Thursday, December 8, 2016

Can Art Unite the World? - Creating and Perceiving Art from Different Perspectives

Our world is home to a sheer endless number of different cultures with
a vastly different understanding of moral values and aesthetics.

I often come across cliché phrases like: "That event united people from all over the world by their love for music/books/whatever." This is a nice image. The world united by art. But is it really possible?

Let's remember that we are all limited in our perception which is shaped by our surroundings. These surroundings also determine how we react to different pieces of art and they influence our own artworks. Let's ponder on this.

Relevance of Background

Art is often used for political statements. And just as often it merely reflects what people think. A few years ago I've read a novel about the everyday life of German teenagers in the 90's. It was an interesting read for the sake of studying German culture and I got an idea of what teenage life was like back then (very pampered and silly compared to that of Russian teens of that time), but there was one particular line that struck me: There was a moment in an inner monologue when the protagonist mentioned something like even Russians having Bubble Gum and Coca Cola nowadays. I was well aware that it was only natural for a West German teenager to believe that, but having experienced part of Russia's 90's myself, I actually felt like strangulating someone. Because no, back then we did not have Bubble Gum and Coca Cola, all we had was spaghetti and vegetables from my grandparents' garden, sometimes we even had nothing to eat but potatoes every day, and the ones who did have Bubble Gum and Coca Cola (or rather: people who could afford wasting their money on them) were the nouveau riche ******** who stopped at nothing for the sake of making money. (Even the Italian mafia was shocked about the unscrupulousness of their Russian "colleagues" who had taken over once the Soviet Union went down like the Titanic with 293,047,571 people on board drowning in despair.)

So this was an example for how a piece of art can unintentionally wake antagonistic feelings in a reader with a different background. A reader with a purely West German background probably wouldn't have stumbled over that sentence. Luckily, I've spent most of my life in Germany and was already well aware of the German overall ignorance towards Russia and them seeing the fall of the Soviet Union as a good thing in every respect.

Similarities and Differences of Backgrounds

Interestingly, the historical context can also connect people from different cultures. Everyone in my family, obviously, was born and has grown up in the Soviet Union and in the 90's the Soviet culture wasn't entirely gone yet, so I not only grew up among Soviet people but have experienced some part of the Soviet Union myself. Now there is Sonnenallee (Sun Alley), a nostalgic movie by Leander Haußmann about the youth of East Berlin. Both my parents and I immediately could relate, almost as if we had lived in the GDR ourselves. In fact, despite some differences (for example, East Germany being more tyrannical than the Soviet Union or the possibility to watch West German TV in East Berlin) both countries shared the same ideology, the same social, economical and political system, the same paradoxes and some similar cultural phenomena. So for us Soviet-born people there is much room for understanding and empathy. People from West Germany can't relate in the same way, even though it's a German movie made for a German audience.

The historical, political and social context also affects what people are interested in. For example, the mafia wars in the already mentioned "Russia's Wild 90's" caused movies and TV shows about mafia to rise in popularity. The Godfather film series had great success in the young Russian Federation. In the early 2000's when Russia began to recover from the crisis there was a boom of masterpieces depicting the crisis and the mafia wars of the 90's like Bumer (Bimmer) by Peter Buslov and Brigada (The Brigade a.k.a. Law of the Lawless) by Aleksei Sidorov.

What I'm trying to show is that what we're interested in, what we like and what we understand highly depends on our own background. Even if we like the same art genre or even the same artwork we still like it for different reasons and see it through different prisms.

"Universal" Masterpieces

Now there are some voices who say that there are universal masterpieces, works of world literature that are relevant for everyone and always. Well, this is not entirely true. "Universal" masterpieces can be enjoyed by so many different people because there is so much content and meaning in them that everyone can find something relevant for himself in it. But it doesn't mean we read those masterpieces in the same way.

When Tolstoy wrote his famous War and Peace in the 1860's he was interested not so much in the Napoleonic Wars he was writing about, but rather in Russia's society and culture of his own time. The novel was originally planned to be about a Decembrist returning from his exile in Siberia in the 1860's and rejoining the now changed society. When Tolstoy started to dig deeper for the reasons why the Decembrist had become who he was and why society had become what it was he realized he had to make his story start in 1805. In fact, War and Peace was supposed to be continued until the 1860's, which, obviously, didn't happen, but a Russian reader who has learned about the Decembrist uprising in school can find its foreshadowing in Tolstoy's novel. This foreshadowing was probably even more visible to the contemporary readers, as the Napoleonic Wars and the Decembrist uprising weren't so far in the past then and there were still living witnesses. The novel is also very much about the rise of the Russian national identity which was subject of a huge social and political debate throughout the 19th century and, in a way, still continues.

So here are two examples of core elements of the novel that are just not that relevant for non-Russian readers. Even though people from all over the world can still relate to the characters it doesn't change the fact that the novel was written for 19th century Russians and that every nation and generation reads the novel differently.


