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Dishonest beauty in pursuit of profit

Updated: 2013-12-26 07:37
By OP Rana ( China Daily)

Dishonest beauty in pursuit of profitA new buzzword doing the rounds of the media in China is "soft power". There are many manifestations, so we are told, of soft power, the "culture industry" being one. The culture industry includes, among other things, the performing arts such as songs, dance, music, theater, opera, puppetry and movies, as well as painting, sculpture, pottery and even handicrafts.

Indeed, there is need to promote these forms of human expression, intellectual and emotional, to the highest possible levels of excellence. The problem, however, is, in our desperation to push our soft power, we are falling prey to the very traps that we should be steering clear of.

For quite some time, the media have been crying over the lost opportunities or yielding to the power of the Western (mainly American) cultural bandwagon. Chinese commentators have been lamenting the backwardness of the domestic movie industry and the ineffectiveness of the other performing arts in taking on Western productions.

The common questions many commentators (and even officials) ask is why can't China make films like Hollywood, why can't Chinese musicians come up with something like Gangnam Style - the K-pop single by South Korean musician Psy - why can't Chinese pop and rock music be as good as those by American artists.

But the question is: Why should Chinese movies, Chinese songs and Chinese dance measure up to the criteria of the West or other advanced countries? Do Chinese artists want to ape their Western counterparts? In a way, they have been (at least they are seen as trying to do so) and failing time and again.

Many media commentaries have also rued the mediocrity of Chinese pop and rock (soft, hard, acid, et al) music. By doing so, they are mistakenly assuming that China does not have any tradition of music, dance and opera. This poverty of imagination is something China can do without, especially at a time when the country is trying to spread its cultural web far beyond its borders. The truth is Chinese culture has nothing to do with a genre of music that has no soul.

The pop and rock music many Chinese talk about mastering is nothing but mindless entertainment and, if one watches some of the videos, exhibition of flesh. Music is anything but sexual titillation, which is what Western mainstream music seems to be promoting. Most of the music coming out of the West is more about mathematical arrangement in studios, "modern" choreography and visual presentation, and less about stirring our emotions and intellect.

How true was German sociologist Theodor Adorno when he said that the culture industry churns out a debased mass of unsophisticated, sentimental products; it cultivates false needs that can be created and satisfied only by the culture industry, demeaning the role and importance of society as whole. Only true needs, as opposed to false needs, Adorno said, can give human creative potential full expression. Those who are trapped in false concepts of beauty, in form and content and in audio and visual expressions, according to the capitalist mode of thinking can hear and see beauty only in dishonest terms.

It is this dishonest beauty that we see and hear in the products churned out by most of the culture industries in advanced industries, simply because their agenda is dictated by profit. And it is the blind adherence to profit that has, as many critics lament, spelled the creative demise of Hollywood. This is not to say that Hollywood has become a graveyard of creative filmmakers, for there are still quite a few that have been serving the needs of filmmaking, which is a glorious amalgamation of all the nine muses.

Even when talking about animation, Chinese commentators focus their lens on Hollywood, praising its productions to the sky. True, Hollywood has given us some good animations of late. But how many can hold a candle to the works of Hayao Miyazaki? How many Hollywood animations have the social and environmental message of, say, Miyazaki's Spirited Away? But then we are blinded by the glitz and extravagance of the West.

China is not a nation-state; it is a civilization state. And no civilization is complete without culture. Why should it seek inspiration from other countries (and ape their debased cultural products) to build its culture industry? China has more than enough cultural elements and forms to capture the imagination of the world. The need is to present them (perhaps with innovations) to the world with pride, instead of being ashamed of them.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily.

(China Daily 12/26/2013 page8)