An article in the online Las Vegas newspaper The Guardian features a new video clip that attempts to show the spread of human culture over the past 2,500 years. Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas, crafted a visually mesmerizing five and a half minute sequence of births and deaths of some 150,000 famous people over two millennia. The video, entitled “Charting Culture,” is purported to represent the spread of all of human culture.

But the video is problematic along two fronts. Here is the clip, give it a view, and check to see if your gripes are the same as mine.

The clip is problematic in two major ways: it’s bias toward all things “West”: and the definition of “culture.” Let’s start with the former.

Where is China? Japan? Mongolia? India? the Sinai Peninsula? Africa? Any of the Americas? Perhaps Schich is informing us that none of these regions developed any culture?

Which brings us to: what is culture? Surely culture cannot be the birth and death of famous people. Who are these “famous” persons? According to Schich, nearly all male, nearly all Caucasians, and nearly all from families of wealthy means and most assuredly preeminently educated. What of the women? What of the masses? What of the uneducated? What of the plebeian inability to move about within what Schich is actually describing: the Western schools of arts and letters, in other words, the movements of mostly academia?

The fact of the matter is this: culture possesses multifaceted meanings and decidedly not the singular, Western approach that Schich demonstrates with his so-called “Cultural Chart.” The video of these handful of famous people (if 150,000 can be considered a handful) cannot represent the movement of culture. They can represent the movements of elites, the movement of “high” culture, but they assuredly cannot represent the whole, or the other 99% who most assuredly had cultures (plural) all their own. Schich’s chart then is but a 1-percenter glimpse.

At the root of my criticism lay a culturalist’s struggle to remind other historians that the political, scientific, and religious elites do not represent “culture” inclusively. Schich’s list represents a customary practice of exclusion based on birth rights, access to education and decision makers. Yet plebian society is rife with culture not contained in Schich’s chart. For example; poetry, folk music, ballads, storytelling, witchcraft, theatre, fighting, medicine, merchantdom, etc., in other words the poorly-monickered “low” culture.

Such cultures should not be dismissed. Culture today is more powerful than politics: think “gun” culture and you’ll get that drift right away.

Schich’s video may be mesmerizing and fun to watch, but good and accurate history it is not.

 

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