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April 15, 2002Culture: The Medium Is Not the Message

Exhorticulture. On Big Ideas this week, we look at an article by Michael Z. Wise of the New York Times in which he highlights the vast number of New York City cultural edifices (fortresses) and projects supported by a slew of foreign governments. This is diplomacy through cultural foray. And he asks whether the U.S. Government should be doing the same sort of thing abroad.

We would think that the U.S. already has it right. Cultural communication pays, but you have to think how to go about it. Don't build fortresses or palaces of culture. For starters, the Europeans are not reaching America by setting up a cultural address in Manhattan. That’s Gucci warfare. And we would not be getting to the Brits, the French, or the Germans were we to plop something in the plutocratic districts of London, Paris, or Berlin. Culture is a binder, not a V-2 rocket to be aimed at the heart of metropolis. Culture is peace, not warfare.

Culture Works. Our strongest ties with Japan, or China, or Austria, or Iceland are cultural. Ideas, and images, and folkways swim invisibly across the oceans, linking peoples together in a million different ways, despite the passion of leaders and policy wonks to create differences and preserve distances. Only a year ago we learned of a Chinese-American artist from San Francisco who now spends 9 months a year in Shanghai (and only 3 in San Francisco) because he finds the China arts scene so much more alive than our own. By nobody’s plan, he is creating fusion between our two societies that has nothing to do with statecraft or commerce. It is fair, we think, to envision culture as the glue in a fragmented world--reverse entropy in a globe that is perpetually coming apart at the seams. 

A Reason for Being. Curiously enough, the New York Times has become a vehicle for transporting culture and social mores. Truly serious people no longer read it for politics or economics, since its editors don't grasp those precincts and are much better equipped to explore the ins and outs of America’s affluence. Society and culture have become the real beat of America’s newspapers, and the source of their commercial livelihood. That is somehow evident, incidentally, in the recent remodeling of both the New York Times (national edition) and the Wall Street Journal, both geared to the concerns of everyday life.

Corporate Education and Training. The makers of America’s best commercial donut, Krispy Kreme, have appointed a Dean of Learning, a fact that is also noted on the Global Province this week under Agile Companies. Dr. Martin tells us that lore, and stories, and the anecdotes about Krispy Kreme of old are the heart of Krispy Kreme training, instead of the typical argot of finance, business school, consulting firms, and operations gurus that is the gist of most corporate schooling. In other words, in its training and education, Krispy Kreme focuses on its own culture and stories--the age- old way societies have passed wisdom from one generation to another.

The Medium, Not the Message. Culture, we'd say, is the medium, but not the message. Despite the Internet, universities, the cultural forums in New York, etc., culture is the best way knowledge gets passed around. It’s not an end in itself, but the ether that carries our hopes, thoughts, and visions to others in towns about the globe.

P.S. Oddly enough, America’s corporations have not been particularly apt cultural marketers. They have been reasonably adept at using sport as a vehicle to carry their wares, but clumsy in the cultural sphere. Luck and happenstance have led entertainment companies, most notably MTV, to use pop trivia to push pop. But the creative use of culture in business has been hit or miss at best. A little of this can be viewed in our section Poetry and Business. We also would urge you to look at www.salmonlady.com where the proprietor tastefully laddles out bits of Scotland, with its smoked trout and salmon. Also look at www.amanresorts.com, just added to Best of Class this week, where the commentary about the locales is taken to be as important as the propaganda about the resorts. In time we will be measuring companies ability to play on the cultural ball field.

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