Unsavory Meditations on Culture

This morning, I found the interesting juxtaposition of two contrary propositions at loggerheads in my conscious attention: the art I produce is terrible and should be stopped. 

For my reasoning to make sense, I feel I must make a few professions of faith.  I am ever converting to Catholicism.  Being Christian is a constant tension between my ludicrous desires and the absolute beauty of moral perfection in Christ.  Frequently this renders in me a sort of pessimism, especially when I consider the sort of culpable moral sell-outs it seems I must make in order to live in contemporary America.  (I half joke to my friends that after my next nervous breakdown, I’ll give all my possessions to the poor and become an austere hermit in an unmosquitoed clime.)  Therefore, I’m somewhat conservative, but also jaded, disappointed, self-loathing, but struggle to be as charitable as my heroes, the Saints.

I believe every consciously alert adult American will admit, more or less adamantly, that American Culture, the hegemony of global culture, is an atrocious swamp.  However, and this is what is deliciously interesting to me: persons will admit this for wildly divergent reasons.

I don’t believe it is fair, or even sane, to classify a person on a spectrum that has progressive-liberal on the left and then radical conservative on the right.  I do believe that one of the maneuvers persons make to help better define their feelings and establish their social position is to profess some point of the ideological spectrum (or if you, beautiful reader, are more politically savvy, somewhere on the plane, or even field).  I, not trusting myself to the horrifying world of identity politics, defer all my positions to the Magisterium (although I confess I am deviant, fallen, suck at living my faith, but am nevertheless committed as best as I may be).

The most compulsively readable (and provocative) list for me to write, at this point, are the instances and aspects of American Culture I consider deplorable.  And then list the cherished, perfect and imitable moments of the culture, the culture we all call our own.  This would likely be the point at which the reader, perhaps you, would decide if you could get behind my argument, determine if I’m one of you (I’ve probably already bruised certain potential affiliations because of my admission of Catholicity and my badness at the practice thereof).

But what would be the point of such a list?  The estheticians are quite clear that lists such as those are criticism, not philosophy.  And what I, beloved and sexy reader, am after is the The Truth.

Because to criticize any contemporary work of art (or propaganda, or cultural artifact, or ‘trash,’ or whatever term one wishes to inscribe the work of a soul expressing itself, either to ears or for coins) as disturbing the present order of society is, traditionally, considered reactionary.  One instance of the state institutionally opposing a person’s art is when the Athenians forced Socrates to drink to his death¹.  Another more insidious and, granted, problematic, example of reactionary politics towards art is the case of the Nazis.  They burned books and held, at some point, an “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst)².  I’m reminded of a typical attitude of many older southern men: “rap ain’t music.”  This attitude will soon die out, however: southern men who are not actively part of the KKK or other hate groups are compelled to like rap: that’s the sort of music that’s played in clubs and initiate modern mating rituals.

That being said, I should also point out that there is general approbation for ‘protecting our children.’  Which essentially means not letting children watch smut.  Which I hope we can all get behind³.  But what is smut?  This of course is when agreements begins to break down.  Is Venus de Millo smut?  Is von Treir’s Nymphomaniac?  We all agree Saving Private Ryan is art.  There’s debate about how much art is in a Tarantino film.

But I don’t wish to bring this discussion into an analysis of censorship.  What I do wish to do is understand the complexity of our cultural landscape.  Because, for better or worse, it is enveloping the world.  (The first image that comes to my mind is the science fiction scene of thick, noxious ooze covering the globe, the camera stationed at the point of a satellite.  The people in the command tower’s noses begin to bleed.  Klaxons thunder and crime-scene rotating lights lightening.)

The specific reason my initial thought occurred to me isn’t necessarily relevant.  But it made me think about how painfully disassociated, and yet so intimately proximal, all of our culture is.  I say our culture, not so much in a spiritual sense, but in a spatial sense: about one mile away from a strip club is a church; across from a Spencer’s Gifts is a Hallmark Gifts⁴.  And it’s important, I think, to countenance the fact that, even though two people can live two blocks over from one another, they can live in radically different worlds.

 

 

  1.  There is an insightful joke among philosophers that had Socrates been younger, he probably would have taken the option to skip town, which was very much available to him when he decided to kill himself.
  2. Culture in the Third Reich: Disseminating the Nazi Worldview.  Also, I believe it’s my duty to note that if there was an art show called “Exhibition of Degenerate Art,” my friends and I would doubtlessly be some of the first, eager patrons at the door.
  3. Rhetorically, I might call this, “an appeal to common feeling.”  Or “common sense.”  But I’m sure there’re some sections of our Fallen-World that encourage early desensitization of children.  Of course, they probably wouldn’t phrase it that way.  Indeed, my own phraseology is rather priggish.  I grew up playing DOOM.  Where a space marine rains down mini-gun righteousness upon demons.  In hindsight, this was probably a joke by the game’s company, ID.  In Wolfenstein 3D, their first game, the player got to kill Nazis.  There was some moral blow-back because in addition to killing Nazi persons, the main character had to kill Nazi German Shepherds.  However, in DOOM, when the main character is actively killing demons in space, I bet the video-game developers put the argumentative right in a bit of a corner.  However, now, as a perpetually converting Catholic, I have to ask myself if, supposing a woman were ever desperate enough to have children with me, I would feel okay about my six year old playing DOOM.  And then when she goes to Catechism and tells all her brothers and sisters about how she blew demons away on a mars mining colony, whether or not our priest would want to have a sit down with us about Dorothy’s conversation among other children.
  4. I don’t have any specific examples, but I don’t believe it’s too hard to conceive this.  Perhaps this is an “appeal to ignorance”.
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One thought on “Unsavory Meditations on Culture

  1. Scott the Good,

    I’ve read over your Unsavory Meditations a few times now. I enjoyed your insights. This is one hell of a conversation starter, and I hope that you dedicate another essay or two to expand some of these ideas.

    A few thoughts:

    1) Do you think that ‘unsavory’ or even ‘profane’ art has no place in the Christian life? In other words, if your (or my or anyone’s) self expression is lacking in virtue, would it be better not to self express?

    2) So much of the art world derives its power from its subversive abilities. As many philosophers have recognized, art has the power to enliven minds to imagine possibilities beyond status quo, hegemony, and other various entrenched power structures. As such, art seems to pose itself, from time to time, as an affront to attitudes which defer to the sensibilities of institutions and power structures (such as the Magisterium). Does this artistic function pose a threat to you? Or does art, in this way, actually help hone and strengthen Christendom?

    3) Given your aversion to criticizing art, are you admitting that freedom of self expression is the greater imperative than suppressing smut? Is it healthy to have strong aversions to smut? Is it unhealthy NOT to have strong aversions to smut?

    4) If the ‘secular world’ is laden with ooze, smut, sin, unholy virtues, and the like, how ought the church respond? It seems to me that many church communities prefer to insulate themselves, believing their particular iteration of church to be something of a quarantine or safe-haven from those contagious heathens gallivanting sinfully about the world. But I do not see this attitude in Christ; rather Jesus gives me an example of radical hospitality and unconditional embrace. Given your experience with Catholicism, how might the Christian go about undoing this disassociative tendency within our (plurality of) culture?

    I appreciate your essay for sparking this dialog. I am eager to hear your thoughts and perhaps even the further development of some of your ideas.

    Thank you, Good Scott!

    Like

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