I remember the thrilling sensation that I was experiencing as a kid and as teenager every time a “best of…” show was coming on tv: best of 90s, best photos of the year, best of love songs or best movies of all times. It was probably due to the idea that I was exposed to the creme de la creme of cultural products, the epitome of taste, talent and success.
Of course, growing up it became apparent that the Backstreet Boys were not the best group ever and that the 90s was quite a diverse decade which could not be covered by an MTV half-hour. It also became apparent that the majority of these “products of excellence” were coming from the US. However, the lists were not solely consumed through media of US interests (such as the then free in Greece MTV Europe). They were constantly translated and reproduced by the local media.
This cultural trend persists today. An interesting list was posted recently on Brain Pickings presenting the best books of the 19th and 20th century, as well as the best authors. Ten out of the fourteen novelists were native English speakers. This realisation raises the question of demographics: who is the target audience? Then it is a question of the people who voted for it: do they routinely read foreign literature? From which countries? Do they read the original or a translation? Can they relate to the text? How old are they and how many books have they read in their lives?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, there are also other issues that occur. Such lists with the big, impressive titles and the generalisations position these authors, musicians etc. as admirable standards. However, it can be argued that the excellence of the artists is also associated with their ethnicity. It seems to be a very short and almost natural step to take. Therefore, the (Anglo-Saxon) West becomes a standard of excellence.
Humanities and social science education can often lead to a misleading understanding of the “common person” (if such thing exists) and her consuming media. To declare that everybody is the same would be an act of foolishness. However, alternative channels and “eccentric” tastes (anime, Middle Eastern music, African cinema) will remain for a long time exactly what they are – an alternative. Whenever they will come up to a regular discussion, they will take a “token” position, a reference that connotes the educative level and sophistication of the speaker. It is also interesting to notice how even educated and intelligent people complain about the lack of “quality cultural products” from their country and proudly attest themselves as followers of foreign bands or music trends. Let’s not forget that every artist who has tried to cross the borders of his country and chase the dream of an international career needed to have his/her work translated. This goes well with authors, but most of the time it goes badly with musicians who try to sound less “ethnic” and more “mainstream” (American).
Therefore, what can be done to address what a good communist would call the “cultural imperialism of the West”? There are many government-funded initiatives who support local production. However, what is lacking is not only quantity, but also quality and the interest of the people. Only sophistication and the nourishing of local talents who can produce truly original material and an avid following that will embrace their work can guarantee an actual preservation of locality in a globalised world.
However, generic lists of excellence will never cease to appear here and there. At the end of the day they meet a very simple human need: the need to put everything into categories that he can control and use as a reference. They only thing that we could wish is for these categories to broader a bit and embrace exotic names and unique voices.