10/31/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Kill a Culture in 3 Easy Steps


Over the past few years I've been filming interviews with random people I've met from the streets of New York, to Prague and from the farms of Eastern Europe to the Midwest and Western United States. I've interviewed hundreds of people from farmers, artist, workers, professors and even celebrities and pop stars, and in nearly all cases most people especially in the United States, haven't a clue about what culture is. I've gotten responses from, "Its some fifty-dollar word that doctors use to make you feel stupid" to "It's a thing of the past, [but] we're beyond that now." In some rare instances I've been surprised, "It's an idea about the potential of what humanity can accomplish" and "It is the actualizing of human dreams, like Walt Disney."

The more I travel the world the more I learn how different peoples share common habits that weave together or cultivating their common way of life. Most families who live on farms (both in Europe and in the States), for example, tend to eat together, whereas most city and suburban dwellers in the States (but not so much in Europe) tend to eat alone in restaurants and sometimes with another person.

There's a long history of the term culture but the original meaning came from Cicero's idea, cultura animi (the cultivation of the soul or life). In essence, it is the creation of how humans learn to enjoy life by cultivating their world, history, food, knowledge and communities that surround them. The word "culture" in Latin means to care for a field as in "to till a land." The idea is that one must invest in the very soil for it to give life back in the form of fruits from the field.

By contrast, what I believe we are witnessing in our time is the death of culture, the end of investing and taking responsibility in and for our surroundings. We have, in short, entered into a new Gnosticism in which we have become so detached from each other that our ability to cultivate and enjoy life has been reduced to a colorlessness. To this end, I wanted to list the three signs that signal the death of culture.

1. Bad Food

You eat just to survive and not thrive. When eating becomes banal, tasteless and mechanical something's missing from the equation that connects us to the joy of living. We consume our own disconnection. Our food turns on us: from the joy of taste to an insult, nausea. Today we consume food grown in different parts of the world, shipped across hundreds and even thousands of miles without spoiling. Hence we must introduce ways of preserving food from going bad as it treks across vast distances, and by the time we bite into it, it has lost its own freshness and taste. And if, over the past generations, we have grown use to tastelessness, a new demand is introduced, the demand for the appearance of taste and voila: the synthetic conversion of glucose into fructose: High Fructose Corn Syrup is born.

So tastelessness is converted into a new synthetic product that our bodies literally can't manage but nevertheless desire. This shift precipitates the literal explosion of, well... FAT. According to WebMD for example, "The average American is 23 pounds heavier than his or her ideal body weight. If we equate 'normal' with average, it's not much of a stretch to say it's normal to be fat."

The death of culture is fat.

2. Bad Art

Today most people interpret art as dominated by what has now become cliché "masterpieces" like Salvador Dali, Picasso, Manet and so forth. These "art" pieces cost about ten bucks. The default for what passes as "art" is a cheap paintings reproduced on a poster slapped to your wall. And now you can call yourself "cultured." But this isn't art but more like what you think most people perceive as cheaply reproduced "high art." I believe, art is the creation of something new that disrupts the cliché or what Walter Benjamin called "mechanical reproduction" of the same things. One doesn't have to spend money to feel they have art; art is as simple as creating something different and new--something that opens up the world into different dimensions. Art relieves us of the insult of repeating life's most banal chores over and over again. Art thus connects us to the intimate process that reminds us that something new is possible.

The death of culture is cliché.

3. Bad Education

The revolutionary, Paulo Freire perceivably said that, "Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Education has become less about how we humans cultivate our lives and more about how we are each turned into an uncritical and enslaved robot that reproduces our alienation without thinking or investment in the joys of life. This is true for our primary public schools that are being gutted by corporations looking to make a profit off of our younger generation as well as our universities and colleges in which there are now more administrators than professors. Education has been sold out to corporations that have turned inspiration into desperation, wonder into plunder, and aesthetics into pathetics. Teachers have become managers for the owners of wealth and students have lost the desire to create new and different worlds.

The death of culture is propaganda.

Until education, art and food become a means to get humanity off its fat ass, out of its clichés, and into creating a world, our culture will remain a propaganda factory for the rich, which is another way to say, the de-cultivation of the world, the death of culture as such.