29 April 2021

Fromm and Maccoby on Cultural Stimuli


In our discussion thus far we have paid little attention to the problem of the happiness of the peasant. In fact, we have stressed the economic advantage of the productive orientation, but said little of the subjective factor of satisfaction and contentment. In order to understand this problem better, we must have in mind the important fact, mentioned in Chapter 5, that the village is a cultural and spiritual desert. The values which existed for the precapitalistic peasant, and which Tawney has described so succinctly, have virtually disappeared because they are in blatant contradiction to the spirit of a society in the process of industrialization. The friendly, purposeless conversation, the fiesta, the sitting around, and the sweetness of doing nothing, which in a society with precapitalist values and traditions were subjectively very satisfying, are rapidly losing their place within the Mexican village of the 20th Century. This is so because such values and traditions cannot grow unless they are rooted in the spirit of the total culture; furthermore, the economically successful peasants, who are of the productive-hoarding type, and who dominate the village, have cut off the expenditures for fiestas and all other forms of "uneconomical" recreations. Thus the receptive peasant is left with nothing except the cheap entertainment of radio, television, movies, and comic strips. The easy access to liquor (actively promoted by the industry producing alcoholic beverages) is all that is left to make use of his free time. The picture of the "good life" portrayed by television and radio increases even more the sense of worthlessness of the purposeless life, and increases the receptive peasant's sense of defeat and hopelessness.

... It is our experience that villages in which a richer cultural tradition is still alive (such as Tepoztl√°n or Tzintzuntzan) have probably a somewhat larger percentage of productive-receptive characters, and it is a legitimate speculation to assume that cultures like medieval society, in which man and living are the overriding goals, while not creating the characterological basis for hard and relentless effort, and not a great deal of individualism, offer the possibility for the development of the productive-receptive orientation. Both in the case of the village today, and in the case of a village in an unbroken, humanly rich culture, productiveness develops when the economic and the cultural reality permits and stimulates the kind of activity which is the essence of productiveness.

To return to the peasant of our village, while many are characterologically motivated for hard work, they have little enjoyment. Life is seen as a struggle to keep afloat. By orienting themselves more and more to the market, to profits and material gain, the productive-hoarding peasants are increasingly influenced by the new class of entrepreneurs to give up traditional fiestas as a waste of money, to work harder to buy more consumer goods, and to provide schooling for their children so that they can leave the village. While the cane growers cling to a way of life that leaves them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, the productive-hoarding peasants do as much as possible to pull themselves into the modern society. A combination of factors including the values of the industrial society, pressures from the new entrepreneurs, rising prices, and new consumer demands all favor an orientation toward cash crops, capital investment, and status in terms of income. But the given limitations of their economic success are such that the vast majority of the productive-hoarding peasants can never earn enough to consider themselves successful in terms of the city economy, or even in terms of the new village entrepreneurs. All they have is hard work, little reward, and the constant risk of being run over by forces they can neither predict nor control. They must look at themselves in the eyes of the industrial world as underdeveloped. (134-135)

Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby
Social Character
in a Mexican Village
(1970)

Here, then, is a lovely functional role for The Arts (as part of Culture) that does not require the actual artistic production to be functional. Culture makes life worth living, and thus it is lived better with Culture at its side. What else? Culture here in the end is still subservient; the notion that it aids productivity can never be formulated in a way that does not also simultaneously contradict the emphasis on Just Because. In fact here EF and MM actually propose this remedy only for one particular personality type, which raises a second set of questions: what about the other types? Must we assume that diversity in this sphere is inevitable and hence that having proper outlets available for all types is a matter of justice? Or do we go so far as to identify benefits and drawbacks of each type and then set about devising policy that we hope trickles down all the way to the process of character formation? Oy.

For me there is an even more chilling/fraught issue here. It seems quite agreeable that life is better all around when we have pleasuable cultural outlets available to us. But as the contemporary Creative Class as theorized by Florida has demonstrated, a supremely well-developed intellectual and entrepreneurial class does not actually need an accompanying culture which matches the sophistication of their day jobs; rather, a variety of "peasant"-level diversions is plenty adequate (preferred, actually), the differences in form being merely superficial ones in the larger sense and dictated rather predictably by time and place. (Quoth Florida, if memory serves: "some would say much of this is superficial, and much of it is." No shit!) Of course some of us were bound to lose our ways and apply our productive characters, intellects, and bourgeois comforts towards art itself, without having a day job. Hence the "decadent" post-industrial phase, portending a final collapse. It would be awfully satisfying to be able to respond to this charge with sociological evidence that productive characters crave cultural engagement which matches the sophistication of the rest of their lives. However we define "sophistication," though, it's hard to see anyone alive today who is NOT simply a full-time artist themselves truly breaking out of the realm of "cheap entertainments," for the simple reason that they don't NEED (psychologically) to. If they did, they would! The Creative Class has enough money to afford to do so! Hence the authors lapse just a bit in permitting THEIR contempt for "the cheap entertainment of radio, television, movies, and comic strips" to shine forth. Really the problem is not cheapness but rather inauthenticity. These cultural artifacts are, simply, artifacts of a different culture; they are not "rooted in the spirit of the total culture." Perhaps that can be said of certain subsets of the Creative Class as well, and perhaps they'll be the ones to eventually drift towards High Art in their leisure time while their friends mock them mercilessly.

