Melanie's Art History Blog

Finding Culture in Modern Day America

Posted on: February 1, 2011

parthenon, giza pyramids, wal-mart


As I have been teaching survey courses on the history of Western Art I am often struck by our oversimplification of ancient societies. How can I come to grips with the amount of man power, planning, skill, and energy it took to build ancient monuments such as the pyramids at Giza and the Parthenon? When questioning what these monuments meant to their society I am brought to reflect on the current condition of culture in modern America. Our capitalist machine has pushed business to efficiently and quickly produce products and architecture with the smallest bottom line. The result is a cluster of products with short shelf lives and major potential for living out the rest of their carbon dating in a dump. Dumps are one of the most valuable sources of information for archeologist so what a hey-day they might have in the future looking over our garbage. Similarly the houses and structure we live in are less likely to survive apocalyptic winds and will probably result in a streaming gust of aspestice ridden insulation and faux siding. So what will be left when our society has diminished and future generations of historians are left with a pile of rubble to make sense out of? Imagining that all our digital text will be destroyed how will we make sense of the visual signs we leave behind?

Of course this fantasy archeology of today I play out in my mind has several versions. If we are hit with biological warfare and people are wiped out all, but our stuff stays, we might compare ourselves to the citizens of Pompeii who were living normal lives at one moment and the next became a frozen moment in time, preserved with every aspect of their materialistic life. If this were the case future scholars might survey our cities and ask themselves what were our priorities, what did we place value in and how did the mass of people entertain themselves? Just as the Pompeiian whore houses and erotic images have captivated a special audience we will not be allowed to choose elements of our society to bury and others to highlight.

Just as we look back at ancient societies and study their monuments we explore the largest as a reflection of importance. During the pilgrimages of Europe christians went to great efforts to travel through rural and dangerous territories to visit the largest cathedrals with the best relics that were often no more than a supposed finger of a saint encased in grand container. What would our equivalent be? Certainly our largest structures are no longer temples to Gods but rather temples to consumers. Practically every town in America hosts an enormous Wal-Mart surrounded by a thick boarder of black asphalt creating a campus of barren landscape replacing trees and sculpture with cart returns and jumbo handi-cap spots. What will our future citizens make of these contemporary cathedrals? Instead of finding individual shrines and apses will they question the bulk items of the week artistically stacked and displayed?

Perhaps the generic square format of the Wal-Marts will immediately be overlooked as poor examples of design – so what will come next? Perhaps a mall might generate more interest with variations of venders and facades. This is no original concept as we still look back to Trajan’s Markets. Trajan built the citizens of Rome a grand set of markets by carving out the solid rock boundary of Rome as a way of giving back to his community and increasing his popularity with the people.

Romans also built triumphal arches as freestanding commemoration for significant events. Less frequently do we bother to memorialize events but there is certainly no shortage of outdoor propagandistic sculpture. Every highway in America is smothered with an array of billboards continuously soliciting to us the latest brands often employing generic appeals of sexuality or appetite to entice us to buy into their products. What will the future make of these grand monuments that we face everyday?

In leu of the mundane we have surrounded ourselves with, perhaps I am more inclined to daydream of an archeological study that is limited to the extraneous places specifically designed to withstand the wiping out of our topical landscape. The January 2011 edition of Wired Magazine tickled my fantasy with an article and photo shoot of Underground Caverns Keep Things Cold, Safe… and Secret, By Erin Biba. Of course there are valuable cultural shrines built underground such as the 10,000 square feet of the Corbis photo archive storing over 20 million photos in the abandoned limestone mine. And yet the underground Kraft cheese subterranean fridge is a whopping 400,000 square feet dedicated to storing (and yet not aging) various forms of Velveeta and Kraft singles cheese. The future is more likely to happen upon a mass storage unit of fake cheese than an archive of our pictorial images. How humorous it might be to imagine the associations they might assume about our cultural values and powdered cheese.

As we are coming to grips with our contemporary recession obsessed economy we are constantly promised “stimulus” packages that are designed to jumpstart our economy and restore our ability to consume and normalize life with our pocketbooks. Instead of simply creating more factories, with more jobs for people, making more mounds of stuff – why couldn’t we pool our efforts into making culture? If the job of a historian is to look back to history as a way of learning from the past let us look back to recent history and repeat the way Roosevelt pulled us out of the Great Depression. Ok, no not with another war- that has already proven to be a failed idea. How about putting money (and therefore value) on developing our culture. It’s time for a Neo-New-Deal. Programs like the WPA (works progress administration) that don’t shut down our artists, humanities departments and public parks but rather glorify them as valuable public interests. We hear Obama speak of infrastructure and glorious new highways but what about employing aesthetics? We don’t have to let future generations look back at our times as a period of “dark ages” devoid of high art. This is a serious threat as proposals have been set forth to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to zero.

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