by Polar Levine 11/13/01 for popCULTmedia

America, unlike older nations, lacks a deep cultural history. America makes itself up as it goes along and improvisation makes for a fast, lean agile machine. It's no co-incidence that jazz is the first truly American musical form. America's lack of history and ancient tradition frees its people to create technology faster than any other nation and to find needs for technology faster.

The downside of that lack of cultural history is that we have no background for experiencing art as a transformative force. That requires involvement and concentration on the part of the audience. Americans like it fast and easy with laugh tracks to tell us where the funny parts are and musicians who scream so we know they're angry. We like our ballads to build to those predictable bombastic climaxes so we know that this love affair is or was the real thing. Our actors must be pretty or we'll be less likely to want to fuck them -- which is all we're supposed to identify with. In Europe, Gene Hackman would be a cultural icon. In Britain he'd be Sir Gene. In America he just gets a lot of work and good reviews.

Instead of art -- for most of us we have Show Business. Our version of art is entertainment which we sometimes refer to as "the arts." And entertainment is, by its nature, trivial.

Being trivial, governments feel that our public schools' arts budget can be the first to be slashed when the economy tightens. Since sports is considered to be entertainment, it should be no surprise that phys ed is the next area to get the knife. It's also no surprise that Americans are in horrendous physical condition. Reading is important only in so far as it is required for reading text books in school. Fiction and poetry are for the beach and the subway. So goes the library budgets.

In this type of cultural environment -- swiftly becoming the entire world's cultural environment -- the arts are sponsored by corporations which market music, film and literature as units of product.

To combat the trivialization of the arts we need to fight a multi-front campaign of awareness and universal exposure to all forms of expression -- not just the linear mode. And we have to start from the bottom up. Politicians will not see the light unless the people demand something more challenging in their arts consumption than what is readily available. My eight year old likes NSYNC. He also likes Miles Davis, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Celia Cruz, XTC, Bob Marley and the music from "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou." He likes it because he hears it. People will like more varied and expansive creative expression when they're exposed to it in a mundane way, i.e. -- through the same media that exposes them to the familiar and the obvious.

This reform involves expanding the distribution of the arts beyond the corporate realm where the easiest to digest is the quickest seller. It involves spending more time with our kids and augmenting their own listening, viewing and reading inclinations with what we recognize as quality work. Six, Seven and eight year olds can be completely involved in any type of music. They can enjoy and be entranced with films like "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Black Orpheus," "Paper Moon," "Ghengis Blues," the Marx Brothers, "Apollo 13" and so many other "adult" films that are not focused on violence and sex. And so many novels. Media literacy should be taught in all schools so that kids know what it is that politicians, pundits and advertisers are actually saying to them and why the same plot devices kick in at the same time in all Hollywood films.

Whether it's "West Wing" or wrestling or "60 Minutes;" Gillian Welch, Mouse On Mars, Yousou Ndour or Bjork -- if you put it out there enough, the people will come. We're not stupid and definitely not lazy. Just a bit too greedy with too much fire in the belly and not enough fire in the soul.

Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia