Wearing a Cultural Face

Lili Marlene
Marlene Dietrich

Wearing a Cultural Face

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake

The song is actually two songs spliced together, or more precisely two recordings of the same song, one recording done in English and the other done in German. The singer in both recordings is the same, Marlene Dietrich. The records were made during World War II. The English version of the song was among the most popular songs of the war for the English and American soldiers. The German version was one of the most popular songs of the war for the German soldiers. I think it interesting that folks that spent their days shooting at each other went home (or at least to their barracks) and enjoyed the same music. There was this song that united them while the work they were doing kept them apart.

The image is of a woodblock print done by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. It is of a bridge in the rain. I think it captures very well the sensation of being caught in the rain. The woodblocks of Hiroshige made an impression on the French Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh and he imitated the Hiroshige’s style and on at least two occasions copied the images themselves, though he painted them in oils. What is in the art of a Japanese print maker that resonates with a French painter? Both the song and the pictures illustrate that whatever else separates us, art has the ability to draw people together who are in many, maybe most, ways very different.

Left, Hiroshige: Plum Estate, Kameido 1857; from “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”; The Brooklyn Museum.
Right, van Gogh: Japonaiserie, ‘Flowering Plum Tree’ (after Hiroshige)

There may be other aspects of the culture that keep people hopelessly divided, their religion, their form of government, but the songs they sing, the pictures they make, and the books they write often touch people who in just about every other way are in conflict. They even, at times, help shape the cultural directions that their dissimilar neighbors take. This does not mean that art has the ability to bring peace to cultures in conflict, after all the soldiers that were united by a song at night still shot each other the next day. But it does help to illustrate that there are aspects of the human character and imagination that are attracted to certain things no matter the cultural and physical geography.

Fang mask used for the ngil ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers. Wood, Gabon, 19th century.

Pablo Picasso saw an African mask that looked something like this. This mask had a religious and ceremonial use. It was not made to be a work of art in the way a painting is, but perhaps there is something in the way our psychology works that drives us to make our tools not just useful, but beautiful. The mask has a serenity and a sternness to it and its lines are very graceful. I think the serene sternness goes well with its function, that of an inquisitor. He is certain in his own beliefs and that certainty instills in him a serenity that he brings to the work that he does. And because that work involves the defense of that belief that gives him his serenity he is quite stern in his confrontation of that threat. This is often what the artist captures the conflicts and incongruity in the human character.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Pablo Picasso

If you look into the faces of the two young ladies on the right you will see the influence of the African mask on Picasso’s painting. The young ladies in the painting seem to be looking at the observer of the painting with various attitudes. The attitudes of the ladies with the mask-like faces are especially disturbing. The borrowing of the motif of the mask helps Picasso to say something about these young ladies and their aloofness. Perhaps the masks capture not so much how the ladies look as how they make the painter feel. The lines of the mask also suggest the Cubism that was a feature of Picasso art during one of his many periods. I think there is also an irony here because this African cultural imprint on the French culture was the result of a colonial enterprise that plundered much of Africa.

Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures

The film was adapted from one of Rudyard Kipling’s best novels, Kim. It is about a young boy who has been orphaned in India. He lives on the streets and survives by his wits. It presents “The Raj”, or the British occupation of India, in a favorable light, suggesting things about this occupation that were not true. It is an outsiders view of a culture that assess that culture on the occupiers terms. The indigenous people are a little childish and the occupiers are benign and paternal. Though the book and the film capture the local color and the look of the landscape they both fail to capture the life of the culture. The India of Kim is that of fairy tale and not of reality.

The book, though, did provoke interest in this culture in the minds of many of the book’s readers who as a result went to this land to learn something about it. Many found the real India and not the fairy tale. They discovered the actual culture and not the veneer an occupying force laid over that culture. When I was in graduate school I took a course in the Victorian novel. The instructor seemed to think that the British Empire left behind in the many nations that it controlled when it was at its strongest a civil service and structure of government that served these nations well and enabled them to establish successful governments. I am not sure this is true but it is part of the cultural exchange. As a result of British interests in this part of the world the literature and religion of India and Asia came to play a significant role in shaping the thought of writers like Emerson and Thoreau. This too is part of the cultural exchange.

A review in this weekend’s Guardian concerns a book about the British Midlands. The article is “Land of hope, glory, and shall I be mother?” and it was written by Euan Ferguson about Stuart Maconie’s book Adventures on the High Teas. According to the review the book attempts to find the real Midlands of England as opposed to the Midlands of popular fiction. What this suggests is that even when we are at home we do not always understand correctly our own culture. Which is the true Los Angeles, that of Raymond Chandler or of The Beach Boys. What is the true Boston, that of Henry James, Robert Parker, or Mayor Menino? Does the culture of any place have a single face? Does the cultural mask that any place assumes resemble the place where its people actually live? Perhaps at some level our culture is an assumed identity.

The Remains of the Day
Columbia Pictures

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese writer, wrote the novel on which this film was based. It is a depiction of life in a British manor house. The manor belongs to an aristocrat who has grown dangerously close to the Nazi Party. His aspirations are good, in that he hopes to prevent a war. But his is the avenue of appeasement that would overlook the more troubling side of the German leadership of the time. What is interesting, though, is that Ishiguro is not English and that the observations are those of an outsider looking in. In some ways Ishiguro is looking at Britain in the same way Kipling looked at India, but are the portrayals of English culture as condescending as Kipling’s were of Indian culture.

