Thursday, February 11, 2010

Americana/Puerto Ricana: reflections on cultural shifts

We're seeing it, hearing it, and tasting it everywhere. From the powerful resurgence of raw denim couture with a working class twist, to the rustic, wispy appalachian sound of Bon Iver, to the slow food, local produce craze--the culture seems to be yearning for a mythical past.

This trend is not limited to the fashion scene either (well represented by indy shops like Freeman's Sporting Club (NYC) and Union Made (SF)) but is steadily pervading the other arts. Granted, the past has been mined (some would say exploited) for years in order to imbue all sorts of mass produced crap with an aura of respectability. Even so, the most hardened cynic would have to admit that perhaps there's something unique going on here.

It will be interesting to see how this new activation of the American myth will develop. I'm thinking specifically of the way it will be perceived and reinterpreted by places that have either a real (Puerto Rico) or symbolic dependency on the mythology of the United States.

It seems that these places have an opportunity to amplify this trend by focusing on the best of their history, and, in doing so, diversifying Americana through the manifold traditions that set its true foundations. Clearly, this means more than just romanticizing an ideal. It means re- imagining the possibilities that were either ignored or deliberately squashed from that past.

We have been taught to find value in the unique, now we are summoned to create authentic value. But what does it mean to go from unique values to authentic ones? And is it possible to make a distinction between them when they have been dulled by years of abuse? José Martí thought that (in opposition to the dominant imperialist ideologies) the real conflicts of his time did not stem from the alleged clash between the civilized and the barbaric, but rather between "false erudition and nature."

It may be that, like Martí suggested, underlying this opposition between the unique and the authentic (values which lend a certain charm to this quest for the core of a mythical American past) there's another foundation that needs to be found.

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