Americans, generally speaking, don’t think about culture in the same way as Europeans. For us, culture can be about creating something new and a process of becoming. As individuals we think about our heritage, sure. But we don’t linger on the culture of our forebears. Like the kid on the shoulders in a crowd, we like to see above to identify what’s next. Culture, too, for us in the states, is inextricably tied to commerce. And if you were to look at mechanisms like Kickstarter funding projects (outpacing the National Endowment for the Arts), it’s clear that culture is truly defined by individual tastes and not a collective agreement or set of policies.
So the concept of erasure isn’t that familiar to us, at least not in the sense that it’s a bad thing. Who among us doesn’t want to erase some of our past and carry forward only the parts we think are worth keeping? Perhaps it’s because we have a choice in the matter. What if we didn’t?
During my travels this summer I’ve learned a lot about the concept of culture in Europe. In some places, like Germany, it’s a matter of heritage, pride and honor to be able to preserve and convey aspects of arts and culture. It’s placemaking. It’s an asset to be treasured. In other places, like Greece and Macedonia, it’s a bone of contention. Who came first and what does that mean? In Macedonia in particular, culture is determined by the very few and leaves no room for interpretation. Unfortunately, in that transmission many people find their own culture has been erased or denied.
Now, in Poland, there is a culture of growth and commerce that cannot be denied. And perhaps there is something to the brisk pace of economic life here that is wholly reminiscent of the American way. I can’t help feeling that I’m missing something, though. In the United States, my concept of Poland is all about culture. The food, the apparel, the crafts, the traditions. But I realize that what I’ve been consuming as “Polish culture” in the states is dated… probably it comes from the mid-19th century. How surprising to find that it’s hard to see the art in all the movement and bustle here. Don’t get me wrong. I like Poland and I see the efforts of groups like Krytyk Polityczsna as very important and positive. Also, E (untranslatable) is doing amazing work to animate culture across generations.
Why care about culture? My belief is that when a society pays attention to it and defines it collectively (to any extent), they are then able to be more tolerant and respectful of each other and of those who are different.