Basketball, Nike[TM], McDonald's[TM], and Madonna are now available in most parts of the world, no matter how poor or remote. It is therefore no surprise that critics, such as Benjamin Barber and John Gray, fear for the future of world culture. They charge that the world is becoming one big shopping mall, causing non-Western cultures (and perhaps Western culture as well) to falter in their artistic creativity.
The notion of ethos describes the special feel or flavor of a culture. We can think of ethos as a background set of assumptions for viewing the world. The combination of ethos and technique gives a creative era its particular "feel," or its stylistic and emotional core. In short, the fear is that the world will end up with a single ethos, and an unattractive one at that.
I wish to offer a more optimistic perspective on global culture. My vision of globalized culture looks to Hong Kong cinema, the novels of Garcia Marquez, the Cuban music of Buena Vista Social Club, the successes of Australian Aboriginal art, and the amazing proliferation of ethnic dining. Culture lovers have never had more quality choices than today, and artists have never had more opportunities to reach audiences. Insofar as we have a "global shopping mall," it delivers many diverse styles to eager fans around the world. To see why I hold these optimistic views, let us step back and examine how trade influences ethos.
FRAGILITY AND THE PROBLEMS OF ETHOS
An ethos can be weakened or destroyed by external influences. Artists can lose their creativity if they learn too much about other approaches. Contemporary musician Beck, an eclectic purveyor of rock, country, and blues, makes the point succinctly: "You can't write a pure country song any more. You can't write a pure Appalachian ballad. Because we live in a world where we've all heard speed-metal, we've all heard drum-and-bass, we've all heard old-school hip-hop. Even if you're not influenced by it, or you're not using elements of it, they're in your mind."
Some degree of isolation can inject self-confidence and a sense of magic into an art. Many creators view their endeavors as imbued with great religious and mythic significance, and as having central importance for the unfolding of history, in reality, they may be just another craftsperson in the eyes of most observers, but their creativity will be greater if this knowledge is not rubbed in their faces. Art and creative power, to some extent, rest on illusion and delusion, most of all in the minds of artists.
That being said, ethos relies on trade as much as on isolation. It is no accident that Classical civilization developed in the Mediterranean, where cultures used sea transport to trade with each other and learn from each other. Trade relations spread the spirit of learning throughout Europe during late medieval times, starting in northern France, the Low Countries, and Italy. The mobility of scholars, painters, manuscripts, and scientific ideas gave birth to the Renaissance and its artistic glories. The development of the United States, another formative event in Western history and cultural history, owes its existence to trade and resource mobility.
It is impossible to look at culture without noticing the importance of trade. For instance, Jamaican music did not take off until African-American rhythm and blues music was imported. Jamaican migrant sugar workers were exposed to R&B during their trips to the American South in the late 1940s, and they brought back a taste for the music. In the 1950s, Jamaican listeners picked up rhythm and blues broadcasts from New Orleans and Miami radio. Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry were especially popular in Jamaica. (Jamaicans tended to prefer loping, less hurried rhythms, rather than the Delta Blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters; this continues to be reflected in reggae music.) The Jamaican ska tunes of the early 1960s, the first breakthrough for Jamaican music, reveal strong influences from doo-wop, swing, crooners, and the softer forms of rhythm and blues. …