Cultural politics of the Atlantic bridge: Europe and America
When Wim Wenders, a brilliant German filmmaker, returned to the European continent after a few years of living in America, he was led by the unclear, yet persistently present belief in the crucial difference between the European and American "forma mentis." The return of Wim Wenders, contrary to the drowning of his colleague director Volker Schlendorf in the Hollywood's industrial labyrinth, suggested his personal and, in particular, his artistic preference. No wonder. Wim Wenders' wonderful cinematic meditations, wherein he sought to uncover some kind of existential meaning in the age of electronic images, have represented a distinctive part of the European cultural landscape for more than twenty years. Nevertheless, Wim Wenders shoots his films for his own "Road Movies" production house, whereby the name itself clearly discloses his American inspiration. With regard to the substance of the films, Wenders' collected works originate in a radical movement started in Munich in the 1970s and is known as the "new German film." Today, alas, few remain knowledgeable about this far-reaching movement.
This loss of historical awareness is perhaps unavoidable. We live in a time that requires participation in the "perpetual now." The obsession with the present is, after all, the main force that drives corporate capitalism and the American mentality. To have it, to have it all, to have it all today: this is the imperative of a country in which history is but of little importance. The United States of America was created on the basis of escape from history and its cultivation of prejudices. The emigrant experience that defines the American life is the experience of individuals forced to keep a distance between yesterday's ritual, determined by an archetypal formula, on the one hand and today's promise of happiness freely available to anyone as it is constantly evading, on the other. The American culture is still defined by the paradox Alexis Tocqueville so eloquently described a century and a half ago. Democracy and mercantilism imply that while anyone wealthy enough can afford a life-style of aristocracy, no one can become the king.
Instead of the weight of history and the symbolic capital of blue blood, the Americans, who are emphatically not familiar with the aristocratic tradition, have successfully created the hierarchy of financial capital. This, in turn, enables affiliation with the elite whose social status is changing with the appearance of each "nouveau riche," whose pockets are warmed by the platinum American Express card. In this context it is not unusual that, in accordance with the imperative of being focused on the "perpetual now," cultural industry has developed into a main economic drive in a painfully beautiful and relentlessly fascinating country, in which I lived for half a decade, received an academic title, published a few books. This is also the country my wife comes from and, least but not last, the country in which I am writing this article. The mythology of life "made in America," widely supported by well-promoted films, books, paintings and TV series watched by the majority of the planet has efficiently brought this "permanent now" home, that is, to all corners of the world. This is done--one has to admit--in an exceedingly attractive way. What's the main character of this mythology? Freedom, modernism, democracy, a possibility to start life and career anew, unlimited opportunities for imaginative and courageous spirits. This mythology, however, is available to us only by means of consumer goods.
The logic of the market in which the product of creative imagination is to be sold successfully if it is to be considered aesthetically valuable, is certainly perverted. Yet today, it defines the entirely "natural" global communication logic. In a transatlantic dialogue, many European authors reject this yoke of market forces with unyielding determination. Such a stereotypical response of the cultural Europe to the American predominance, however, uncannily reminds me of the response of dissident intellectuals from the countries of the former "Warsaw Pact" to the rise of democratic regimes which, with their considerable assistance, sprung up after 1989--the annus mirabilis. They are by and large insulted and more often than not marginalised. Their yesterday's dissident critique advocating personal dignity and risks in the name of freedom are not highly thought of today. In the emerging democracies, which these intellectuals so unselfishly helped to establish, the fervent wish for political freedom also presupposes another, in my opinion unattractive and poorly respected freedom. It presupposes uneasy freedom in which our books are not being read by the large public, our political ideas are not being taken seriously and our moral and aesthetic values are not being taken into critical consideration any longer. Like the East European intellectuals and artists became helpless "beautiful losers" after the defeat of communism, Europe, too--as the personification of rich cultural sophistication--today, more than ever, seems helpless and confused. When faced with the grandiose commercialisation of the world orchestrated by highly skilled American trade in cultural and entertainment industries, the European "habits of the heart" collapse under the weight of what is often defined as American "cultural colonialism."
At the same time it would be, however, difficult to claim that America has just been taking from Europe (philosophical ideas, genres and forms of artistic expression, societal manners, etc.). One has to consider the fact, too, that America has also given Europe many things. American pragmatism was above all a liberating experience. It contributed to dissemination of a cosmopolitan spirit that is in principle blind to one's ethnic, linguistic, and religious identities. The American way of doing things has been for better or worse widely recognised in the remarkable acumen of blending diverse traditions into a new whole. In view of this atmosphere, the European countries could not simply go on comfortably enjoying their defensive, often narcissistic and unpalatably provincial life under the low arch of domestic sky. In fact, it is possible to argue that a highly praised, while rarely defined, specific distinction of Europe often meant a pretext for prejudice in accordance with which the "Europeanism" should automatically imply some kind of cultural superiority.
Such simple hierarchy of creatively strong Europeans and culturally inferior, but financially stronger Americans cannot be advocated since World War II. In the fifties, when the victorious and self-confident America with its systematic export of abstract expressionism, industrial design, jazz, and diverse entertainment machineries was not only a military, economic, and political super power alone. It also became a cultural giant. Since that time, the Atlantic has not only represented an ocean of separation: its waters partake in the rites of strengthening integration and the habits of mutual enrichment as well. From this particular vantage point one might speak about the "Atlantic Bridge." Often stale, narcissistic and uselessly beating its breasts of yesterday's honours, our sometimes limited European consciousness continues to receive a steady stream of strengthening elixir, great enthusiasm and revelation in the excess of body and soul with the assistance of this bridge.