Wednesday, August 02, 2006
America does TOO have culture
So there's this popular concept that America is devoid of any real culture. I can see the logic behind this. I mean, our country is barely more than 200 years old. Most other countries have buildings older than we are. And we have this reputation of being tacky, boorish consumerists. Sometimes I fall into the trap myself, and wonder if the best thing we've offered the world is too many years' worth of Frasier.

Spending time in another country really gives you some perspective. Every country has culture, young or old. I've been thinking a lot lately about some of America's contributions.

1. Jazz
We invented it. A lot of people don't like jazz. I personally do, but I can see where it's one of those polarizing things. But like it or not, I think you have to acknowledge that it's important. It wasn't just a new style of music, it was a whole movement. A whole era. Without jazz, would we still have had flappers? Would we still have had F. Scott Fitzgerald? Later on, would we have had the Beat Generation? Think about it, yo.

2. Frank Lloyd Wright
Buildings in harmony with their environment. Dude. This was never seen before and has never been seen since. His style is probably just about as polarizing as jazz... either you think his houses are ugly, or you think they're graceful. I think graceful. What got me thinking about this was, here in England, the houses all seem kind of samey to me. Rows and rows of terraced housing, what we'd call townhouses in America. All of them nearly identical, with only the slightest cosmetic differences.

I'm not saying these houses are ugly (although certainly some of them ARE), just that in the parts of England I've seen, I haven't seen much variety when it comes to where people live. For the most part, people in towns live in these samey terraced houses. Sometimes they have bay windows. Sometimes they don't. But they're all roughly the same size, same shape. I haven't seen very many detached houses (what we in America would just call a 'house', meaning it's not part of a row of connected houses).

And I know that recently in America, the suburbs have become kind of samey, full of those prefab houses. You get whole developments where all the houses are little clones of one another. But you also get neighborhoods full of an amazing variety of architectural styles. Mill houses. Craftsman style houses. Big old rambling houses with wraparound porches or balconies. So yeah, all that got me thinking about American architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright is pretty much the star there.

3. Old Hollywood
Bette Davis. Jimmy Stewart. Tracy & Hepburn. Cary Grant. Joan Crawford. Watch some of their films, it's a whole other world. A far superior world to the one Tom Cruise lives in, that's for sure.

4. Andy Warhol
Personally, I hate Andy Warhol. But I won't get into that right now. Whether or not I hate him, I have to concede that his artwork has achieved iconic status all over the world. It's unmistakeable. That stupid soup can, for example. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of art looks at that soup can and says 'oh yeah, that's Andy Warhol'. And that portrait of Marilyn Monroe that I must admit even I kind of like. His style (I call it 'anyone can stencil', but never mind) is instantly recognizeable. And plenty of people mysteriously accept it as Real Art. So I guess I have to grudgingly say he's made a significant contribution to American culture.

I'll stop here, because it's lunch time, and hunger is affecting my ability to think. Anyway, I just wanted to sort of think out loud.