The Art of Culture War: (Un)Popular Culture, Freedom of Expression, and Art Education

By Darts, David | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Art of Culture War: (Un)Popular Culture, Freedom of Expression, and Art Education


Darts, David, Studies in Art Education


This article examines the culture wars in the United States and considers their impact on the field of art education. Stretching across virtually ever facet of contemporary culture, these ideologically charged battles over opposing moral values and fundamental belief systems are an intrinsic part of the ongoing struggle to define and control U.S. society. In recent years, the culture wars within and around art education have manifest in two interrelated battles-the first, over the adoption of a visual culture paradigm for the field, and the second, over art teachers' moral responsibilities and academic and expressive freedoms. By examining each set of controversies through a discussion of key arguments and events, this article considers potential implications for the teaching and learning of art. It concludes with a discussion of possible future directions for the field.

War is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin, and must be examined with the greatest of care. (Sun-Tzu, 1993, p. 103)

Lex Luthor: Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe. (Donner, Shuster, & Siegel, 1978)

In the Beginning: Struggles to Define America

In November of 2004, columnist Frank Rich (2004) of the New York Times wrote, "As American forces were dying in Falluja, some Americans back home spent Veterans' Day mocking the very ideal our armed forces are fighting for." He was responding to the decision by 66 American Broadcasting Company (ABC) affiliates to refuse the network's request to broadcast Saving Private Ryan in its entirety on Veterans' Day 2004. Influenced by the lobbying efforts of the American Family Association (AFA), who cited both the corrupting influence of the "F-word"-used 21 times over 170 minutes-and the film's graphic depictions of the violence of war, these stations, which cover one third of the country, chose instead to play it safe by broadcasting more 'family value' friendly shows. This occurred despite the fact that the network had nationally broadcast the movie uncensored in both 2001 and 2002 in the face of objections by the same family values groups. The difference? Rich claimed the climate in 2004 was clouded by the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at the time headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell's son Michael, to crackdown on stations and networks for airing 'indecent' material. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had received a stern public warning months earlier after an investigation into U2 front man Bono's use of an expletive during the Golden Globe Awards. Meanwhile, in February of 2004, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was investigated by the FCC for the widely watched Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake 'Nipplegate' incident during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. Officially described by the network's Keith Olbermann (2004, February 3) as a 'wardrobe malfunction,' the FCC publicly rebuked and fined CBS owner, Viacom Inc., $550,000 for the incident (Wise, 2004). Soon afterwards, the United States House of Representatives and Senate passed bills (Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, 2006) that significantly increased the maximum allowable fines the FCC could impose for broadcasting indecent content. Thus, the ensuing self-censorship by the ABC affiliates on Veterans' Day 2004 could be seen as a cautious response to the threat of real public relations and financial consequences. It could also be seen, according to Rich (2004), as a chilling harbinger of what was to come. As he pointedly asked in his November 21st column:

If these media outlets are afraid to show a graphic Hollywood treatment of a 60-year-old war starring the beloved Tom Hanks because the feds might fine them, toy with their licenses or deny them permission to expand their empires, might they defensively soften their divisions' efforts to present the graphic truth of war? …

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