Unification News for March 1997

The Civil War Over Cultural Values

by Haven Bradford Gow

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, set forth this enduring standard by which we can and should measure any work of art: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

The problem, though, is that all too many of our popular artists, musicians, novelists, and TV and movie producers, directors and writers reject the standard of beauty set forth by St. Paul. Dr. Anthony O'Hear, philosophy teacher, Bradford University, England, observes: "When we look at our world at the end of the 20th century, we find little in it motivated by the desire for the beautiful.... Cultivating good taste and the making of beautiful things require the acquisition of standards, something alien to the spirit of an age hostile to distinctions of quality and anything to which an immediate cash value cannot be given.... But when our artistic community has lost faith with beauty, can we be surprised that the rest of our lives are relentlessly lacking in grace, manners and taste?"

Dr. Joseph Epstein is a social and literary critic, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Divorced in America; from 1984 to 1990 he was a member of the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. In his contribution to Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture (W.W. Norton & Co.), Dr. Epstein observes: "I could not help noticing...the special obligation which the people who worked at the NEA felt toward what passed for avant-garde or `cutting-edge' art. The cutting edge, almost invariably, was anti-capitalist, anti-middle-class, anti-American, the whole-earth catalogue of current antinomianism. What was new was that the artists who wanted to seem cutting-edge also wanted the government they despised to pay for the scissors."

Dr. Epstein adds: "Those NEA grants that issued in obscenity and horror-Karen Finley smearing her nakedness with chocolate, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of men with plumbing and other appurtenances up their rectums, a man spreading his HIV-positive blood on paper towels and then sending them skimming over an audience-have given the Endowment its most serious problems in the press and on Capitol Hill. Yet the NEA's defenders are correct in saying that these comprise only a minuscule proportion of the Endowment's total grants. What they do not say-possibly because they are themselves are unaware of it-is how mediocre have been so many of the artists who have received NEA grants."

Example of mediocre works of art can be found on TV and in the movies. To be sure, our TV and movie writers in Hollywood are talented people who have the ability to produce educational, heartwarming and inspiring works of art; but these well-paid writers apparently are satisfied with supplying the public with TV shows and movies of mediocre quality which cater to the voyeurs among us with scenes of gratuitous sex and violence.

As Syracuse University professor of public communications Dr. Robert Thompson explains in his new work Television's Second Golden Age, published by Continuum, TV's most popular and "best" programs have been and are saturated with sexual innuendo and sex-related story lines; he observes that popular shows like St. Elsewhere often contain sexual innuendo and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) references to sex organs and oral sex; he maintains that some TV producers, directors and writers think sex and violence in their programs help them defy moral and religious conventions and achieve acclaim from their peers and notoriety from the public.

Certainly, TV and movie executives, producers, directors and writers should practice the Golden Rule: if they do not want their own children exposed to mindless sex, violence and exploitation, then they should not expose other people's children to the same, either. Consider:

*In the recent CBS-TV movie Sweet Temptation, a sexually frustrated teenage girl engages in verbal foreplay and sexual relations with the sleazy lover of her mother. As a kind of afterthought and as a way to "save face," the movie-after sexually titillating its viewers-later condemns the sexploitation which occurred.

*An episode of the CBS series Picket Fences highlighted two teenage girls kissing one another and exploring the idea of becoming lesbians while an episode of the NBC series Seinfeld examined the "life-and- death issue" of masturbation.

*The ABC series NYPD Blue boasts about being the first TV series to show nudity and broadcast profanities.

*Eight-seven percent of all sexual activity on prime-time programming on NBC, CBS and ABC is depicted outside marriage; a typical teenager watching TV for one year will witness nearly 14,000 sexual encounters.

Even those who contend TV shows and movies saturated with sex, violence, exploitation and anti-religious bigotry are harmless, must at least tacitly acknowledge the power and influence of words and ideas; otherwise, they never would attend school, go to the library or write letters, articles, books, advertising copy, and TV and movie scripts.

It is so very amazing to hear people who make their living by using words, ideas and images deny that words, ideas and images have any consequences or impact on thinking and conduct. Certainly, if TV programs and movies can educate, enlighten and inspire, they also can corrupt by glamorizing and encouraging pernicious ideas and behavior: ideas, after all, do have consequences.

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