Thursday, April 01, 2010 • 12:00 AM Post a Comment

And What about the Irrational? More Musings on Taste and Ideology

posted by Matthew Glassman

How do we relate to culture? Have we lost our connection to it? Perhaps you can help weave these threads somehow.

Thread 1: Taste and Ideology via Carlos Uriona
Seven years ago, I overheard my friend and colleague Carlos Uriona, Double Edge’s Master Actor and Producing Director, talking to the theatre’s new administrator. For many years, the culture of Double Edge yielded a virtual carousel of part time administrators. You should know that Carlos has a penchant for talking, for inducing collective thinking. He innocently, unctuously insists from people that there be a forthright exchange and interplay of ideas. On this late morning, I overheard him talking to our new admin person about “taste and ideology.” Unlike Public Humanist Andrea Assaf, whose recent essay on taste and ideology encompasses the world of performance art exclusively, Carlos was talking about taste in relation to food. I could pick up only fragments but he was connecting the individual experience of food to one’s personal ideology: how one eats (not only what one eats, but how one approaches and reacts to food, to the taste of food, emotionally, physically) bears relevance to how they approach the world around them, ideas, as well as, and perhaps most importantly, how they approach the unknown. Taste as a manifestation, reflection, of one’s identity and personal ideology.

Thread 2: How We Drink via Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker a couple weeks back about how culture informs not only how we drink alcohol but how we experience it. And that for every individual culture, there is an approach to drinking, a system, a function, a ritual, and, perhaps, an understanding conveyed through a living practice.

Gladwell talks about Italians drinking wine with each meal in a particular way. He discusses the practice of a rural Peruvian village involving an intense moonshine. The conditions of the practice spoke to a conscious or unconscious understanding of an extra-daily necessity of the community and thus dictated the experience on all levels including how they acted when drunk. He writes toward the end: “The flood of immigrants who came to the US in the 19th Century brought with them a wealth of cultural models, some which were clearly superior to the patterns of their new host, and in a perfect world, the rest of us would have adopted the best ways of the newcomers. It has not worked out that way though…”

Humbly speaking, I would add that the best of circumstances might not be adopting of best model but the dynamic exchange and experiential understanding of models. What is so fascinating to me is how invisible or distant the cultural phenomena—and now I’m talking about “cultural” in its broadest sense--have become. It is far from the discussion, far from the seeing, far from the daily experience and distant even from the intellectual one. As Gladwell writes: “There is something about the cultural dimension of social problems which eludes us.”

Thread 3: Illiterate to experiential Knowledge via Helena Norberg-Hodge
Helena Norberg-Hodge is a linguist, author, and activist. She analyzes the impact of the global economy on cultures and agriculture worldwide and is a pioneer of the localization movement. I heard an interview with her on Alternative Radio a couple weeks back. She asserted that in talking about the emphasis of looking through a purely economic lens, we have lost sight and understanding of culture. She uses the words, “blindness,” and “illiteracy” to describe our “lack of experiential knowledge.” In her context, and in these terms a different parable or analogy between food and ideology, agriculture and culture comes to light. But you need to listen to her piece to get its full meaning.

Thread 4: Where is Culture in the Creative Economy? via NEFA…
Last week, I was at a conference on the Creative Economy organized by the New England Foundation for the Arts. There was a session where the Creative Economy Tsar (!) spoke about selling the Commonwealth to creative sector businesses outside of the region to encourage them to move here. He talked about applying a business approach to the non-profit sector. A politician from Providence spoke about the importance of the statistics as the selling point of arts, to use the press to sell the impact of cultural events, and to blitz the public with these numbers. There was a lot about marketing, social networking, websites. Sessions about collecting data surrounding economic impact, Sessions about finding the language to balance the emphasis between intrinsic impact and economic data. One moderator pushed us artists to acknowledge that we have not found a way to convince investors and venture capitalists of our necessity. We need to convince them so they will “authorize” our cultural activities. But, by the end of this conference, I realized culture is seldom discussed. The instance where something happens that is beyond rational is seldom identified. The source of the creative economy, a moment of desire for a certain experience, is seldom illuminated. But as marketing guru Seth Godin wrote this morning on his blog: Irrational passion is the key change agent of our economy. If we cannot live with faith and beauty, then I suppose we return to Carlos’ point about Taste.

Thread 5: My Questions
Are we discarding the group experience or a certain understanding of a group experience? Is the irrational being severed from the discourse? Have we confused being lumped together with being the members of a society? And are we adopting a rational discourse because we have forgotten how to place the irrational? How do we get back to something? Awaken? Thanks for your help in putting this together!

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