There is also the hurdle of language. For one, we have the phenomenon of the connotative meaning because of which people from different parts of the world imagine and feel different things when hearing the same word. If you ask me, there isn't such a thing as a 100% literal translation. Even for such simple words as "house". Both the English and German words (which are closely related) don't only mean a building but also can refer to a noble family (or family-like structures like the houses of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series). In Russian, the latter meaning is missing (which is why the Hogwarts houses are translated as faculties). On the other hand, the Russian word "dom" means both "house" and "home" while English and German have different words for them. This is why personally I perceive the Russian word as a bit "warmer", as it implies a spiritual connection between a building and the people living in it (which goes along well with the belief in the domovoi, a demon from the Slavic mythology who is basically the soul of a house, protecting the family living there as long as he's treated nicely). And despite all the similarities English and German are different as well.

However, while "dom" and "house" still refer more or less to the same thing every language also has words that are just untranslatable. Many languages, for example, have not only singular and plural but also the dual. In other words: There are languages out there that make it possible to say "the two of us" with only one word. Now imagine what it means for love poetry and the translation of it: a disaster.

Cultural Differences

Let's also add cultural quirks to it. Some time ago I was translating an argument between a couple from Russian into German. Apart from some specifically Russian words and expressions that can't be translated at all (and need specifically German replacements) there was a problem with the argument itself. It evolved in a way it wouldn't have evolved between a German couple. In general, Germans and Russians argue differently, so while that argument is very authentic for a Russian audience a German audience just wouldn't feel the same level of authenticity. You would have to write an entirely new dialogue and plot for that story to be the same for Germans as it is for Russians.

It happens always and everywhere. For example, we Germans notice that a Hollywood movie takes place somewhere far, far away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean when the characters walk around their house with their shoes on - an absolute no-go in most German households.

Now this was a rather harmless example. Shoes usually aren't crucial to a story. When it comes to moral values, however, enjoying an artwork simply becomes difficult. For example, many years ago I abandoned reading Homer's Ilias simply because the moral values of the ancient Greeks felt so alien to me. Sometimes I also have difficulties with feeling empathy for 19th century heroines who have grown up in another society and have a different understanding of what is good and what is bad. With my mind I do understand that Tess from Tess of the d'Urbervilles was cornered, that her options were different from my options in today's world, but with my heart I still can't stop thinking that Tess wasn't as much a victim of her beauty and the social norms of society but rather of her own naivety und stupidity. (Because staying in love with such an arrogant hypocrite like Angel is stupid.)

The consequence of it? You can still enjoy art from another culture, relate to the characters and dive into their world, but there is no way around noticing weird-feeling differences and sometimes maybe not even understanding why the characters behave the way they do. If you're not the target audience, there will always be things you don't completely understand.

Art and Ethnocentrism

Our world is home to a sheer endless number of different cultures with a vastly different understanding of moral values and aesthetics. And the only things all people of the world have in common are the needs to eat, to sleep and maybe to find a mate - the basic needs of every living being, actually. Everything else is variable. There are indigenous ethnicities out there who are pretty comfortable not wearing any clothes, in many countries democracy isn't considered an ideal and in many cultures individual rights aren't considered as important as in "Western" societies. And the most important thing is: Human rights, democracy and individual rights don't make our "Western" culture any better than any other. Believing anything else is what is called ethnocentrism: perceiving the world exclusively through the prism of one's own culture and sincerely believing that one's own values are the only right ones. So forcing democracy on other cultures is basically an act of disrespect and some kind of belief to have a superior culture (as viewing oneself as a superior race is very unpopular nowadays). There is no such thing as superior values. There are no values all people from all continents and all centuries could agree on. Simply because values aren't natural. All nature actually cares for is the survival of the species. Not how it survives.

As for art, it always has a target audience and it usually has the same cultural background as the artist. People tend to build their art around what they know. They participate in discourses relevant for their own time and society, they strengthen or try to weaken ideologies, and they present their understanding of right and wrong. Art is a form of discussion. And since every discussion has a context, all the "wise" things great artists say should always be seen in the light of their own era and culture. Not doing so can lead to misunderstandings.

So can art unite the world? I think not. The world is too big and has too many colours and shades - and maybe this is why it shouldn't even be united. A united world wouldn't be as diverse and rich as it is now. We are not meant to fully understand each other. Let's be honest: Living in a Utopia would cause everyone to die from boredom. Art is shining and interesting because we're all different. Being different allows us to learn from each other and to constantly discover something new. If humanity could fully agree on just one thing - it would immediately lose an important colour, an individual voice, a whole little world to explore.

What art can do, however, and actually does is helping us to understand each other better. Art is always about expressing something and thus is a form of communication. By trying to understand an artwork we basically try to understand an aspect of the world.

Even communicating about art leads to better understanding. While I condemn the foreign policy of the US communicating with creative Americans keeps me save from anti-Americanism. Almost every day I see or read something that makes me smile and is made or written by an American. So art allows us to reach out to each other on a more emotional and personal level.

Art isn't a common language and it isn't magic. It can't unite the world and I don't think it should. But what art does is connecting people. And it does it well.

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