Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why do culture shows suck?

Why are culture shows always made up of the same formula of costume, dance, and bright colors that in reality tell you next to nothing about a certain group of people and their role in the world?

Ok, traditional costumes and dances are great and have undeniable cultural value, but they tell us little about a culture beyond the observation that “the colors are so beautiful!” And even as much as traditional costumes and dances are recognizable as elements of a group’s identity, they are an ancient manifestation of that identity, which generally seem to exist only to have something to contribute to the world’s culture shows.

More important and interesting to me, and I hope to others as well, is how a culture’s traditions influence modern life: the identity of its cities, the recurring themes in its theatre and film, the most sensitive political issues in the public debate. These are the things that enable us to better understand each other, our value systems, and the history that has led to a certain national point of view, if such a thing can be said to exist.

I assume that the organizers of most cultural fairs do so to enhance mutual understanding among diverse peoples, strengthening a sense of multiculturalism in a particular place where many cultures may coexist next to each other. My question is simple: how do native costumes and dances work toward this end?

Why not design a culture show that looks not at the “traditional” definitions of cultural identity, but rather how those traditional influences shape the culture as it exists today? Show how modern designers incorporate ancient patterns and color schemes into their clothes; flesh out the recurring street voices in a certain culture’s form of rap music; study what the nation’s most prolific and popular bloggers are writing about, or what issues push people to public protest.

Answers to these topics will really promote mutual cultural understanding among peoples, and tying tradition with modernity will provide examples of how people today are keeping the fundamental elements of their cultural identities alive and well. After all, the trick is to maintain one’s identity in the super-connected, globalized world where English dominates and trends have no borders.

Diversity and multiculturalism will always be important, but to preserve them we must move beyond the dancing in bright colors of the “traditional” culture show. We need to modernize and create new ways to understand each other in updated contexts.

Stay tuned for the date and location of the first real 21st Century Culture Show... I might just have to do it myself.