"Taking himself seriously, so you don't have to."

Midwest Culture: Part I

 

It is certainly a thing difficult to observe, being one if its representatives. There’s the observations made by others of the “Minnesota Nice” attitude. I would guess that flakes of that filter to Kansas. Were one to find generalities amongst Midwesterners, the most obvious place to look, to find the most common, or the “mean” of Midwest culture is none other than your state’s truly, Kansas, amongst the rural population, and Kansas City amongst the urban, if we are to draw another distinction.

 

Amongst the urban, that is Kansas City, and what other center I have visited (though Chicago has been, woefully, left unexplored at present, besides an action-packed six-hour sojourn, so what it could offer, much, I would expect, is unfortunately absent from this analysis). The urban would be the better area to observe first, as it is furthest from my position, making the notes simpler, before taking on the more difficult task of the rural.

 

Some observations:

 

1. The people of Kansas City seem much more social. They have learned to accustom themselves to the presence of other people much better than those of rural populations or small towns. It’s very basic, but this fact extends across a much broader range, encompassing more “types” of people. An “inclusive” attitude is more prevalent amongst the urban population. This, however, is NOT to be taken that the majority of them ARE inclusive.

 

Suburban sprawl has generally proven (that is, the DEMAND and fulfillment of suburbia and subdivisions of city’s into easily identifiable districts) that people prefer their distance from one another in most respects. The type of person that “runs” to suburbia is quite uninteresting (though interesting for the purpose of this essay) and more or less irrelevant to culture. They engage, for the most part, only as consumers. There are those who work best away and alone from others, but they do not exist in the suburbs. A man in suburbia is surrounded on all sides by people and society, but at a comfortable distance, the sort of goal that originates in fear, rather than reclusiveness. A comfortable distance and knowledge of the neighboring families or individuals. But not to actually “know” them, but to be secure in their “type”, which is quite identifiable, predictable, and uniform. They are the easiest sector of the population to become accustomed to. And they tend to live in the same neighborhood easily, so long as the infrastructure is there to support them. I have seen the sort in every major metropolis, city, and town I have ever lived or visited. They are a major factor in the economy and politics (likely the largest factor), and by their very nature are easily swayed by what drives them to live in a particular place, which is for want of security, or as a consequence of fear1. Their culture is an offshoot of the place in which they were raised, at best, or that of whatever mass media they digest, of which the most prevalent is television. They cannot create their own culture, as they, by their very nature, run from it.¬†This entire sector of the population (those who choose it, and even those who do not, because the majority are those that have) contributes nothing to culture, whether in the Midwest or not.

 

Amongst the cultures of larger cities, then, one might find that the percentage of the population who occupy suburbia is a good measure of the actual culture of the city at large. Proportion, that is, per capita, inversely applied. Other factors might need to be addressed, including a definition of suburbia, variable include affordability, prevalence of crime, and others, that might influence how and why people came to be there. But it can be said that anyone with the ability to “escape” inclusivity, in sickness and in health, by retreating to an “arm’s length” community will find nothing but an “arm’s length” culture, regulating important issues to a particular month, or diseases to a “walk” on a particular day, or community activism to donating to a multi-national non-profit organization, while paying dearly2 for the privilege to never feel sympathy for a homeless man on your street corner because there is not one there.

 

This part of the population does not create culture, and those that happen to live there and do create culture will soon find that their spirits become spent; speaking toward, and including, those who care not to be included. Attempting to give them the very thing they despise. The ability of those who live there to run back to arm’s length at first sign of a problem, show that they will not do otherwise in those vaguest of circumstances that LEAD to culture.

 

2. It seems that the culture of urban centers originates in that population that occupies the center of a city, within close distance to each other, within arm’s reach. Closer than is comfortable. Most often, in the modern world, considering the nature of a large majority of the population of many metropolitan areas, that much of what we call culture originates in those centers intentionally close-knit, grown to put together spectacle for the amusement, benefit, enjoyment of the largest sector of non-culture-creating suburbanites. The prevalence of land amongst the midwest has made them a particularly strong factor. The urban centers, too often (and it seems in Kansas City), have become not cities in their own right but “colosseums” for these plebeians, sponges to absorb what little culture can be created by those who at once work mostly for money from the very sector that denies them, creating a love/hate relationship on both sides. The rub occurs when one sees that the population that supports the inclusive culture does so for its own purpose, which is a lack of culture, or rather, an increasing lack of culture, burning through fumes of vestiges of a culture long ago discarded. What they can do is create spectacle. Which is enjoyable amongst all parties, but does not constitute culture in itself. Culture is more subtle and lasting. Spectacle is shorthand, a single rebel yell for culture’s rhythmic chanting. Now I wonder whether repeated spectacle can lead to culture. It can. And it will. But dependent on what spectacle the plebeians require. I would imagine that a variety of spectacles most please them, which diffuses an area’s particular culture.

