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Multi-Culturalism And America In The 21st Century

Updated on July 22, 2014

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What Is Culture, really?

Culture is infinitely complex, and the influence that art renders upon each country's culture in each time period is something that will always be in the process of dynamic change. Recently, with the advent of technology, American society and culture have shifted a lot in only a recent amount of time. Our economy dictates art now more than ever before. While in the past, artistic standards were maintained in a more by systems of aristocracy and tradition, the current age opens the flood gates and changes the motives of many. The bottom line has become what can be best marketed, what will sell, and what will be most cost-effective. At least, this is the trend. Many creative purists still hold fast to the standards of art critics and historians across time, to the traditions from which visual, oral, and literary genres came in the development of thought and culture in Western society. However, these changes are inevitable. Nothing can stay the same forever. And while many may believe that our mainstream media is destroying the quality of creativity in the name of mass production, the shifts in the current socio-economics of America have also opened up opportunities for artistic enterprise in ways that previously did not exist. Given that the variables are too numerous for one to be capable of deducing absolute certainties, it is the purpose of this paper to show how art and culture are intrinsically interconnected and that the changes in art movements now occurring in America will ultimately prove to have a positive impact on society.

It is a general sentiment that artists are by nature non-conformists, people who think and process things differently. That being the case, many artists revolt against any attempt by others to quantify or qualify the value of their art or of art itself. However, the current range of diversity in art is larger than ever. In times of less prosperity and industrial abundance, art was confined to the fundamental art forms --- literature, performances of music and theater, and visual art. Now, the forms have increased exponentially; the market has widened. The underlying force behind creativity, passion, is something that is experienced collectively as well as individually. As the philosopher Denis de Rougemont (1956) once noted,

And a Nation requires that passion shall be translated to the people as a whole (260).

The taste of many is not the taste of all, and in the country of free speech and choice, Americans love to constantly challenge each other's opinion, to the point of perpetual gridlock often occurring in the houses of government. All that said, attempts continue to be made by many to maintain the traditions and standards of artistic quality in the face of an out-of-control international economy and an era of globalized, capitalistic anarchy.

However, it is also the age of statistics and empirical justification, documentation and a hyper-medicalized system of psychology and pharmaceuticals. In 1991, two psychologists, Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart, attempted to compile the research done on the nature of creativity and deduce some empirically-based conclusions. These conclusions ultimately sided like one would expect: with artistic traditions and the standards of the academy. Yet their observations and conclusions demand to be taken seriously, and they also could be applied in a more universal sense as we move deeper into the 21st century. On such universally applicable conclusion they came to was:

....(d)eeply believe in the value and importance of your creative work; do not let others discourage you or dissuade you from pursuing your work. On the other hand, you should constantly monitor and criticize your own work, seeking always to improve it.

Likewise, Bill Cosby is noted for saying, "I don't know the secret to success, but I know the secret to failure: try to please everyone." (magazine article). As an actor and creative person he obviously recognized the value of sticking true to your own self-confidence in the face of criticism and disapproval that would inevitably descend on one's work much more than one would like. Obviously, with research on the common traits of successful artists across time, Sternberg and Lumbart could deduce this as a common, essential characteristic. At the same time, these scholars saw the necessity of self-criticism to enable creative progress. Confidence without self-criticism is merely vanity, and self-criticism without confidence results in demoralization and shame, making creative expressions forever stifled.

On the other hand, many of this research pointed towards standards of art. The psychologists no doubt defined creativity as merely the output of form, but the output of a specific quality of form and meaningful substance. They noted that "multiple individual and environmental factors must converge for creativity to occur" (Sternberg 363). Likewise, one of the steps necessary for creativity was

(u)se the processes, such as seeing analogies, that characterize insight, as well as divergent-thinking processes (mentioned previously). At the same time, realize that creative work always takes tradition into account, even if it is to disagree with it.

Using a table, the authors detail the different dimensions of the argument of competing viewpoints in order to come to a conclusion about creativity.

Steinberg of course sides with an actual qualitative judgment about art. He is, on the one hand, attempting to describe creativity in a scientific way. However, he is also perhaps motivated to set a quality of standard in regards to creativity, as empirical research at times is governed by institutional motives, as antithetical as that might sound. At the least, there is always some inherent bias when someone attempts to make a scientifically-centered claim on an abstract concept with little experimental evidence. In this case, this is more theoretical psychology, intellectual speculation, and like all theory, it is in the final analysis a mattter of opinion. Therefore, this research is open both to future supporting evidence to back up its claim as it also lends itself completely open to much valid criticism.

