Against The Monoculture

As most of you know, I worry a lot about the American Monoculture: where 80% of the music downloads got to 1% of the musicians. Where 80% of the people buy from H & M or Forever 21, taking advantage of the exploitation of Bangladesh kids in the factories. Where a huge percentage of the population gets their meals from McDonalds or KFC. SO I have spent the last week in New Orleans, Florence Alabama and Oxford Mississippi observing and consuming a regional culture made by artisans with a passion that is quite remarkable for our cynical times.

i walked around the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans and photographed 50 row houses and not a single one of them was painted the same way.


Then I drove up to Florence, Alabama where the clothing designer Billy Reid was holding his sixth annual Shindig; a celebration of southern food, music and fashion.

Billy Reid

Billy Reid

Billy is a prime example of what the Southern Culture scholar John T. Edge calls the new southern Rennaissance. He has planted his flag in Florence and has revived the town. It has a flourishing food scene and of course still pulls upon the music scene from Muscle Shoals which is the next town over. What he and other southern designers like Natalie Chanin are trying to do is bring the aesthetic of “farm to table” that they have adopted from their southern food brethren, to their work in clothing. Could the South with its bountiful cotton harvest become a center for artisanal fabric development in the same way that the Italians have continued to sustain their local artisans? It’s of course not an easy job in an age of globalization when all fabric manufacturing is going to Asia. But as someone said,”you have to start somewhere”.

Throughout the weekend I was surrounded by a sort of southern hipster that seemed distinctive from the tribes of Brooklyn or Echo Park. Their culture is not as dependent on the Internet. Ashley Diamond, a fashion writer from New York is actually starting a regional culture magazine with no Internet site. Much of the energy comes from face to face meetings, meals and jam sessions. It is regional in that a great cook like Ashley Christensen from Raleigh, NC can identify with Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman who cook in Nashville.

There is a tremendous lack of understanding between the South and the North in America. In some ways I found New Orleans to be far more integrated racially than Los Angeles. Those of us from the North have dined on the amazing cultural banquet that the South has given us: Louis Armstrong, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Willie Nelson and Billy Reid featured two young bands Wild Cub and The Apache Relay that are carrying on the tradition. We talked a lot about the word “curation” which I have been using around here recently. I think people want a simpler life. They want a few good pieces of clothing that will last, some good meals that are memorable, and some good music that is original and not just some DJ sample.

They are trying to do that in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. The artists are trying really hard to get beyond the legacy of Selma and Birmingham. They don’t have all the answers, but at least they are making a really good stab at creating an original regional culture.

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2 Responses to Against The Monoculture

  1. Outlaw says:

    This is a nice beginning to a conversation. It leads me to consider two questions. 1) Do artists’ quests for connectivity through expression make them more likely to move beyond divisions of class and race, especially when compared to other sub-cultures based more firmly in intellectualism? 2) What is the percentage of artisans who are socially expressive to the point of initiating mid-to-high levels of environmental impact, like the unique painting of one’s home or the establishment of creative events and communities? Does it follow your proposed 80/20 split?

    This entry, like some of your others, seems to highlight the fact that we are in a time when we can be informed enough to know that there is a multitude of systems demanding our participation – be they political, social, spiritual, economic… Some compliment each other, some clash or compete. The number of new systems and sub-systems (one may be a vegetarian and another may be a vegetarian that only eats locally grown produce), may demand that we take the time to consider our options and make conscious decisions about which systems we wish to support.

    Your travels were the result of conscious decisions about which communities/systems you wished to support/explore, based on your access to the information and financial resources required to participate in your chosen systems. Monoculturalism may be the natural result of a population that does not access the information, resources, or even time required to choose. Gaining this access may even be considered burdensome to them. Agents, as you mentioned in an earlier writing, are those who make it less of a burden for an individual to access the benefits of a system, and, in most cases, choose systems for us.

    Is the difference between being in the 80% or the 20% the desire and ability to choose/create one’s own system – effectively be one’s own agent?

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