 

The ability to “run away” again plays a part here. Say if a group of people talented in playing jazz music (of which Kansas City has a great history), were to make their stake in a city, to grow into their art there, as an outgrowth of the community itself, you have have a culture particular to that place. Modern society allows for those who enjoy spectacle and art to retreat to their particular interest, say, bluegrass music, in the comfort of their home. When the limit of interest has been reached, a diversion takes place amongst this populace. The discovery of interest-based spectacle diffuses the particular culture to disinterestedness, preventing more focused honing of an art amongst the community. The noble approach to subtlety and attempt at perfection, over the long term, is sidelined for a more “total variety” approach, reducing what could have been art to mere noise.

 

A place that combines a singular approach and geographical area with a tight-knit community will create the greatest art, as we have seen with Hollywood. Because the medium is transportable and reachable by all audiences and requires undertakings by many, many people, with careers spanning multiple projects, and becoming very good at their particular job. The writer/directors of that world are the Renaissance Men, but their work would not be the quality it is without the CULTURE surrounding them3.

 

3. The artists and community of Kansas City, and as much other similar metropolises in the Midwest, have a difficult challenge ahead of them: to create their own, unique art, in an atmosphere of disinterested, easily distracted, simple, varied spectacle-loving consumer culture, that does not know what good art is, and even if it did, would resent the artists themselves4, not pay for superior works (quantity over quality), would generally ignore “lesser, local” art for “greater, foreign” art. That “greater, foreign” culture unfortunately does not lend itself to any real community, however, besides localized pockets, i.e. Hollywood.

 

In a place such as Kansas City, however, there IS community. It is stunning to see it in action, in person, and deeply satisfying to one who so often observes detrimental facts. There is local theater, music, sculpture, painting, poetry, and every other bit of expression that forces its way out of our artists’ heads. They tend to pick a form and stick with it, engendering community amongst others who tend as much; not shying away from conflict, and fully participating with each other over a long period of time; entrenching themselves for the long haul, thereby enhancing what form they have chosen, or to which they are most apt.

 

Each city of this sort has their own scene of each form, which sometimes (unfortunately) operates in a bubble, removed from outside critique. Often the form’s group is simply too small, not monetarily rewarding, and particular to the local (or sometimes foreign interloping) practitioners. This can be a good thing, however. The artists must be willing to police themselves though. They must be their own critics. For the art to thrive, they must not behold themselves to the opinions of plebeians. For this reason, it is almost guaranteed that the true artist will never make money (unless through his art he convinces this very argument!). Not in our present suburban, consumerist culture anyway.

 

What makes the city unique? The vestiges of culture of days gone by. The atmosphere of industrial remnants. The shared identity of the people. The ubiquitous, “foreign”, hegemonic, mass-marketed, suburban, consumerist… (can I stop beating this horse now? Is it dead yet? Have I explained enough? I’m sure others see this as well [David Byrne, for one, has a bone to pick with sprawl]).

 

There is also the present advantages of the land, the occupations abound, proximity to institutions, etc. In all cases, those particular aspects of repeated, joined endeavor.

 

As for Kansas City, simply take a look around you: what do they do in that building there? What’s inside the old brick factories underneath the interstate bridges? That’s a BIG train yard. The KC Monarchs? Charlie Parker played at this club? I want to see more, learn more, and yet… it is all dusty. Few know, fewer care, and still fewer speak of these things.

 

These are observations of the City, which found itself to be the hub of industry and art of some sort, for some reason (feel free to read the history, it is all fascinating), and improved upon it by being a hub. By the city having something particular to it, that the people, whether pleased or mortified, were, at some time, forced to endure. I think there was a decade or two in the twentieth century when you couldn’t do a damn thing on a Saturday night BUT listen to jazz in a smokey nightclub. You couldn’t walk the streets without hearing it on every corner. Only those of a reclusive nature could escape that one thing that people congregated around. This is an exaggeration (maybe?), but the truth is not far. The particular and the unavoidable trend to advance art and culture. When nothing is particular, all ubiquitous, and everything avoidable (the only thing unavoidable these days being advertising culture), real culture, in your community, stagnates and dies.