David Darts (2008) talks about how technology has affected youth and culture, how art has changed in this hyper-technologized age. It is of course a common viewpoint of scholars to believe that the advent of mass media, video games, and an ever-diminishing attention-span in America's over-medicated youth have degenerated the quality of our overall educational systems and culture's ability to think critically in healthy ways. By and large, this is occuring, and decreasing test scores, more diagnoses of ADD, and a host of many tangible realities support the notion of the defects in our youth's capacity for growth and wholistic development. However, it is also important to note that this is merely a phase in history, just like it is a phase in culture and art. The history of the West has of course known periods of prodigious output as well as periods of stagnancy and decay, from the abundance of intellectual contributions of ancient Greece to the darkness of the middle ages and once again to rebirth in the appropriately titled epoch, The Renaissance. Like these other cycles, our current age is at the beginning of a new era in many ways, with the expnential increase of technological advancements that began in many ways with the first commercial computer in the 1980s. Things are forever changing, as Darts notes,

But American scholars have flattened and oversimplified the idea of American culture as something fixed and is a constantly mutating social construct... (26).

Like all beginnings, the process starts slow, in darkness, in a womb of gestating ideas and latent capacities. No doubt there is an initial decrease in the quality of many aspects of today's culture and art, but is it not possible that this era has paved the way for new things to come, things that we may not be able to recognize before they happen? Sternberg maintains that environmental factors help determine one's capacity for creativity, but he also notes that most experts believe creativity is something much more open to the average person than commonly believed. Does the quality of art ultimately depend on culture and societal changes, or is it something more dependent on each individual deciding his own destiny as best he can? Technology has no doubt changed the capacity for new forms -- and perhaps nullified the importance of old forms of art --- but has it necessarily intrinsically decreased humanity's capacity for creative genius and artistic beauty? Such a proposition doesn't seem likely.

Joy Sperling (2011) mentions the impact of culture wars on this theme. There have always been conflicting forces of tradition and progress, church and state, war and peace, the powerful and poor. This has continued in America from the beginning. The 1960s saw an increase of culture wars on different levels. They opened ways to new change and new possibilities, but for some, this was no doubt not an ultimately positive change. The author mentions how the struggle between the various forces continues

Equally explosive controversies within and around the arts, including issues of government support and funding, indecency and religious desecration, and free speech and censorship have proven to be both inflammatory and divisive (105).

However, is art something that depends on cultural taste? Is its impact on culture? Certainly, cultural preferences and competing power systems of values play a large role in determining what art sells and what doesn't, what remains supported by society and what gets banned or remains unsold. There is too, a case to be made that what is most popular in its day is usually the least healthy for the overall progress of civilization. Yet the bottom line remains a stalemate of variables, here. Cultural impact is obviously best understood after the fact, and the culture wars mentioned here are perhaps something much more governed by the zeitgeist of the times than they are by an honest debate between competing opinions as to what is best for our future in the U.S.A. The 1960s generation, at least the counter-culture one, attempted to create a more authentic value system, rooted in compassion, in appreciation of nature, of heart and soul, and the mystical traditions of the past that had in many ways been too overlooked by our age of materialism. Yet it is impossible to say. When asked about the overall impact of his presidency, George W. Bush responded that it is impossible to say at this point in time, that such a thing is in the hands of future generations to determine. While the majority of Western intellectuals probably regarded his statement as the only possible excuse given the immediate adverse affects of some of his decisions, the man, at least, did have a valid point. In short, the age of media and technology is in its nascent beginning. Let us not rush to conclusions yet; let us keep hope alive for the future and faith of our nation.

The most convincing source of this paper has been retained until the end. It is an article written by Krista Thompson (2009), in regards to the nature of hip-music and culture. He extends the definition and range through which hip-hop should be taken seriously; he argues for its validity as a visual art form. From videos to clothing, to style and decor, the movement has affected our nation on many more levels than just music. The music, while often discarded by white intellectuals as something linguistically sub-par, it is on the other hand, a different orientation of standard English, relying more on musical intonation that Anglo political motives, a phonetic alphabet rearranged to the fit the groove and pulse of a people so often marginalized by the dominant demographic. Whether African-American, Lationo, or urban-influenced white youth, the emergence of hip-hop culture has provided both visual, literary, musical, and theatrical innovations, new forms in old traditions. As far as visual influences goes, do not judge a book by its cover. At once deemed inappropriate by many, according to this author, the term "bling" has a deep significance

Bling, however, refers to more than flashy objects or one's self-aggrandizing portrayal as a work of art, it describes a specific visual effect (Thompson 483).

In this article the author mentions the visual art of two artists, regarded highly by many in the art community, as evidence of the abundance of contribution to American society that hip-hop has provided. However, like technology and mass consumerism, hip-hop is also layered too often as a sign of decay rather than a first and difficult step into the unknown that may result in unpredictable fruits previously unknown to the national and international communities of culture and commerce.

In conclusion, this paper has been an attempt to point to some possible signs of optimism, if not some obvious ones, in the larger scheme of time and history in regards to how art ultimately influences culture and vice versa. In addition, it is again important to emphasize the both themes move in cycles, just like everything else. However, it is obvious when looking at the above articles and the potential ideas of hope that exist in our current era that things might actually be better than they seem. Art not only can reflect a culture, it can point it in newer directions. It is the latter that we must hope occurs with positive results for future generations.


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