Oct 6, 2006

David Byrne

Nothing much new on the news front this morning, so I thought I'd point out an interesting piece from Pitchfork's interview of David Byrne. The interview is from July, and coincided with the re-release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album he created with Brian Eno, which basically took the music of different cultures and looped and mixed it together to create a new sound. The idea was to create an imaginary culture called Afropea, a made-up culture based on the real world.

The fantastic part of the interview for me was reading Byrne's observations on how cultures can come together and create something new, that may be even better. He talks about how unfortunate circumstances (like slavery) can displace people and cultures can come together in places like New Orleans. As he says in the interview:

And those are places where the European culture and indigenous culture and African culture all met and lived together, and some new kind of culture and especially music came out of that, that had this incredible richness and strength that then just, boom, exploded and went all over the globe. The most common music that you hear anywhere in the world now basically has its roots in that union that happened in the last century, or in the century before that.


He's talking about music here, but the same idea has been seen time and again in the visual arts as well. European impressionists were profoundly influenced by the Japanese watercolors in the 19th century.

I think that's a beautiful idea; that we can take these terrible circumstances and out of it comes art, or some kind of human expression. What people create can come together to help people deal with their lot in life, or express themselves, and make something that people want to look at, or read, or listen to. I think this echoes the sentiments of Anthony Appiah's recent work on Cosmopolitanism, in which he didn't argue that the former colonial powers return works to the nations they were taken from (England and the Elgin Marbles is the most recognized example of this). Appiah argues that rather than forcing the British Museum to return the marbles, they should export their own English culture to Greece. That's not to say that Appiah thinks repatriation is a bad thing, just that many are too quick to argue for it without thinking through the logical outcome of such a policy. Cultural Property has a value for everyone, and might there be some value in insuring some objects are preserved and looked avter, and enjoyed by millions of visitors tso that future generations can continue to enjoy the works? In that way, culture can grow and flourish.

In the Byrne interview, he discusses an essay he wrote for the New York Times, titled "I hate World Music", in which he argued that if you really listen to music from a different culture and see it as valuable its impossible to see those other people as less than you after you've heard it. I think the same holds true for the visual arts. Music and visual art, and even food flows back and forth from what we can term the former colonial poweres and the former colonies. This flow of culture goes both ways, and can be quite positive.

When people discuss ideas of repatriation, and the like, often its in terms of how these indigenous or marginalized cultures have been wronged in some way; and certainly they have. However, a more positive way forward would be to emphasize this two-way flow of culture, rather than blindly punishing the former colonial nations.
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