It’s a hoary old charge among European intellectuals of a certain cast of mind that America has no culture, that Americans are crass and crude and interested in nothing but making money. Like many stereotypes, this contains an uncomfortable kernel of truth. What are the achievements of American culture? In music, we might point to jazz and rhythm and blues, to Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. In literature, we had Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and Maya Angelou, to name a few. In the visual arts, there was the Hudson School, Alexander Calder, and the great fakester Andy Warhol. But, let’s face it: the energy of the American people has never gone primarily into culture when there were fortunes to be made, a continent to be “developed” at the expense of its native inhabitants, cities and then suburbs to be built, plus highways to tie them all together and endless streams of cars to drive on them. This go, go, go spirit tended to corrupt authentic cultural products such as R&B as it turned into rock ‘n’ roll and became a worldwide phenomenon.
Despite this corruption, in previous generations there was always a fierce cultural energy bubbling through the nation’s veins. But in recent times this has almost entirely dissipated. American culture, to the extent that it even exists anymore, is almost entirely backward looking and nostalgia drenched, while at the same time knowing little to nothing of its actual history. So for example, we have country music saturated in sickly sweet sorrow and marinating in resentment, with no knowledge of the folk traditions from which it developed. The overriding sense, even among progressives, is that America’s best days are behind it. What’s left apart from the nostalgia is loud and crass and shallow. It is in difficult to see what kind of future renaissance one could build on the foundation of reality television and misogyny-infested rap lyrics.
The regional subcultures and even accents that used to exist in America were all but erased long ago by television. In their place have arisen the mirages of Red America with its worship of guns, which is to say the worship of death, and Blue America with its worship of diversity, which at best is a well-meaning meta-culture with no content at all, and at worst is a uniform and deadening set of clichés that must be agreed to without qualification.
So where are we to start in pioneering the way for the 21st-century American culture that might emerge after our current struggle is over? I would say we have little choice but to follow in the footsteps of the 19th century European nationalists who cobbled together centuries-old folk traditions and dialects and decided on an arbitrary and artificial basis that a select grouping of these would constitute a new national culture. Within such a framework perhaps one could start generating new cultural products in literature and the visual arts and music that would not be entirely backward looking and would not have to start completely from scratch. After all, the “blank slate” repeatedly imagined by philosophers disgusted by what they see around them does not and cannot exist, and attempts to create it always involve immense destruction. No; we always start with what we have, even if we decide to reject great swaths of it. Can we start thinking about a new American culture now, in the heat of the current struggle? I would say we must, because otherwise we risk starting over with nothing but ruins to guide us. Besides, we need to put our energies as a people into something healthier than hating our fellow Americans, even if many of them richly deserve it.