Rise and fall

20 Nov

I’ve started taking an art history class offered at SAIS with Melody and Jane. I joined late, and the professor was just jumping into the Renaissance, explaining it as a reaction to the Gothic style that had spread to Italy from Spain and France.

I don’t remember how it came up, but in the lecture last week, the professor briefly lamented how English has come to replace French as the lingua franca. I imagine she learned French as a young girl and then also was made to study English.

I don’t think possible leftover resentment at having to study a third language sums up her resignation. She’s an art historian whose list of publications suggests a focus on Italy and France from the 1600s through the 1800s, and during the lecture which the comment was made, we were learning about Masaccio’s paintings from the 1420s. America just doesn’t have that old of stuff! In my head, I see her imagining America as this unsophisticated party crasher taking over the music selection and eating up all the food.

Obviously I know English comes from England and not America. A quick tour of Wikipedia explained that the British Empire of course laid the foundation for English as a global language, but noted that it wasn’t until 1919, at President Wilson’s special request regarding the Treaty of Versailles, that a diplomatic document was written up in English in addition to French.

An English person might disagree, but International English strikes me as America’s doing. However, all of the business and culture that flows from America to the rest of the world doesn’t change that even in America, English isn’t the official language. I’m not in favor of making that so, by the way—check out this language from our House of Representatives back in 2001:

The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English.

It didn’t get very far on the path to becoming a law, and that’s the most recent federal action I could find in under a minute on Google.

Meanwhile, Colin’s classes confirm that the United States has seen her best days. We’re over the hill and not handling it with a whole lot of class, what with our economic stumble threatening to the stability of the entire global market and Hollywood distributing pop-culture greats like “Saw 3D” and “Grown Ups.” All great empires have to fall at some point. I wonder if the Romans, the British, and the Chinese circa 1850 felt as though the whole world was collapsing with them, too.

Italy as a state is presented to the world as something as a joke, helped greatly by playboy Prime Minister Berlusconi, the politician with nine lives and at least as many scandals going on at any given time. That Italy is a cultural mecca, however, cannot be contested. My professor said that Italy takes its art more seriously than its politics. The father I babysit for complained that Italy doesn’t have tourism infrastructure worthy of the country’s treasures. Luca Montezemolo, aka Mr. Ferrari, who gave the SAIS start-of-term address and is a potential candidate for prime minister in the near future, spoke about Italy falling out of the top three in worldwide rankings as a tourist destination and his determination to reverse that. The United Nations World Tourism Organization ranks Italy fifth for the last three years.

Decline is not a fatal condition for a state. China is proving that a country can remake itself from the ashes of a former world power and potentially grow to be stronger than before. It only took China 150 years and a cultural revolution to do so.

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