TCS Daily

The Market for Culture

By John Downen - October 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Commerce spreads culture -- the arts, entertainment, ideas, religious beliefs, etc. -- and I'm grateful it does. Exposure to other cultures enriches our lives, broadens our perspectives, and demonstrates the rich variety of humanity.

But we often hear complaints about
America's so-called "cultural imperialism." McDonald's, Levi's, and Hollywood peddle degenerate American culture to gullible international consumers. Critics insist indigenous cultures must be protected or forever lost.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization claims that "cultural goods and services ... are different from other goods and services, and deserve different and/or exceptional treatment that sets them apart from standardised mass consumption." French President Jacques Chirac has argued that "creative works cannot be reduced to the rank of ordinary merchandise."

Yet the very vitality of the American film, music, and publishing industries makes it obvious that these can be, and indeed are, thought of as "ordinary merchandise." Critics of American cultural exports come off sounding like parents telling their children to eat their spinach because it's good for them. The culture nannies are dismayed that the tastes of the masses don't match their own.

Advocates of cultural protectionism ignore, intentionally or not, the voluntary role of consumers in the popularity of American culture. Disney cannot force Indonesians to watch The Lion King instead of a shadow-puppet play, nor can Warner Bros. require Nigerians to buy Madonna's CDs instead of King Sunny Ade's. One reason American cultural products do well overseas is because people prefer them to the existing options. The French government requires theaters to show at least 60 percent European films. This makes me wonder just how popular these movies really are (though I enjoy many myself).

If cultural consumption is a form of self-expression, then consumers should be free to obtain their cultural products from whomever they please. And if culture is the expression of a people, then let the people -- not politicians and bureaucrats -- decide what it will be. Other arrangements are profoundly anti-democratic.

Those who would manage cultural exchange are deeply conservative. They believe culture should be protected from outside influences. They treat whatever is indigenous as museum exhibits, appreciated but not touched.

But how many indigenous cultures are pure? A July 22 New York
Times article reported on a Javanese dance festival. It was organized to show that native dance forms are alive and well, and not just tourist spectacles. These were ritual dances used to mark important village events. Yet one had been updated with Native American-inspired costumes and steps -- gleaned from 1950s American westerns seen on TV. In fact, many of the "traditional" dances stem from the 19th-century colonial wars of independence, and thus are directly influenced by interaction with Western cultures.

Cultural exchange is not one-way, from the West to the rest. European and American electronic dance music often has strong Middle Eastern and Indian elements.
Montana State University has an orchestra devoted to Indonesian gamelan music. Persian rugs, Hong Kong films, and African music are all popular in the U.S.

Why should cultures not be allowed to change, to interact and "compete" with other nations' expressions? Competition fosters resilience, diversity, and innovation. When government protects or controls a market, quality deteriorates and choices shrink. This applies to both the commercial and cultural realms.

A healthy "marketplace of ideas" encourages debate and the development of new ideas; restricting it leads to dogmatism and the repression of dissent. If culture is "the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group" (per Webster's ), then "protecting" it by government fiat reeks of censorship and propaganda.

Daniel Henninger, in a
Wall Street Journal Wonder Land column, wrote, "Thanks to technology, you can now assemble and live on your own cultural island, far from the hypermass din." For example, an online subscription service called Film Movement gives cinephiles "the freedom to see the year's best foreign and independent films.... At its heart Film Movement is a grassroots movement that joins together filmmakers and film fans." This is the product of entrepreneurs using modern technology in a free market, not government culture ministers applying subsidies and quotas. It is just such private innovators who will ensure the vitality and variety of the world's cultures.


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