World Cultures in America
At the height of the Cold War, when political and military tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had increased, the landscape of American popular culture was surprisingly cosmopolitan and multicultural. The American government sponsored the publication of folk music from Brazil and Venezuela at times of coup d'etats in those countries, simultaneously broadening the scope of folk music and disguising political affairs as benevolent cultural education [Figure 9]. Album artwork of the era features symbols and concepts that originated from Eastern cultures and religions, such as mandalas, the “yin and yang” forces [Figure 4], and totems of shape-shifting deities [Figure 1]. Members of popular bands put on Indian, Persian, and Japanese clothes [Figure 2]. Covers of teen magazines dress teen idols in traditional Arabian headwear [Figure 7]. Disney cartoon characters smoke a hookah, a waterpipe popular in the Middle East and South Asia [Figure 6]. A poster uses a Gothic font to introduce the use and culvitation of marijuana in other cultures [Figure 8]. At the same time, American audiences whole-heartedly embraced British and European popular culture. Stories and pictures of the Beatles populate teen magazines [Figure 5 & 7]. The legendary British secret agent, James Bond, collaborates with the U.S. government to cope with the nuclear crisis in best-selling novels and films [Figure 3]. Allusions to mermaids, a common motif in European fantasy literature, pop up here and there [Figure 4 & 5]. Such "exotic" images lured American consumers, particularly the young, to imagine the world outside of the U.S.
However, the representation of this world is far from authentic. The juxtaposition of a yin-yang mandala and a mermaid exemplifies the artist’s effort to copy and paste elements of the East and the West together. The cover of “Incense and Peppermints” demonstrates an ostensibly oriental style, where design patterns can be traced to several countries of origin. In general, this universalist landscape was made via imitation and pastiche and is a vivid example of Orientalism.
Posters illustrated the pro-drug argument made by Timothy Leary and others for the universality and historicity of psychedelics [Figure 8]. Take for example the use of the scientific term for marijuana, Cannabis Sativa, which emphasizes the naturalness of the psychedelic. Visually, this poster resembles a medieval illuminated manuscript, thereby associating the drug with the spirituality and nostalgia invoked by a historic artifact. Added to that is the brief list of the names of marijuana in other cultures and languages, a strategy that paints marijuana as a universal herb, a natural and even traditional mind-altering substance.
American popular culture certainly used exotic elements to invoke newness, fashion, and marketability. However, this was done at the cost to minority groups and local specificity. Foreign folk music may have sounded strange to American ears, but it certainly was less politically-charged than African American folk music. The yin-yang mandala looked "exotic" and mysterious, but it spoke little about the subaltern status of Asian Americans or of U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia. Similarly, psychedelic rock bands’ Orientalist clothing threatened to dilute rock music’s proximity to political protest and social activism. In the end, the popular culture that was laden with exotic elements was not likely to challenge the hegemonic conventions of America.