June 29, 2005
Globalizing high cultureBy Thomas Lifson and A.M. Mora y Leon
When we think of the globalization of culture, why do we tend to think of little more than Britney Spears CDs and Nike shoes? You can make an argument about the merits of these cultural exports, but mass—market consumer entertainment is by and large what gets discussed under the label of the globalization of culture. It is usually regarded as a bad thing. Ask any member of any French cabinet.
But there's another globalization happening, and it's far more mysterious, and less in the public eye. A widely dispersed desire to find the best of the traditional cultures of peoples on the other side of the world. Find it and save it and even use it as part of daily life. High culture is globalizing, too, even as it all too frequently languishes and withers at home.
All too often, you see, trendy postmodern intellectuals reject their own traditional heritage as oppressive and outdated. Or commercial elites do not want to be hobbled by preserving obstacles to new development. Instead, foreign admirers, detached from the currents of contemporary cultural conflict at home, pick up and treasure the enduring and valuable beauty and profundity they joyfully discover and experience as something new, something mind—expanding, and something definitely worth pursuing for its own sake, and because it makes their lives richer. Even as these same cultural artifacts are overlooked, derided, and even scorned in the lands and cultures which gave them birth.
It's as if the barbarians have picked up what the native elites have tossed out.
For example, Europe's elites have collectively turned their back on their Christian heritage. The euro currency contains no images of Christian symbolism, the hundreds of pages of the draft European constitution (rejected by voters in France and Holland) made no reference to Christianity, and church attendance is being dwarfed by mosque attendance in a growing number of places in Europe.
Yet Christianity is thriving and growing in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. South Korea may well become the first Asian nation to become majority Christian since the Philippines was evangelized by the Spanish centuries ago. China's underground churches are quietly growing by leaps and bounds, beyond the purview of official statistics. Africa is home to a large and rapidly—growing tide of believers, as Europe's churches empty out. Ireland finds itself with not enough new Irish priests to serve its parishes, and imports African graduates of Catholic seminaries.
You can see the same basic phenomenon in Western efforts to save Asian art: the beautiful artifacts of Asian civilizations that are routinely bulldozed as scrap in a bid to build more glass skyscrapers in the soaring cities of the Far East. Or giant dams like China's Three Gorges. Today, the artwork of the ancient craftsmen of the Far East is treasured in the West.
But the most mysterious phenomenon of all is in high culture, especially the performing arts. Old and very demanding disciplines that can't be achieved with the purchase of a Mixmaster, and that are thought to be dying out in the West as it computerizes — are surging in Asia.
Why is it that 19th—century cotillion ballroom dancing is an ordinary but extremely popular nightly activity in the only places that can hold them, the cheesy glitter—ball discos of China? The ballrooms of Shenzhen (and Manila) are full of young people dancing as Andrew Jackson or Sara Bernhard or Benjamin Disraeli once danced on those nights.
And why is it that the best Argentine tango dancers can be found in, no kidding, Japan? In the international contests, Japanese couples always places near the top in competitions of this unique cultural fusion dance of Italy and Africa, something that was born in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during their early 20th—century cultural zenith. Open any tango magazine and see.
European classical music is received in much of Asia as the precious gift of human genius, simply the best, most complex, beautiful and satisfying expression of the human will, touch the heart and elevating the soul with sound. Tokyo supports several symphony orchestras, and while American public schools drop music education programs familiarizing youngsters with the classics, South Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese kids dutifully practice their piano and violin lessons by playing the music of the masters as soon as they are able. A glance at the graduating classes at our finest conservatories like Julliard will speak volumes about the future ethnicities populating our best orchestras and concert stages.
Vietnam, after expelling France and then America, eagerly embraces classical music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a choral masterpiece set to Schiller's poem Ode to Joy, is an inescapable part of the end of the year in Japan, widely performed and broadcast. The classical music of Europe's past has become the world's music.
Now EFE reports that Italian opera is taking off in Shanghai, China, with some of the most promising young artists in the world among these Chinese singers. Their achievements were accomplished by self—teaching. Experts note how passionate they are, like Latinos. Or perhaps like the people who spontaneously invented opera. There is no question that Asians are revitalizing truly great performing arts that have fallen into decline in the West.
These are skills that cannot be achieved overnight. They cannot be taught in one year, and in some cases, even ten. They demand the highest disciplines, something well beyond computers. Classical opera! And yet they are embraced in all their difficulty by youthful, motivated Asians, doing this on their own. These opera lovers have no parental encouragement, no teachers, no fancy establishments, and no world recognition — yet. But they have taken up all the old arts and hurled their youthful energies into them and made them new.
It's significant that these are high cultures. And the mastery of one develops intelligence that can be used in any other field. If these are the activities of young people in Asia who are doing this for the sheer pleasure of it, and doing it in large numbers, then this, more than technology or demographics or buying power, are real reasons to think we may be in for an Asian Century. Quite unconsciously, they are adopting what made the West great.
The drive to excel is as fundamental to our natures as the drive to relax. Golbalization works along both pathways.