How about a week without American culture?

The worst fears of many about a Trump presidency are coming to fruition, especially with the implementation of the federal orders banning entry to anyone from born in one of seven Muslim countries (though not the worst, like Saudi Arabia or some of the Gulf states, with strong business links), or who holds dual nationality. Not to mention the ongoing plans for the Mexican Wall. And Britain’s excuse for a Prime Minister has offered Trump a full state visit, before tootling off to sign a lucrative arms deal with another dictator, President Erdoğan of Turkey. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…..

But getting angry may not achieve anything, least of all convince the millions of Americans who strongly support Trump’s actions, and previously have shown ferocious support for capital punishment, horrendous rates of incarceration of those convicted of petty offences, an insane gun culture which causes annually over 10 000 more deaths of Americans (at the hands of other Americans) than any other cause, use of gas-guzzling cars for small journeys and contempt for the very idea of climate change, not to mention neo-imperial military action against many other countries who are not necessarily compliant towards the US.

The issue is, to me, why we continue to legitimise a tacit view which assumes that the United States stands at the centre of the world, but only economically and militarily (both of which might be able to be shown with some degree of objectivity), but in cultural and intellectual terms too?

With this in mind, I have a proposal, which I will implement in a hard-line form for the duration of February, and recommend to others in milder manifestations. How about, first of all, going a week without partaking of any culture produced in the US? I do not want to limit this in terms of ethnicity, allegiance, ideology, and so on, simply down to where it was produced, as far as this can be ascertained fairly. So, just put on hold for now, any novel, poem or play from an American writer, any music produced by American musicians, any American visual art, any American films or TV, and so on. Then see how many times this becomes an issue, and this may give some indication of the extent to which your cultural habits are dominated by US culture. Try and make a point of seeking out something from elsewhere instead. For example:

  • If you were going to watch South Park or Family Guy, how about looking into some comedy and animation from elsewhere? There has been loads of such work from Eastern Europe over an extended period – this blog should give some pointers.
  • If you were going to listen to any African-American popular music, how about trying something from one of the 54 countries in Africa instead (or by African diaspora communities in countries other than the USA)? Try some of the work of Afrisa, or Prince Nico Mbarga, Hugh Masekela or King Sunny Ade, just to take a few of the most obvious examples?
  • If planning to listen to American minimalist music, how about trying some non-American alternatives? For example, the work of Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Pärt, Karel Goeyvaerts or others? Some might dispute the use of the term ‘minimalist’ for some of these, but assertions of unity amongst even the classic American ‘minimalists’ look less and less tenable all the time. Nyman himself just today pointed out to me that when he coined the term ‘minimal music’, it was when reviewing a performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968 of Springen by Danish composer Henning Christiansen, played by Charlotte Moorman (US) and Nam June Paik (Korea, moved to US in mid-30s).
  • If planning to watch an American film, think of the many other countries with such important film industries as well, and how about watching an Italian, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Nigerian or Argentinian film instead? From these and many many other countries, there is a vast amount to see, of all types. Just avoid the easy option of watching one of the usual blockbusters, and seek out something different.
  • Post-1945 American art is endlessly celebrated and anthologised – why not check out what was being produced in France, Sweden, Italy, Japan, during the same period?

And so on and so forth. I intend to do this for the whole of February, but my suggestion to others is this – try doing it for a week, and then the following week, limit US culture to no more than a third of what you watch/read/listen to/etc (which is still a huge percentage), and stick to that for the rest of the month. Do this for the sake of diversity and to challenge the notion that the country which now has Trump as President, and refuses entry to millions of people of Muslim origin, should continue to exert cultural hegemony as well.

This is not kneejerk anti-Americanism – I have in my office at work hefty volumes of poetry of William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff which I had hoped to get round to soon, but they can wait. Instead, I will have a read of the new volume of the poetry of Basil Bunting which I received recently. I will have some works of John Cage and Morton Feldman to practice in advance of a concert in Oxford in early March, but as far as listening more widely to these, I have spent vast amounts of time before – I would sooner spend more on Franco Evangelisti or Henri Pousseur or Bent Sørensen or Yuji Takahashi. And lots and lots of recordings of Sardinian, Iraqi and Japanese traditional musics on which I’d like to spend more time. And films I have and have been meaning to watch from Dziga Vertov, René Clair, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dušan Makavejev, Zhang Yimou, Abbas Kiarostami, Nagisa Oshima. And many others which are lighter fare. Sam Fuller, David Lynch, Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger, Sidney Lumet and John Cassavetes can wait, great though they all are.

An further, an invitation: do leave a comment here with recommendations, of any period, genre or whatever, of any type of books, plays, films, music, art, etc., from all the other countries in the world. Imagine, as John Cage said, that the US is just one country in the world, no more, no less.

None of this will stop Trump, for sure, nor is it a substitute for pressing political action. But just perhaps, if a great many made a conscious effort in this respect, the hegemonic power of the United States in general upon people’s minds might be diminished and become more proportionate to its undoubted cultural achievements.

