Although this is a very rambling article about how much (if any) influence our cultural backgrounds have on our creative work, I’m going to have to start by talking about chocolate and beer (of all things) for a while. So, if you aren’t interested in either of these things, you might want to skip the next six paragraphs or so.
A few months back, I ended up watching a documentary about chocolate. As I sort of already knew, the documentary pointed out that milk chocolate is made to different recipes in different parts of the world (the chocolates featured on the show were from Britain, Germany, Switzerland [?] and America) and most people’s preferred type of milk chocolate is the one that they ate when they were younger.
In other words, you generally tend to prefer milk chocolate from the country which you grew up in. In my case, this would be Britain. Southern England, if you want to get specific.
Anyway, having had the chance to sample some American milk chocolate (the US version of our Dairy Milk bars, no less) a few months ago – I fully understand this.
To me, the American milk chocolate tasted flat. It tasted bitter (and not in a delicious dark chocolate kind of way). It had a slightly powdery texture. Not only that, it also left an absolutely disgusting vomit-like aftertaste in my mouth for about half an hour afterwards.
On the other hand, a while before I wrote this article, I ate some German milk chocolate (from Aldi’s). This was actually really nice, it had a slightly creamier texture and sweeter/ lighter taste than British chocolate does. I don’t know how clearly I’d have been able to tell the difference if I hadn’t looked at the label, but – if you pay attention – it tastes slightly different to British milk chocolate.
The same thing probably holds true for beer too. Although I like both bitter and lager, I know that bitter is a lot less popular in both mainland Europe and the US than it is over here. Personally, I think that this is kind of a shame – but bitter is something of an acquired taste, I guess (and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t served “warm”).
Anyway, why am I talking about this stuff? Well, it’s because I wondered if the same thing held true for the things that influence our creative work. After all, no-one creates art, poetry, fiction etc… in a vacuum. We all have books, artists, TV shows, computer games, movies, music, places etc… that influence our creative work.
I’d argue that our cultural backgrounds do influence our creative work, albeit in more subtle ways than our cultures influence our tastes in things like chocolate and beer.
Because most creative works are essentially idea-based things, they travel across the globe more quickly than physical products do. Yes, things like books and TV shows may have to be translated into different languages, but visual art is essentially a universal thing. A great painting from any part of the world is still a great painting in any other part of the world.
Likewise, music is a fairly universal thing too. For example, even though I have a fairly limited understanding of German (I know a few German words and phrases, but I don’t quite understand the grammar well enough to speak it), this doesn’t stop me from enjoying songs by bands and musicians like Eisbrecher, Nena, Equilibrium, Rammstein, Blutengel etc… Seriously, this song rocks, regardless of which language it is being sung in.
Of course, here in Britian, we obviously share a common language with the US. This means that I’ve watched more brilliant American movies and TV shows than I can remember. It means that many of my favourite novels are by American authors. In fact, the narrative voice I used in my early twenties (back when I wrote much more fiction than I do now) was slightly more influenced by American writers than British writers.
But, I always notice something strange when I watch a British TV series after watching American shows. Although I love the fact that each series of a show from the US is usually 2-6 times longer than TV series over here are, I often tend to find that British shows (eg: Hustle, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Red Dwarf, Bugs, Urban Gothic, Ultraviolet etc…) often have a lot more of a personality and a lot more “realism” than US shows do.
Although the “realism” thing is probably because some of these shows are set in locations that I’ve actually visited (although it’s kind of annoying how at least 90% of popular scripted UK TV shows are set in London – seriously, we have other cities too, you know) and because the characters speak with accents that are more similar to mine, it’s also because of differing attitudes towards television censorship in the two countries. For example, even in gruesome horror shows and violent action shows from the US, all of the characters usually speak in an unrealistically polite way because of stricter American television censorship rules.
Likewise, because British shows are often written by only one or two people – rather than a large team- even mainstream British TV shows tend to be quirkier and have more of a personality than mainstream American shows often do (albeit at the cost of fewer episodes). In other words, they tend to be more like comics or novels in this respect. So, if I was ever to make a TV show – it’d probably be more like a British show than an American show.
Plus, although it’s no longer the case (as proved by modern American authors like Chuck Wendig), mid-late 20th century British horror fiction was historically more intense than most US horror fiction was at the time.
A few decades ago, popular British horror authors like Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker and James Herbert wrote wonderfully gruesome splatterpunk novels on a regular basis, which were often significantly more gruesome than many classic Stephen King novels (or at least the ones that I’ve read).
Then again, the first person shooter genre of computer and video games was invented in America. Likewise, the survival horror genre was pretty much invented (or at least perfected) in Japan back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But, in Britian, we seem to have less of a gaming tradition – sure, lots of classic 80s indie games were invented in Britain and we originally invented a couple of classic game franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” and the “Tomb Raider” games. But there isn’t really a defining British genre of computer game in the way that there is in America or Japan. Hell, even mainland Europe has a really good reputation for both point-and-click adventure games and hidden object games these days.
So, if I was somehow ever actually able to make a computer game- it’d probably be a lot more influenced by American, mainland European and/or Japanese games than British ones. Because America and Japan have dominated the gaming industry since it’s inception, they’ve had a huge influence on computer and video games made across the world.
On the other hand, the kinds of art that we create are probably influenced by both the locations we’ve seen throughout our lives and the art that we’ve seen over the years. There are a lot of subtle details about things like architecture, everyday items etc.. that differ from country to country and these are probably going to come out in your own art. Even if you set a painting in a different part of the world, these subtle details from your own country can creep into your work without you even noticing.
So, yes, in my view – our backgrounds and cultures can have a subtle influence on our creative work. But, because ideas travel a lot faster than physical goods do, our cultures have much less of an influence on our creative work than they do with things like the type of chocolate, beer etc… that we prefer.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