A Not-So-Popular Culture

Commonweal, September 22, 1995 | Go to article overview

A Not-So-Popular Culture


It might be said, taking a cue from a famous definition of pornography, that popular culture is hard to define but we usually know it when we see it. More and more, people don't like what they see, and some argue that much of popular culture has even become a kind of pornography. That argument is put forcibly to Commonweal by John D. Hagen, Jr. (page 19). Hagen, rightly worried about the violence and nihilism evident in contemporary entertainment and art, calls Richard Alleva and Frank McConnell on the carpet for not writing more explicit moral critiques of movies and the media.

In response, Alleva (page 21) and McConnell (page 23) attempt to clarify the difficult problem of where aesthetic judgment ends and moral assessment begins. In the ongoing encounter between Catholicism and American culture, American Catholics have continually found their allegiances and moral judgment tested--not so long ago, after all, the idea of religious freedom was alien to Catholic teaching and the Legion of Decency limited what could be shown in movies. No final resolution of that tension seems possible. In our judgment, Catholicism remains as much in need of the sometimes anarchic virtues of American democracy as American democracy needs the spiritual and moral wisdom of Catholicism.

That dialectic is fully explored in an essay (page 10) by our favorite president emeritus (university president, that is), Dennis O'Brien. O'Brien asks, "What is possibly Christian, properly pagan, and plausibly dangerous in popular culture?" He concludes that the spiritual aspirations expressed in popular culture, and especially in rock 'n' roll music, are genuine and compelling. To further broaden this nettlesome debate, we asked four contributors (pages 16-19) to comment on the perceived antipathy between Catholicism and popular culture.

If a consensus emerges from these pages, it is that the relationship between Catholicism and the surrounding culture is complex and ambiguous. Yes, mass consumer society is manipulative and the commodification of human relations and affections an everpresent danger. Still, the democratization of culture and art has brought great energy, wit, and humanity to our shared entertainments. American popular music, the Broadway musical, the movies, jazz, and even the television situation comedy can be high expressions of the egalitarian spirit.

That does not mean, of course, that the cynical exploitation of sex and violence on TV, in the movies, or advertising should go unchecked. A sense of common morality must find expression even in the media marketplace. Criticizing the stylized pornography of Robert Mapplethorpe is not the same thing as censorship or philistinism. Public campaigns to suppress the violence and misogyny of rap music, the sexual provocation and transgression of advertising, or the vulgarity of radio "shock-jocks" are worthy of support. Averting our own eyes is not enough. Such public controversies about moral standards, most recently involving Time Warner and Calvin Klein, are a sign of social engagement and health, not encroaching puritanism or political repression. Despite what First Amendment absolutists contend, freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom from moral censure.

That said a healthy skepticism is needed when politicians like Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole exploit outrage about the media for partisan advantage. When it comes to the deteriorating tone of our common life, no one political camp is more guilty than another. …

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