It’s easy these days to take cheap shots at America. That country and its people, all the way from Hollywood to Washington and the Big Apple, offer plenty of opportunity for a cheap shot. But I can say that I had contempt for America before it was fashionable to do so. Long before Iraq, I despised America just for its pristine ugliness, for the ugliness of its culture and architecture. I was born and raised in what is, all things considered, the ugliest hole on earth.
I have observed poverty in Latin America, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa. And it seems to me that the material poverty of America’s poor is shockingly uglier than the poverty of those other places. Confronting nomadic Bedouins living out of boxes in Africa, I sensed something positive, even uplifting in their particular style of poverty. In certain circumstances, of course, poverty is not a curse - just have a look at some of the world’s wealthier folk. And yet America’s poverty is repugnant, because one senses that it is a thorough, drenching poverty, something in which both the culture and the individual are thoroughly submerged. That ugliness is strikingly evident in America’s inner cities, as well as in suburban and rural areas.
Given America’s wealth, one marvels that America has produced no architectural Wonder of the World. How is it that, with America’s great resources, the nation could not create some lasting collective architectural monument for human posterity? Whether traversing rural America or stalking the streets of urban slums, one sees little evidence to indicate the proud wealth and power of America. The urban wilderness of America, which since the 1970s has functioned as the primary source of innovations in popular culture, cultivates purposely an image of ignorance and sullen ugliness, evident in the landscape, the violent behavior of its inhabitants, and their disdain of education and intellect. The urban popular culture has its origins in commerce, not art. Whereas art is born and nurtured over time within a community of individuals sharing like values, the popular culture of America is unnatural and contrived. American culture depends on an insanity of novelty, far removed from expressions that have an authentic origin in the folk.
The situation in rural America is no less discouraging. For some years I regularly traveled an interstate that crosses what, for me is, an earthly revelation of hell. Both sides of the interstate are strewn there with junked automobiles; rickety wooden shacks and mobile homes; rusting manufactured metal sheds; insignificant businesses revolving around automobile engines, bodies, and tires; and frightful little white wood-frame churches from which heresies and hatreds are spewed Sundays and Wednesdays. Speeding away one day in an effort to escape the place, I was stopped and ticketed. I decided to fight the speeding charge, which meant I had to return to the local court a month later. I knew already what I would encounter. The hearing then was delayed by a discomforting wedding ceremony which involved an immense bride, a slim sloppy groom in blue jeans, both in their late 30s, and a small entourage of relatives with the same empty eyes and expressions, the same neglected appearance as the wedding pair. The single mother of the groom loudly and proudly proclaimed to strangers her joy to “finally got her son married.” Had there been no entourage, one might have explained it away as two individuals with disabilities. But it was clear that the ugliness and emptiness were collective, common to a whole community, an entire culture. I have since shuddered every time I passed through that spot in the “greatest nation on earth.”
The idyll of suburbia has brought comfort to some Americans. Proud American suburbanites see only beauty in the symmetrical rows of similar ranch style homes (or homes of whatever style happens to be popular for the decade) surrounded by manicured yards. That greenery serves not as a retreat for humans to commune with nature, but as a boundary separating anonymous inhabitants of adjacent housing. (Some other nations, by contrast, tolerantly cultivate their “weeds” with grasses and flowers; thus, one nation’s weed is another’s flower). Those boundaries are important for Americans, guaranteeing the sacred American privacy that isolates one individual from another.
American suburbia displays its own unique ugliness in the symbols of commercial life that are the same throughout America (and increasingly, the world). It is unsettling for me to know that two individuals at the same moment can enter a franchised fast food joint in Alaska and Florida, read simultaneously the same menu, and receive at the same synchronized moment an identical portion of food previously manufactured in a common commercial vat at a processing plant at still a third location. One cannot help but wonder what ends might be accomplished for humanity had some nation other than America control of such marvelous energies and resources.
America is the land of mass production par excellance. Housing and commercial buildings are manufactured distant from the spot where they come to rest. The craftsman does not see his product set into place; he never interacts with the community where his product is installed. The efficiency of the assembly line permits productivity and efficiency, yet it sacrifices part of the human being. It prohibits the development of human community, an important by-product of human industry.
For many Americans content to share their dwelling with rats, roaches, overflowing toilets, and filth, the true abode is the automobile (or maybe just a motorcycle). There the soul resides. Pimp my ride, dude! (not that I have any clue what the latter phrase really suggests). I have a prejudice here, insofar as I never learned to recognize beauty in an automobile. Not even the Hummer or late model double-seat pickup trucks impress me. (I have in recent years not only liberated myself from the automobile, but I have come to appreciate the unhurried pleasures of transportation upon occasionally reeking and ornery camels).
The three-car garage becomes a norm in American suburbia, not because most families now own three cars, but rather because the American consumer requires massive space for the storage of his gadgets and accoutrements. In a nation that has produced as much as America has, the disposal of waste presents a formidable problem. No folk in this world has such a cluttered environment as the Americans. Marketers of popular culture, having learned from successful marketers of automobiles and vacuum cleaners, are required to “move” a set quota of pop culture product, which means that consumers periodically must replace their previous cultural product. The homes and apartments of America are filled with cultural product, current and expired, the different generations of which have a common relation only through the individual’s shallow fantasy of nostalgia.
America is a rootless society. The tradition early was established that, once the surrounding environment is exhausted and the cabin begins to show signs of deterioration or accumulated waste, one pulls up stakes and moves on down the road to a new environment. Some Americans in their front yards display trucks and automobiles in various stages of disassembly, which are not only a sign of their admiration for technology, but are simultaneously a monument to the motions of migration that are by now a tradition. Yards with flowers and gardens belong to more recent immigrants of different backgrounds.
America undergoes a constant indoctrination of commercialism which conditions the behavior of its citizens. Americans rejoice to buy one, get one free. This is a language Americans accept and believe in; it seems natural to them that this is how their universe should function. (Ancient societies, surely and rightly, understood that it is illogical that one buys one and gets one free). Commercialism legitimizes a whole culture of dishonesty and commercial obscurantism. Commercialism has allowed the prostitution of art as, for example, in the fusion of popular culture and the commercial medium of television.
The true indicator of American Ugly is found in architecture, a genuine human language. Through architecture we make a statement about ourselves and about our community. Perhaps more than any other art form, architecture is about community, and therefore it reveals something of the soul of a culture. Standing before Rome’s mighty wonders, at St. Basil’s in Moscow, Hagia Sophia, or the city of stone in Petra, I am dumbfounded, stunned not less by the design and beauty as by some realization of the distant collective effort that was generated in the creation and execution of beauty. In each of those places, I have witnessed a statement of unique human culture.
American architecture is not about community or culture. It is today about kitsch, commerce, and individual egos. Just look at Beverly Hills or any suburb in which wealthy and famous Americans reside. Americans have no understanding of beauty. For some post-modernist elites, beauty is created exactly when the masses perceive ugliness (your insignificant ugly=our celestial beauty, “bad”=great). Beauty for the Americans is never collective, for the average American today knows not what is beautiful and what is ugly. American “multiculti” comes into play here. If all human cultures are inherently equal, they reason then that all architectural styles must have equal value, even mud-ugly huts and primitive human habitations in holes in the earth. Yet one can never simply collapse all the architectural displays of the world into a Disneyland of multicultural synthesis. Great architecture reflects a true collective culture. In its poverty of architecture and its ignorance of beauty, America demonstrates the absence of genuine culture and values.
From a better place than America
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