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COLUMN: On being cultured and why Western culture should not be the deciding factor



A conversation with a few friends last week turned into a discussion about our favorite early 1990s movies, from “Silence of the Lambs” to “Schindler’s List.” But one of my friends was quiet.

When we walked away, she said she hadn’t seen any of the movies we were talking about.

“I’m so uncultured,” she told me.

I reminded her about her encyclopedic knowledge about Bollywood film and music — a large chunk of the global arts industry that I knew nothing about.

“That doesn’t make me cultured though,” she said.

But it does.

When we think of someone who is “cultured,” we conjure up an image of a person who can quote Walt Whitman, who goes to the IU Musical Arts Center to catch the spring ballet, who can pick out the best local underground musicians or who incorporates ancient Greek philosophers into conversations.

We don’t think about the girl who can pull obscure but influential Bollywood actors out of her back pocket like they’re Pokémon or can talk for hours on end about changes in modern Indian music.

Usually, the people we see as cultured are those who are familiar with Western culture, while those who don’t know as much about Western culture are pegged as uncultured.

But Western culture should not be the measure of how cultured a person is or is not. Someone who knows the great American movies, books and musicals of the past century is no more or less cultured than someone who loves Bollywood or Nigerian Igbo movies or even Korean pop music.

Our knowledge of Western culture should not be the deciding factor for whether we are considered cultured or not.

In a 1994 interview with Vibe magazine, part of which was reprinted in Tom Perchard's book "From Soul to Hip Hop," the late rapper Guru said the jazz movement began in the African American community but was swept up into elite, sophisticated music when white elites picked it up.

In his 2012 book, “Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-1943,” Lawrence Schenbeck, an associate professor of music at Spelman College, also considers how white elites reconfigured the music of other cultures, especially jazz, into something highbrow.

Schenbeck claims white Americans began to think of  jazz as high culture because they thought of African American music as “civilized” only when it resembled European classical music.

For my cousins in Sri Lanka, American music, movies and TV shows are all the rage. If you don’t listen to English music radio stations or watch American movies and TV shows, you’re seen as uncool and lower class, even if you know Sri Lankan music, film and television.

Why must art around the world resemble Western art in order to be considered part of high culture? And why is one segment of the world given the power to determine what high culture consists of or what being cultured really means?

It just doesn’t seem fair to the cultural innovation of every other country in the world.

We give high culture a narrow and exclusive meaning that is smug at best, and Eurocentric and elitist at its worst.

But when personal taste is subjective, and the world has so much to offer in terms of culture beyond just the Western, there’s little to differentiate what we see as fancy, high-brow culture from the rest.

To be cultured, you don’t have to read Shakespeare or listen to opera.

Whether you listen to Beethoven or AR Rahman, drink expensive wine or cheap beer, watch American film noirs or Bollywood musicals, or read Whitman or “Harry Potter,” you participate in some form of culture. And if you love whatever section of global culture draws you in, you are cultured.

Anyone who has knowledge in an area of culture, whether that be from the U.S. and Europe or elsewhere, should be able to sit in conversations about 90’s films and know that, while they may not know much about that specific cultural subcategory, they are not any less cultured.

One of my friends recently created a group chat titled “Uncultured but woke swines at a spa night” in order to set up spa and movie nights to turn each other from “uncultured swine” to “cultured” by showing each other our favorite classic movies.

So far, our list of movies only includes American or European films, such as “Shawshank Redemption,” “Star Wars” and “La Grande Illusion.” I think now we’ll have to throw some Bollywood into the mix as well.

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