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10 Comments on “How about a week without American culture?”

  1. artmanjosephgrech says:

    The democratically elected President of the United States has made the potentially most damaging political decision on behalf of his country during my lifetime and compares and should be compared with President Kennedy going to Berlin and declaring we are all Berliners now. Presumably the USA President will soon order the removal of the Statue of Liberty which welcomed the majority of USA ancestors for several hundred years. The failure of our Prime Minister to make an immediate condemnation when being asked what she thought about the ban three times is likely to haunt her all the way to an early general election although given the rise of the fascist right and racism here a General Election is something we should at present fear as we face the spectacle of a State visit having to cope with the biggest political demonstrations since those in relation to the Iraq War. At least the PM might think twice before saying she would launching a Trident missiles with its faulty control system which appears more likely to land on friend than foe.

  2. I could hardly sympathise more with the sentiments that you express here and I am confident that hundreds of thousands if not millions across the globe would likewise concur with them. However, not only are you sadly correct in nothing that “none of this will stop Trump, for sure, nor is it a substitute for pressing political action”, it is also the case that one reason for that lack of impact is that Trump and his immediate henchpersons do not give a tuppenny damn – or even a one cent one – for the cultural life of America and consequently would not even notice, as it all too evident, for example, from his avowed intent to wind up the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Indeed, were his attention to be drawn to such protest action, he would doubtless tweet that he welcomes and applauds it.

    In a so-called democratic country, however, no one is above the law, including its leader (be that a president, prime minister, monarch or whoever else) even if he/she pretends to be so or conducts him/herself as though he/she is so; it therefore remains to be seen whether and to what extent the legal and judicial systems in US, along with such organisations as Amnesty International and even UN, might or might not be prepared to go along with the Madness of King Trump and, in the meantime, those of us who care about the cultural life of America and indeed about humanity in general can only wait in hope for the possibility of the implosion of the nouveau régime.

    “Wo die schönen Trumpeten blasen”, indeed; “The Trump it shall no longer sound” would be more in keeping with the maintenance of sanity, methinks…

  3. Reblogged this on Buried News and commented:
    We are the 51st state only politicians & BBC on this side of the water still think Parliament is the centre of the world.

  4. operacat says:

    Well Michael Nyman is a pretentious poseur, but I take your general point about non-American composers.And it certainly isn’t difficult to avoid watching American films, I hardly ever watch them.

  5. Andy Olson says:

    Caveat: I am American. The rise of Trump’s lowest-common-denominator politics has inspired in me to delight in high American culture, rather than spurn it. Partially this is simply a desire to patronize it in a regime which appears to be gathering its forces to make for cultural war, but also this to me is something of an act of dissent, given the cultural values of Donald Trump and his ilk. It would be well I think to remember that more people dislike Donald Trump in the US than like him and that number skyrockets in the culture industries. I don’t like this idea because it seems to be punishing those who dissent with Trump for his actions.

  6. Agreed, Ian (I suggested a year off American culture in a manifesto for Radio Revolten in October). If nothing else, a good corrective to the British tendency instinctively to approve of all things American, swallowed hook, line and sinker. Hard to do, though: I am obliged to take my 12 year old to see Rogue One; have to teach students about La Monte Young and Cage; like to ponder the lyrics and life of Phil Ochs; and want to read James Sallis. Recommendations: Les Quatre Cents Coups; La Vie Mode d’Emploi; Eisler – endless pleasures out there, too many really, looking east.

    • “the British tendency instinctively to approve of all things American, swallowed hook, line and sinker”…

      Is there really such a tendency? If so, what practical evidence do you have for its existence and prevalence? And do you perceive Ian’s suggestion as being directed only at Brits in UK?

      I know that we’re not only talking music here, but I have little doubt that there are plenty of people who approve of certain works of Cage, Young, Riley, Feldman, Adams et al and disapprove of some of those of Sessions, Carter and so on or vice versa or any other positive and negative responses anyone cares to mention, none of whom would appear to subscribe to so constricted and all-embracing a “tendency”!

  7. Jim Bean says:

    “How about a week without American culture?”

    Yes how about that, Ian? Just think of it:
    A week without WordPress, Google, Twitter (all US companies), without the Internet (dating back to a commissioning by the United States federal government in the 1960s).

    You can then indulge in all the Ferneyhough that you want! Oh wait… he’s been “aquired” by US Stanford culture….

    • artmanjosephgrech says:

      On my way home this morning I was listening to radio programme about Corbett and his rural rides in which he encountered a woman who throughout hr long life had no made a journey of more than two and a half miles and who have knowledge, wisdom and was happy in her own skin and community. I am so reminded of a female friend atheist who visited me when at Oxford and insisted on going to Sunday Service at Christ Church with the comment why should the devil have all the best tunes!

  8. […] How about a week without American culture? (29/1/17) […]


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