Embedding Life Issues in Cultural Narratives for the Third Millennium

By Ciganko, Richard A. | Art Education, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Embedding Life Issues in Cultural Narratives for the Third Millennium


Ciganko, Richard A., Art Education


Almost daily one can read and hear the commentary of various pundits as they describe the breach of minimal civility found in contemporary music, film, and Sports. Increasingly, the popular culture directed towards teens and pre-teens is mentioned as a reflection, or even cause, of cultural decline. Parents are cautioned to screen the lyrics of songs before their children purchase music because lewd conduct, acts of hate, or violence are likely to be promoted in them. Terror in movies has moved from "Hitchcockean" scenes of fright towards graphic sadistic acts, often used as comic relief, committed without remorse or consequence. The heroes of the baseball diamond or basketball court spit in the face of umpires or choke their coach, yet they are rewarded by million-dollar paychecks and continue to play as champions. The daily news reports bring us tales of crime to and by children, self-annihilation through drugs and suicide, the spread of killer viral strains, and terrorist attacks on the innocent Recent examples include two children mortally attacking schoolmates in a Colorado high school and a father smothering his infant son so his wife will feel the hurt of losing a loved one. Is it little wonder that Pope John Paul II (1995) writes to condemn the growing culture of death that seems to be replacing the culture of life as we enter the Third Millennium? He argues that the inviolability and sacredness of life is threatened by the sanctions given even under the rule of law. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are merely the manifestation of such a culture of death. These are some of the significant issues that form a backdrop to contemporary life and provide a context for teaching.

Life Issues and the Cultural Narrative

life issues are not unique to the 20th century, and every dynamic society needs to identify ways to integrate the challenges brought about by the changing conditions of life. Typically, various social institutions, including schools, are given a share of the responsibility to transmit and invoke any number of cultural narratives for this purpose. When members of society understand the cultural narrative, the culture's interpretation of reality is supported and sustained through a coherent system of concepts, objects, and rituals. However, as the received narratives lose their explanatory power, a cultural dilemma ensues and life's issues are less well understood. We are presently living through such a period of instability as the narratives of the past are being challenged by new historical contexts. In 18th-century agrarian America, the pervasive cultural narrative encompassed various concepts from the Enlightenment: truth, reason, equality, individualism, personal responsibility, hard work, faith, and inevitable progress. As the country was transformed into an industrialized nation throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, the narrative's explanatory power weakened. However, an even greater disturbance to the narrative arose during the middle of the 20th century as the tsunami of Toffler's "third wave" (1981) swept over a burgeoning industrial society. America changed from a rural and agricultural state to one based on industrial progress and then within decades to a technological society. Our inherited cultural narratives were expected to make sense of the dynamics of human experience even under the pressure of radical social change. But as highways joined all regions of the country, supersonic jets connected once distant cultures, television placed historical events into real time, and the availability of information was expanded by the internet, our previously taken-forgranted explanations of life are increasingly being abandoned.

New Opportunities for Art Education

As a nation we may enjoy less cultural stability today than in the past because of the need for our cultural narratives to be reinterpreted or adjusted to deal with life's new issues. This instability presents art educators with opportunities to assume new educational leadership. …

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