At the start of the study we asked ourselves whether the villagers would respond to more cultural stimuli if they were offered to them. To answer the question, we brought experimental stimuli to the village; they included the choir of the National University of Mexico, folk dancers, and folk singers. A reading group was formed...where each week those who were interested might come and listen to fairy tales, and to novels especially about Mexico and about peasants in other parts of the world. A group of 20 women and 2 men regularly attended the readings. They particularly enjoyed a novel about the peasants of the region during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as well as Grimm's Fairy Tales and the stories by Tolstoy about Russian peasants. It was notable that they identified themselves with the attitudes, fears, and strivings of the European peasant. Furthermore, for the first three years of the study, motion pictures were also regularly shown by the study. At first the aim was to have comments and discussions about the films... many villagers felt reluctant to attend a performance when they did not pay for it. However, when they were encouraged to comment on the films, their comments were sensitive and perceptive.

Each villager was rated in terms of his or her participation in the cultural activities introduced by the study. Thirty percent of the villagers participated at one time or another, while 70 percent never participated... For the men there was a significant correlation between productiveness and cultural participation. ...

Why is it that the unproductive and receptive villagers do not respond to new cultural stimulation? First of all, the nature of the unproductive person is that he does not respond to stimuli, that he is passive. Furthermore, some of the particular stimuli might even have made him feel worse, in that they have reminded him of the values that represent the dominant ethic of material gain and progress and which would make him appear irresponsible and lazy. Even some of the folk stories tend to emphasize the values and moralizing of hoarding free peasants in Europe. ... If the passive-receptive villagers are to respond to cultural stimuli, it would seem that these would have to be of a different type in the context of new economic conditions that promise a better future for these people. (141-142)

A noble effort in the broadest sense, I think, but also seemingly oblivious to a couple of key points. (As always, points that the Cultural specialist would not have overlooked, whatever our other blind spots might be.) First, the authenticity problem mentioned before has not been solved here, or not REsolved at least. The presentation of both indigenous and imported peasant-themed literature certainly counts for something, and the resonances with other people from other parts of the world could be powerful. Even so, there is only so far this kind of progress can go without completing the circle as it were, i.e. nurturing and eliciting creative agency in the local polity. From my vantage point within today's outreach paradigm, the apparent limitation of this study's cultural outreach purview to the presentation of existing artifacts stands out. Certainly this is the necessary starting point; one does not go straight to cultural creation in such a scenario, but I think that the effect EF and MM clearly are seeking necessitates that agency be an eventual goal. This is NOT to say that "peasant" art can meet all needs, or that "local" production necessarily has some special metaphysical quality, or that every peasant should/must become some kind of artist. It is merely to point out that such outside studies cannot remain responsible for a village's cultural life indefinitely. At some point they must teach the man to fish, as the saying goes.

I'm not oblivious to the many and varied potential reasons why this was not attempted, but I am always surprised when it is not even addressed. The authors remark a few times that many of these peasants are in fact time-rich, which obliterates the first/best argument of various Communist oppositions to "bourgeois art" being offered up to their people; but then the conclusion that most such peasants here are time-rich because unproductive/receptive, cane planters, etc. indicates that those with the time won't benefit (can't, really) from "cultural stimuli" of any kind. The "good" ones, then, just like in American high schools, are by virtue of their breadth of interests and "good" qualities actually somewhat more strapped for time, and this intentionally and probably happily. Hence something of an impasse which is not easily massaged.

In any case, though I'm usually the ultimate skeptic of art-as-proxy for various types of general personal development in the post-industrial world, in the world here described by EF and MM, where a sizeable minority manage to achieve unmistakable inner genuineness and warmth against all odds only to have it somewhat locked inside of them by dysfunctional cultural/behavioristic norms, the potential for art therapy seems greater.

[from a notebook, 2016 or 2017]

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