 

To be blunt, these are the things Kansas City has going for it: a grand history of jazz music, a grand history of baseball, an excellent and vibrant barbecue cooking community (a direct result of the proximity to the beef cattle). That’s all I can come up with off the top of my head. There are other particular things, certainly. But any poetry, theater, art or other forms that have groups dedicated in the city and intend to “speak Kansas City” don’t really have much else to go on that makes them particularly different from any other midwest metropolis: Minneapolis, Dallas, Des Moines, Omaha, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, or any city in Indiana or Ohio (please, please explain how I am wrong here). Culture created, that is not related to the above things (and others, again, please, certainly) is either individualistic (relating to recluses), that is, not communal, or related to national or international ubiquity5.

 

1This statement appeared to be a bit too declarative without sufficient explanation. Why is it that fear and striving for security do not contribute to culture? This is the sort of question that quickly raises concerns of “what is culture?”, but while lacking a simple definition for that, I believe that it can be adequately shown just what is gained by fear, and that it would be fairly simple to acknowledge that what is gained, is very much not culture. So what comes of it? (This point I had gleaned obvious when originally written. Bah… assumptions) At the base level: we see an animal, or man, scared of the wolves howling in the night. We watch it as it runs to the tiniest corner it can find, with its back against the wall and face forward. It will stay in this position until a certain level of fear has passed. The animal, at the encouragement of its less fearful companions, may retaliate violently, “fight” activation, or run to a more secure retreat. later, it rejoins its companions, or society, and because of its naturally fearful nature (a creature of almost total obedience to the emotion, not adequately representative of the group I analogize, but one of an example of the far end of the spectrum), it will dread again hearing the howling. And at the recurrence, it will run as it did before, be violent as it did before. In conversations with others, it will reiterate the terrible danger of the howling, and attempt to convince others to build defenses against it, or attack the wolves, or migrate further away. It will be nearly impossible to convince it otherwise, being as it has been so defined by the very thing proven (the howling) to be harmless. After enough time, pressure, and evidence in its favor, the creature may be likewise be convinced to accept that it is safe, and may later relate stories of terrible imagery to its companions around the fire. But this requires persuasion, companions willing to continually harp on the subject, regardless of the creature’s propensity to attack. And given that suburbanites’ drive to live where they do is motivated in this way, that there are few companions that they cannot escape, that the howling is continuous and that even if it stops there will be another fearful instance in its place; there is NO REASON for them to change their mindset. This style of life, accepted and condoned, allows for them to merely raise higher walls, restrict interactions even further, be violent when they feel justified, be mistrustful, deceitful, condescending, hypocritical, judgmental, disconnected from real human interaction, prone to myth creation, ignorant as a method and result, and live with “culture” nowhere to be seen. They have not listened to FDR. There is, indeed, nothing to be afraid of but fear itself.

2Suburban living has an extremely high social cost for other reasons: longer sewer lines, water lines, horizontal sprawl that decentralizes utilities, degradation from distance, etc.

3Concerning Hollywood: The nature of the culture surrounding the area and collectively inhabiting its residents, is palpable. One FEELS it. To say that there is culture is absolutely true, and to the residents it might be as normal a feeling as the sun on your back. But, to a Midwesterner (and to an Italian) it felt “wrong”. I think it stems from a numbers of pressures: that the industry is engaged, for the most part, in creating art that is not “true” in the explicit sense, that the place exists for none other reason that that, that the art it creates is of such a temporary nature, that it is derived to be uniform and appeal to as many as possible, that the individuals driven there arrived with incredible misconceptions which later turned to intense resentment and disappointment, that the vast majority of most visible members of the community make a living by “acting”, and that those who best exhibit untrue emotions and hide true emotions are regarded most highly, creating an atmosphere of dishonesty, permeating through to every single member of the community of a city founded in a place where no human could naturally live. I would guess that a similar feeling (that of art-in-dishonesty) was evident in theater districts in the great cities of Europe, but those cities tended to have other offerings and the palpable sense previously described was perhaps not so acute as in a single focal point that supplies the highest film art (and houses the highest artists) for the entire world.

4Resentment originating of a “jealous-in-equality” democratic propensity best explained by De Tocqueville in “Democracy in America”.

5I differentiate between the urban and the rural, and I will soon examine the rural, but allow an anecdote: there is good reason to divide the two, and keep the aspects of the surrounding area separate from the “city”. One example: while speaking to someone who I thought to be an exemplar representative of the city, being born and raised there, and who was active and well-known in the community; when I asked whether she had been to the Flint Hills of Kansas (as I had recently worked in the region), she responded, “Why the fuck would I ever go there?” Kansas City’s best people might just be the ones who came from, shall we say, “humbler beginnings”.

One Comment

  1. You coldun’t pay me to ignore these posts!

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