Getting Over The Culture Pirates

Writer Kim Velsey weighs in on the international expansion of American cultural institutions.

(Illustration: Jon Han)

Last fall, the Juilliard School announced it was opening a branch in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, a move that made it the most recent American cultural institution to tap into the lucrative possibilities of international brand expansion—what the fashion industry refers to as a diffusion line. It’s been happening with increasing frequency: A few months earlier, the Blue Note, a jazz club and New York tourist destination, revealed plans to expand its brand to Beijing (it already has outposts in Japan and Italy), following a financially promising if much-maligned path pioneered by New York University and the Guggenheim.

Even the most august of institutions have been unable to resist the lure of the foreign outpost. In 2013, Yale opened a liberal-arts campus in Singapore, the first of the Ivies to do so, although the degrees were to bear the imprimatur of Yale’s partner in the venture—the National University of Singapore—rather than that of the elite New Haven institution.

The question of just what rich foreigners are getting, or think they’re getting, when they patronize an authorized facsimile of one of our sui generis institutions is not a particularly compelling one. So long as there are brand names, there will always be people willing to buy knock-offs, especially when the original product is not easily or readily available.

But why do we care? That’s the more interesting question. Why the editorial harrumphing and hand wringing from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate when such a vanishingly small percentage of Americans are affiliated with the brands at hand? And let’s be honest, we don’t usually fret about foreigners wasting their money on inferior cultural products (see: McDonald’s, Disney). So why should a Blue Note Beijing or an NYU Shanghai bother us?

There are plenty of things to be legitimately mad about, especially if one is in the employ of, or has spent a large amount of money to attend, one of these institutions. Take the cost of branch schools: It’s largely borne by undemocratic regimes with which a liberal-arts education is inherently at odds. There’s something more than vaguely imperialistic about the whole thing. Money is the driving force behind such projects, a fact that’s all the more galling since they’re so frequently gussied up as an embrace of globalization. The expand-or-die logic of latter-day capitalism has infected downtown jazz clubs, the ivory tower, and everything in between.

But in the end, the thing that’s most discomfiting isn’t rational at all. It’s that even if we didn’t go to Yale or Juilliard, or only visited the Guggenheim or the Blue Note once or twice, something of their glow, their shine, their specialness accrues to us by virtue of their—and our—being American.

To sell them to emerging superpowers and oil-rich sheikdoms offends not only our sense of ownership—it offends our sensibilities, just as a favorite coffee shop becoming a chain or a beloved “heritage” brand being sported by hipster hordes does. The practice is greedy and unseemly. Such overreach seems like the kind of thing that the country’s finest institutions should be above, yet they’re clearly not.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising. Because along with excellence and innovation and a collective amnesia when it comes to acknowledging our baser instincts, greed and overreach are endemic to the American character. The quintessential American story is not one of moderation, but of excess. We excel, we overdo it, we crash and repent, and then we stage a comeback.

It might not be such a terrible thing if our most elite institutions lose a little bit of their luster, if we’re reminded from time to time of their—and our own—fallibility and bad taste.

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