The character of Miss Kenton is just, while that of Mr. Stevens is domineering and condescending to those that he leads as the chief butler. I do not think the characters are intended to be viewed allegorically but Mr. Stevens’ attitudes are very like the attitudes the British brought to the lands they occupied. Ms. Kenton on the other hand tries to accept everyone and look out for those that cannot protect themselves. This is where most of the conflict between these two servants dwells. Things do not end happily for either, but that is another story. What is it in these characters and this European culture that an Asian writer finds so intriguing?

I think one of the reasons we study art and literature is to try to understand what those outside a culture find attractive about that culture. For all the problems that nations have they all leave a record of their aspirations and their idea of beauty in the art they leave behind. It is this art that we study and to a large degree most remember about what has come before. The Elizabethan Age and the Victorian Age left behind great works of art and literature. We know the names of the monarchs that have given their names to these historical moments, but most do not know much of the monarchs themselves.

Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe

If there were no Shakespeare would the name of Elizabeth or if there were no Dickens would the name of Victoria be so widely known? How much of the romance of India and the east are due to the misrepresentations of Kipling and others like him? One reason to study culture is to separate out the myths that have been passed down about those cultures that are different from our own and to preserve the most admirable aspects of our own culture. The culture that we build and the materials that we use to build that culture will have more to do with how we are remembered than will any of those we serve as we go about our daily business. A nation that does not know its culture probably does not know itself very well.


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11 thoughts on “Wearing a Cultural Face

  1. It’s true that similarities can be found in different cultures. I found it interesting when you said that soldiers from opposing countrys could kill one another during the day, but listen to the same song. Different aspects of different cultures can keep people divided, but there can also be similarites. The art from a culture also represents how the people act and feel. Piccaso’s use of simple and curving lines, can lead the viewer to interpret the picture as peaceful and serene. Artists using harsh lines, and dark colors present a much different tone. An outsiders’ view of a culture may be very different than how it actually is.

  2. In reading this essay, I was forced to consider the sense of unity we lack in our world. It seems as though we place clear distinctions amongst all cultures of the world. The introduction, in which it is stated that opposing soldiers listen to the same music, sparked realization in myself. I was able to touch base with the fact that all humans, regardless of their specific culture, think alike. All people are of the human race, and for that, are united as one, despite any differences. At the same time, I don’t think that establishing the idea of unity in one’s mind is of utmost importance. I still think that getting to know what one’s own particular culture is all about is just as important, as understanding your culture and background certainly lends to understanding yourself as a person.

  3. That fact about the two different versions of ‘Lili Marlene’ is interesting. The Germans listened to the German version, while the Americans listened to the English version. I remember reading somewhere about the German pop song ’99 Luft Balloons.’ The song was such a hit in America, the artist decided to record an English version. Most Americans preferred the German version over the English version. A quick check on the Youtube comments on the music video shows that this is still the popular opinion. This is proof that cultural barriers can be broken down, if only with catchy 80’s pop songs.

  4. I once learned the meaning of “1+1=3”.
    I believe in this message because if some group of people and our group of Americans put our heads together we can be much more powerful and make more than 2. If you understand. Its kind of a hard topic to grasp because im not that good at explaining my self.

  5. I agree that there is more power in working together than there is working against each other. Working together reduces conflicts and between nations and increases what each individual nation can accomplish. I thought you did a fine job of explaining yourself.

    J. D.

  6. I agree that one of the reason people study art is to learn about other cultures. Art gives you insight into someone else’s life and mind, and if this person is from a different culture, then it is like a window into a totally different atmosphere. It’s weird to think that someone who you think is so different from you can actually be very similar to you. You never know if a person from a different culture is interested in the same bands or movies as you, and that’s cool to think about.

  7. There seems to have always been misunderstanding among people in our world. People fight eachother and don’t understand how alike they really are. ”Lili Marlene” demonstrates how people shared the same interests and had things in common and yet, they fought against eachother not even knowing how much they related to eachother. If people viewed others the way they viewed themselves they would have so much more respect for one another. Having common ground diminishes problems. People fight because they have differing ideas. Maybe if the Germans and English knew that they possesd similar ideas and interests they would have had less conflicts.

  8. I enjoyed reading this blog about different cultures. I enjoyed the point that you brought up about during war, you are shooting at somebody who probably listens to the same music that you do. As you said, things like government and religion are what makes cultures different. In a lot of communist countries, certain books, movies and music are not allowed but in other parts of the world, the books, movies, and music that are thrown away in the communist countries are treasured. The differences in music, literature, art and government is what makes up a culture in a certain area.

  9. Although people often see past the similarities that exist between different countries, the truth is that they exist on a large scale. The only reason soldiers from different countries fight each other is because that is what they are told to do. The man on the other side of the battle field is probably just like them, they just don’t take the time to see it. Cultures are formed by traditional music, writing, and forms of government, and as Americans we are not apt to change. But if we could see past the differences and come together as one, then the world would feel unity for the first time.

  10. I agree with this essay. I feel that there are many factors such as culture, upbringing, and geography that may keep people from interacting with one another. However, we are all still human and for the most part, we feel similar emotions (maybe for different reasons). People fight one another in wars because that’s what they are told to do. I found it interesting about the American troops and the German troops fighting one another and then going back and listening to the same song. I think that if some of those people sat down with one another under different circumstances, they may find that they have a lot more in common than they originally thought.

  11. I agree that the barrier between different cultures causes the lack of unity between much of humanity. Although I feel that too quickly people forget how similar we truly are. We all are human after all, thus we share many of the same qualities. This was evident when you spoke of the opposing soldiers who killed each other on the battlefield but enjoyed the same song. I feel that if these people were to actually meet each other they may find that the other is not so bad. I feel that too often society has set opinions about people from other regions and diverse cultures that they don’t even give them a chance.

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