. The real problem is that the phenomenon constitutes a sign of Europe’s growing incapacity to produce culture, an incapacity that crosses the barrier — an increasingly blurred one — between popular culture and culture in the highest sense of the word. Indeed, European countries from time to time present themselves as constituting “cultural exceptions”, but the exceptions that they boast stand out, as a rule, only for their mediocrity.
It is important to recall that the great majority of living artists, and artists recently active, in the field of visual arts, are or have been, active in the United States or Great Britain, countries that boast the biggest modern art galleries (and the leading galleries of art generally), the biggest auction houses, and the largest private collections. The same applies to literature. Writers using the English language have at their disposal a vast potential market and a publishing industry well equipped to meet their requirements, while European writers are discouraged by a suffocatingly small market and by the hazards of translation, which is often arbitrary in the selection of texts, always impossible when it comes to poetry, and imperfect in the case of narrative. New York is the world’s largest laboratory of modern architecture (even though Berlin exerted a considerable — if short-lived — pull in this sector in the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the city became a symbol of German reunification). The world’s greatest theatres, which have the capacity to launch new author after new author and to form and revive great companies and experimental youth companies, are all American and English. The trends we see in the field of natural sciences also emerge in that of the social sciences: the most prestigious schools are all located in the United States (and to an extent in Great Britain), and this is also where the most important journals are published. Indeed, the greatest distinction for a non Anglo-Saxon scholar is to have a contribution published in such a journal. Finally, let us not forget the Internet, a great instrument of cultural diffusion, and the enormous benefit that the Americans derive from their substantial control of it, from their technological superiority, which puts them at an advantage over Europeans, and from the resulting higher quality of their sites. The only partial exceptions to this general process of European cultural impoverishment that can perhaps be advanced, are those of classical music and historiography: the first because it is inevitably and inextricably bound up with the continuous reinterpretation of great works of the past, and the second because it is stimulated and facilitated by the fact that, up to the middle of the twentieth century, Europe was the stage for most of the events that gave rise to modern Western culture and constitutes the richest deposit of documentation through which these events can be studied.
But America (and, up to a point, Great Britain) is more than just the ‘promised land’ of immigrating artists and men of culture. It is also a great importer of cultural wealth. While European governments and private collectors are busily selling off their cultural and artistic heritage in an attempt to ‘balance their books’, the United States and Great Britain are amassing more and more cultural wealth through their constant and sizeable purchases. In this way, the immeasurable artistic heritage that Europe acquired over its long history is, as a result of an inability to hold on to it and to manage it effectively, being progressively eroded to the advantage of the Anglo-Saxon world, in rather the same way as that of other civilisations, now declined or defunct (Italian, Egyptian, Assyro-Babylonian, and Greek), were plundered by the great European monarchies.
This does not mean that the American cultural world is a land made up only, or prevalently, of valuable artists and men of culture, while Europe has been left entirely devoid of such individuals. With the spotlight constantly trained on America (and to an extent Great Britain), charlatans and lightweights in these countries are often undeservedly attributed greatness; on the other hand, the difficulties of working in Europe, out of the spotlight and in the midst of a thousand difficulties, can favour the development, albeit often unacknowledged, of real talent. But the existence of this clear trend towards cultural transmigration to the United States (and to a lesser degree to Britain) is undeniable: the impetus that public and private patronage in these countries has given to the instruments of cultural creation and diffusion has created a community that often places fakes on a par with the truly talented, but also a climate in which the latter nevertheless enjoy encouragement and real stimulation.
When national, regional and local governments, and their agencies, issue commissions, particularly in the sectors of architecture and sculpture, power can clearly be seen to be influencing culture. But this influence also extends to their capacity to create the conditions needed for an extension and strengthening of what we might define the culture market. Culture, and art in particular, needs both a vast audience, cultured and rich, which appreciates and purchases its products, and an environment that provides stimulation, offering models and suggestions and creating links between, and highlighting the creativity of, those that produce culture, in a situation that can be likened to that created in Paris, Vienna and Berlin prior to the advent of Nazism, or around the outbreak of the Second World War. Power thus needs not only to promote the diffusion of wealth, but also to encourage the creation of the institutions (libraries, galleries, theatres, orchestras) that make it possible to bring together, in a true community, producers and enjoyers of culture and art, to encourage patronage and to abolish, through coherent legislation, all barriers to the circulation of cultural products. It is, in any case, necessary that the society concerned produces a surplus that, through public initiative or private patronage (the latter nevertheless being in the public interest), can be channelled into the promotion of culture. The fact is that this kind of surplus is currently being produced by the economy of the last remaining world power, America, and to a lesser extent by its satellite, Great Britain. On the other hand, the strangled economies of the states of mainland Europe, conditioned by their division to adopt a deflationary policy that does not leave room for initiatives designed to encourage research and creativity, are not producing such a surplus at all.
