February 14, 2011

Does Russia Have A Corner on the Culture Market?

Cultural Diplomacy blogger extraordinaire John Brown visited class last week and gave a very informative and interesting talk about his work as a cultural diplomacy attaché in Russia for over 20 years. He talked a great deal about the Russian love for culture and how it permeates every aspect of their lives, including their government and how that reverent tone does not translate into American culture.

John Brown pointed out that the Russians have a cultural affairs office, whereas this is something that Americans would not be comfortable with. But this is not because Americans do not value culture, John Brown said that culture was an area that Americans would never make into a bureaucracy or institutionalize. I believe this is because culture and government would be like religion and government- the two don’t mix in America.

This isn’t because Americans don’t value culture, I believe it’s a deep reverence that keeps us away from making a cultural affairs office. Government is seen as stuffy, bureaucratic and in most cases a stifling of creativity, which is the very essence of culture. To Americans, to make culture into something governmental would be to debase culture. John Brown alluded to this a little in his talk but I don’t think that he gives Americans enough credit.

While the average American may not know five American opera singers, most of us know a Robert Frost poem or two. When someone says that they have taken the path less traveled, this means something to us and it has become a part of our everyday language and a common metaphor. We value movies, good movies through various award shows from the Sundance Film Festival all the way to the Oscars. We take pride in artistic achievement in the form of hundreds of art museums and galleries (The Philadelphia Museum of Art being my favorite, and I even have a favorite room).

I understand the point that Mr. Brown was trying to make. Indeed more Americans can and should take pride in American culture, but to imply that it does not mean a great deal to those of us who do appreciate it is a huge disservice. Even those who do not care a great deal about culture knows something of American culture as it taught to us a children in school. We all must memorize a poem or two in school and almost everyone has music and art classes.

So while we can learn a lot from the Russian model of culture in every aspect of life, Americans can also take pride in the deep and vast culture of America which is looked to by other countries (including Russia as John Brown noted) for its cultural additions to our world.

N.B. I am only playing devil’s advocate; I am sure John Brown knows the great culture of America and appreciates it. I am just highlighting it in my blog as a service American culture.

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