American culture abroad: 'Dallas' as a villain

When 300 renowned artists and thinkers, ranging from Sophia Loren and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez to John Kenneth Galbraith, assembled last weekend at the Sorbonne to talk about culture, what did their discussion focus on?


Yes, the American television show. For many of the luminaries in this colloquium on ''creativity and development'' organized by the French government, it became the symbol of how economic growth and international understanding can be hindered if culture becomes standardized between nations.

''Tel Aviv, my hometown, used to be a beautiful Mediterranean city,'' said Israeli writer Amos Kenan. ''Now it has become Texas - everybody stays home and watches 'Dallas.' We need a war of independence.''

Such ringing words echo those of the colloquium's creator, French Culture Minister Jack Lang. Last summer at a UNESCO conference, Mr. Lang declared war on ''the invasion of fabricated images, prefabricated music, and stanil6l,0,13l,6 pdardized productions which are destroying national cultures.''

The conclusion here, tentative though it is, was that such a war against American cultural domination was needed to foster ''cultural pluralism.''

''Three-quarters of what is shown on Italian television comes from abroad, mostly from America,'' complained Italian film director Ettore Scola. He and others at the meeting argued that such inequality leads to strains in relationships between countries and can inhibit the changes that bring economic benefits.

''The economic crisis has at its root a spiritual crisis,'' Mr. Lang said. ''We brought all these people here in the hope that their encounter would help propose new visions.''

This thinking has led Mr. Lang and his boss, President Francois Mitterrand, to increase funding for culture and scientific research at a time of shrinking budgetary resources. Mr. Mitterrand told the colloquium that such funding ''was a sign of faith'' that through ''innovation we can open up great new horizons.''

Specifically, the argument here was that without a fully developed cultural life, one cannot have pride in one's society. And without such pride, innovation leading to economic activity and international understanding is frustrated.

''The North-South relation is particularly unequal culturally,'' said African historian Joseph Kizerbo, referring to the appeal of Western television shows in developing nations. Dressed in a traditional flowing robe, he explained that ''African cultures are receiving less and less inspiration at home,'' which puts an important brake ''on our social development.''

Even Americans here accepted the contention that culture influences the economy. ''Look at the miracle of Italy,'' said economist John Kenneth Galbraith. ''That country goes from one political crisis to another with an ever-expanding economy. Behind this miracle is not the government but the great Italian artistic tradition,'' emphasizing innovation and creativity.

But how does one spur this innovation?

At this point, agreement among the participants seemed to end. Jack Lang, among others, insisted that government must take a lead in forming culture.

''The key to this encounter,'' he said, ''is whether every country has the will to mobilize itself to produce culture, or whether it will just passively buy it. We are not going to let our national conscience die by passively buying television shows from abroad. We refuse to accept this fatality.''

This type of statement brought sharp criticism from American feminist, Kate Millet.

''At this gathering, I hear a lack of specificity about how the state helps art,'' she said. ''If the state just is going to build studios for sculptors (one of Lang's proposals), fine. But few here seem to want to talk about how the state can hinder as well as help art.''

Taking up this theme, author Mary McCarthy pleaded with Mr. Lang to reopen a Solidarity radio station that was recently closed down here. ''Just as in Warsaw , Solidarity is off the air here in Paris,'' she said. ''I plead with you to change this situation.''

Other Americans couldn't understand what all the fuss about ''cultural imperialism'' was about.

''I come from a country where there is little support for the arts,'' complained American author Susan Sontag. ''You have theater here we can hardly dream of. I find in Europe a great overestimation of the power of American culture.''

Yet ironically this past weekend, French television officials made an announcement that showed Ms. Sontag up: They decided to buy 25 more episodes of ''Dallas,'' one of the nation's highest-rated shows in its prime-time slot, 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

'' 'Dallas' seems to be the key word here,'' said Georgetown University sociologist Norman Birnbaum. ''Like the French we are fighting our own cultural imperialism, our own battle against the industrialization of culture.''

But is ''Dallas'' so bad, he asked. ''Its attraction transcends national frontiers only because it adds joy to all mankind in their daily lives,'' he concluded.

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