Clearly, and it is worth repeating this point, this does not exclude the existence of isolated exceptions, great spirits for whom cultural development is a wholly interior process. But they are, indeed, exceptions. It is no coincidence that culture tends to concentrate in places that produce and attract, from all over the world, writers and artists. And today, the states of mainland Europe no longer offer a public large enough to allow their capital cities to become leading centres of scientific and artistic development exercising a strong power of attraction.
Language is undoubtedly an important vehicle for the formation of a cultural market and environment. The existence of a common language constitutes a humus that is crucial for the germination and spread of new experiences, even in those cultural expressions that do not use the vehicle of language directly. But language is not a neutral factor, unrelated to power. It follows power and spreads in a measure commensurate with the sphere of influence of the country (or of one of the countries) in which it is spoken as the mother tongue. The present domination of English is simply a result of the United States’ domination in the world.
But beyond these factors, which are ultimately of a material nature, a decisive role is played by the spiritual vigour that is always present among peoples whose power is on the increase, and by the spiritual feebleness that characterises peoples unable to unite in a body politic capable of dealing with the problems of their era, and whom power has abandoned. This brings us to the crucial importance, for a flourishing of culture, of a political community bound together by a strong sense of solidarity based in part, if not only, on an awareness of its responsibilities towards the rest of the world or, in the past, towards that part of the world that was known to it. It must not be forgotten that the roots of music, dance, poetry and theatre all lie in the festivals that periodically drew primitive communities together and provided their members with a means of strengthening the bonds that united them. In the great civilisations of today, the idea of citizens taking part periodically in great collective performances, in which each and every participant is both a creator and a spectator, is beyond the bounds of imagination. But this is not the reason for the loosening of the, albeit changing, ties between culture and community. Even though it remains true that culture goes on existing long after the development of a people has reached its height and begun to decay, it is also true that the periods of the most intense cultural activity have been those in which the protagonists of this activity were aware of being creators for a community that has a role to play and a mission to carry out in the world. In America (and in Great Britain to an extent) an awareness of such a role does exist, however much one might be inclined to criticise the manifestations of it. In the crumbling states of mainland Europe, on the other hand, no awareness of such a role exists, for the simple reason that the European states no longer have a role to play.
To this a final consideration can be added, which is by no means the least important. It is precisely because culture needs an audience that its creations need to be exhibited, produced, and published in places that attract the attention of the whole of mankind. And these places are, first and foremost, the places where power is exercised, where the decisions are taken that shape the destiny of each and everyone of us.
The present cultural flowering of the United States is certainly not without its dark side. America is a young country, which has the vitality, but also, in many aspects of its civil life, the rough edges of youth. Added to this, it has paid a high price, in political and economic terms, for its prolonged exercising of responsibility towards the rest of the world, both before and after the end of the Cold War. The current power of the United States is, at once, imposing and fragile. It is questioned in practically all the parts of the world where it is exercised, as well as within the US itself, and its affirmation is based almost exclusively on military might rather than on concurrence of the interests of the hegemonic power with those of its allies and satellites. This cannot fail to have repercussions in the cultural sphere, within which America’s affirmed supremacy is in any case contested; and the quality of its cultural output is negatively conditioned by the fact that it is, to an extent, used to serve the designs of an often brutal power that, on the whole, is not up to its responsibilities. America’s hegemony is inevitably accompanied by nationalistic and imperialistic tendencies that result in serious lapses of objectivity and of taste. This does not alter the fact that America’s supremacy, however lukewarm the support it receives from those who are subject to it, is destined to last for as long as there is no prospect of an alternative world equilibrium, an equilibrium in which new centres of power support the United States in seeking to guarantee a more peaceful world order, based on consensus and collaboration. Far from undermining American power, this new equilibrium would strengthen it, as well as that of the new centres, and give it a firmer foundation. But until this happens, America’s domination of culture, however much this is based on canons and models partly adulterated by an extreme imbalance of power, will not only persist, but also grow increasingly marked.
The fact remains that the United States’ cultural predominance, due to the conditions in which this is brought to bear, does not make up for the decline of European culture and signals the start of a period of global cultural impoverishment. To reverse this trend, culture in the United States will have to regain its freedom, and stop being conditioned by a struggling power and by the ideology that this power uses as the foundation of its relations with its citizens, while culture in Europe, with its 2,500-year-long history of scientific, artistic and philosophical evolution, will have to undergo the rebirth that will enable it to make a decisive contribution to the civil enhancement of mankind. There can be no doubt that responsibility for this epoch-making change rests not with the United States, but with Europe, whose hopes of regaining its lost power, of once more assuming its rightful responsibilities at world level and thus of creating the political conditions for its cultural renaissance, depend on its capacity to achieve its own political unification. It can thus be noted that this is not a question of stirring up old eurocentric ideas, or of establishing some kind of cultural hierarchy. The fresh launch of Europe as a cultural centre would inevitably stimulate the cultural rebirth of other areas, too — China, the Islamic world, India — all of which have a history every bit as ancient and glorious as that of Europe, and all of which might be prompted by the European example to create the conditions needed for their own renaissance and inclusion in the process leading to the evolution of a world culture.