Whose culture is it anyhow? By William Bowles

26 March 2004

Despite a background and involvement in the arts for most of my life, I rarely, if ever write about such things here on I’n’I (although for another side of me, check out the now defunct MusicSA). Well that’s about to change not only because the arts and especially music, are a part of my life but because as the American empire extends its reach, it gobbles up everything in its path (what I call gobbleisation), transforms it into a pale reflection of its origins, spews it out, dumps it and moves on, picking its way through the cultures of our planet like some automaton searching through our lives and leaving behind a vast garbage heap.

Why is this relevant to the events that engulf us? What is now called the creative industries is an intrinsic part of the ‘branding’ of imperialism, not only as part of the propaganda campaign to win our ‘hearts and minds’ but because the corporatisation of culture has taken over virtually every aspect of our collective identities and in doing so, has alienated us from that which is rightfully ours. And as this insidious process creeps across the planet under so-called globalisation, we in the developed world find that we hold much in common with those in the poor world, who in spite of (or maybe because of) the daily struggle to survive, are very much aware of the impact of this ‘new’ imperialism on their cultures. And because of the nature of the revolution in production that now delivers the very stuff of life into corporate hands, its impact on the planet is now so far-reaching that it threatens our very future.

This process has been exposed by the barbaric process of the ‘neo-liberal’ economic agenda that author David Harvey, sums up in part, as follows:

“Biopiracy is rampant and the pillaging of the world’s stockpile of genetic resources is well under way to the benefit of a few large pharmaceutical companies. The escalating depletion of the global environmental commons…and proliferating habitat degradation…have likewise resulted from the wholesale commodification of nature in all its forms. The commodification of cultural forms, histories, and intellectual creativity entails wholesale dispossessions…that has swept the world, indicat[ing] a new wave of ‘enclosing the commons’. – “The New Imperialism”

Culture, in a very real sense cuts to the core of our identities, as people, as our history and as our inspiration. It is the terrain within which we experience the effects of capitalism and its capitalism’s cultural dispossession that is having such a profound impact on all of us, whether of the rich or poor worlds.

And its effects are far-reaching, from an innate and unarticulated dissatisfaction with a consumerist culture, through to a search for a lost past (that seems to be an obsession in the UK as the place gets blanketed with freeways and cathedrals to shopping).

Whether it’s sport, music, fashion, fine art, writing, even education is not spared the process of corporatisation. And of course it’s intimately connected to the neo-liberal/neo-con agenda that seeks to destroy all that is collective in spirit, all that unites us as human beings.

Nuyorican soul
Many years ago in another life, I lived in NYC. One of my companéros in NYC was Nestor Otero, Vietnam vet and an extremely talented visual artist. We collaborated on a number of projects together including an oral history project on the infamous forced migrations of Puerto Ricans to the US that took place in the 1940s. In the mid-late 80s Nestor had his first one-man show in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and Nestor asked me to write an essay for the catalog to which I responded, ‘Why me?’ ‘Write it then we’ll talk about why’ he responded.

So after thinking about it for awhile, I decided that there were two central issues to deal with:

  1. What connected a South London lefty, jewish artist to a Nuyorican artist?
  2. Whose culture is it and how could we reappropriate our ever innovative creative output from the corporate vampires that can only market and distribute but never create?

The two questions are intimately connected and also address the issue of why Nestor asked me to write the essay, for what was it that we shared in common in spite of our very different pasts? How come we could communicate and share experiences that on the surface at least, were so different?

In part, the answer lies in our both being very much the product of the city. It is also because we both have an immigrant ancestry and hence are both ‘strangers in a strange land’. So we ‘belong’ to the city we live in as well carrying with us memories of other worlds, other pasts. That in spite an almost total ignorance of each other’s histories, we could nevertheless connect in very meaningful ways through what it was we shared as creative individuals, thrown together by forces that we now call ‘globalism’.

Central to this issue is the fact that without creative ‘product’, the corporates have nothing as they are incapable of creating. Indeed, the process is inimicable to their very natures. All they can do is appropriate, market and distribute and therein lies their power and our dependence on them.

Though my experiences and Nestor’s were very different, they were united firstly by a similar world-view and by the recognition that we both possessed something unique – our creativity. The issue that confronted us was how to control our creativity without having to do ‘deals’ with the corporate world. The issue of being ‘different’ was of no real consequence, in fact it was our strength.

Since that time, much has changed and much has stayed the same, in fact many of the issues that confronted us back then are now are the forefront of the struggle to regain control over our lives, through reappropriating our cultures. This is something that affects us all, whether nomads of the rain forest or nomads of the metropolis.

What the experience in NYC and later in Africa taught me, was that there is much more that unites than divides us. Without consciously doing so, it was my acceptance of Nestor’s culture and his of mine that was the common meeting point. And increasingly, many people, dissatisfied with a life of consumption are looking elsewhere. Many look backwards, either in nostalgia for a past that probably never existed in the first place. Others seek to create a ‘utopia’ of perfection (eg the various ‘fundamentalisms’ of whatever flavour).

All are expressions of a deep malaise that needs to be addressed by us ‘lefties’ and all those who regard themselves as progressive. Can we produce a viable alternative to the present madness? My experiences of living in different cultures has taught me that we have the power to challenge the imperium, that that is what they are most afraid of. They are not omniscient as the events of the past year prove.

I believe we can defeat the imperium and even though it may be some years from realisation, its seeds are being sown right here and right now.

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