Monday, August 8, 2016

Where Does Culture Come From?

This is a follow-up on the post on Canadian culture of a few days ago. I ended that post with the question:
The question that Canada needs to ask itself is whether art and culture are based on something local and specific, or do they come from some kind of international professionalism?
I've been mulling it over and I think that needs some fleshing out! I meant it to be something of a rhetorical question: of course art and culture come from what is local and specific. But I look at my own life and get very perplexed. I grew up in a traditional folk culture in Canada--where I lived there was nothing else. But then through radio and television I encountered the pop music of the 60s and became an electric guitarist. Later I encountered classical music and became a classical guitarist. The only way I could really excel at that was to study in Spain. So my own life seems to deny that art and culture is local and specific because my particular path was, in effect, a denial of all local and specific influences in favour of ones that came from Europe.

So I think that the reality is that there are three sources or kinds of art and culture: international (that is, stemming from the historic traditions of art and culture--for us in North America that means the cultural traditions of Western Europe), local and specific (those styles and genres that are of a particular region--my mother's fiddle playing or whatever local art tradition exists in your area), and individual, that is coming ultimately from an individual artist. Villa-Lobos, when journalists would ask him about the influence of folk-music on his composition would reply "I am folk-music!" By this he meant that his inspiration fundamentally came from within.

I think that if you look at things from this three-part division, it helps clarify things. There is always an international professionalism at work, influencing not only artists, but also critics and audiences. It is an excessive deference to this that is Canada's basic problem. When someone is chosen to fulfil some sort of administrative or curatorial position in the Canadian arts scene, what their international credentials are, should really be irrelevant. That is, if what Canada wants is to cultivate a uniquely Canadian culture. But that seems not so important to the people that do the hiring. For one thing, I doubt that they are actually able to perceive what a solidly Canadian cultural figure would look like. But international credentials they easily understand.

As I said in the previous post, the most distinctive art and culture in Canada seems to come mostly from Quebec and I attribute that to being completely cut off from France for over a hundred years. This is what led to a uniquely Quebecois voice. English Canada has not had that.

The most important artists are always very individual, but at the same time, they are often the ones who truly awaken the vitality of the local and specific. Just look at what Picasso contributed to our understanding of Spanish culture or Stravinsky to Russian culture. In his case, that was despite spending most of his career outside Russia in France and the US.

Europe poses some interesting problems: the nations of the European Union have been trying to achieve a kind of melding of European culture to go along with the economic and political ties, but I'm not sure that can really work. Perhaps it can: I did see an example of it in Madrid in May when I attended a performance of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron in the Royal Theater. It was a co-production  with the Paris Opera and the production was designed by an Italian. It was sung in German with English and Spanish subtitles. The thing is that this was an example of cultures fruitfully co-existing rather than melding. A good stew has varied and individual ingredients: if not it is just porridge!

Going back to the individual artist, one critic (I think it was either Jorge Luis Borges or Harold Bloom) said that every artist selects his own predecessors and in so doing changes the way we perceive them. We hear Bach a bit differently than his contemporaries would because of all the way that musicians influenced by Bach have changed the way we hear him.

This is the Swingle Singers performing a Bach Fugue in G minor:

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