Newtown Shootings: A Reflection on American Aesthetics

By Evan Mantyk
Epoch Times Staff
Created: December 28, 2012 Last Updated: December 31, 2012
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Thomas Cole (1801-1848) The Catskills and Lake George, Catskill Creek, N.Y., 1845, Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-157

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) The Catskills and Lake George, Catskill Creek, N.Y., 1845, Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-157


The horrific elementary school shootings on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. have set off a divisive debate about gun control in America.

Would more gun control laws have helped? Or, as National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre suggested, would armed guards have solved the problem?

Whatever your view is, LaPierre actually touched on a much deeper and more profound solution that got less media attention than either of these. He pointed the finger at mainstream American culture.

“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Combat,’ and ‘Splatterhouse.’ And here’s one, it’s called ‘Kindergarten Killers.’ It’s been online for 10 years,” said LaPierre.

He continued, “I mean we have blood-soaked films out there, like ‘American Psycho,’ ‘Natural Born Killers.’ They’re aired like propaganda loops … 1,000 music videos, and you all know this, portray life as a joke and they play murder—portray murder as a way of life. And then they all have the nerve to call it entertainment.”

What LaPierre is referring to are mainstream Americans’ aesthetics. What we find worthwhile to view, to listen to, and to take part in as acceptable and worthwhile creative expressions. His view seems both painfully true but also completely irrelevant. I’ll explain.

It’s painfully true to any parent who has seen his son repeat the bad word that he said or seen her daughter chew someone out the same way she has. Kids are sponges absorbing information, behavior, and perspectives. Show children enough instances of gratuitous violence and pretty soon they are looking for opportunities to act out their own violent fantasies. It’s not rocket science.

LaPierre astutely pointed out, “A child growing up in America today witnesses 16,000 murders, and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.”

Notably, that’s far more than a child would have been exposed to when the world was supposedly less civilized 100 years ago. Go figure.

However, LaPierre’s view also seems completely irrelevant since this is already the state of the world. Who could change that, right? We have a First Amendment right to free speech for good reason and we live in a world that has, since history was first recorded, involved wars and executions of wrongdoers.

And there the discussion for the most part ends. That’s why you don’t see it in the news. But, that should only be where we begin the discussion if we really care about ending random acts of violence in our country. I suggest that LaPierre’s “shadow industry” label is completely off base. It is completely in the open, not shadowy at all, and is more about what we find appealing than what people are selling in an industry. Let’s call it warped aesthetics.

These warped aesthetics are especially American because they are rooted in what is considered an American ideal: individualism.

Take a television program or movie that you, as an individual, are enjoying as entertainment and ask yourself: “Is this something that a young impressionable child should be watching?” If the answer is no, then—you don’t necessarily have to turn it off—but you should re-evaluate why you are enjoying it. You need to think not only about yourself but about the collective and see yourself as part of an integrated whole, crucial to society’s health. What we are faced with now is an American public who sees no problem with compartmentalizing what is okay for an adult to watch and for a child to watch. There shouldn’t be so much distance between those two.

These warped American aesthetics are not only traceable to violent television, movies, videogames, and music they are traceable to the fine arts and performing arts that our modern culture has come to value. The works that lead the art market today and that hang prominently in your local art museum are modern works, some of which might appear to be no more than scribbles or blotches of paint without the guidance of a long lesson on art history to inform the viewer—even then a six-year old would probably not understand after the explanation. These warped aesthetics are built on fragmentation of perspective, the ugly side of American individualism.

The universal idea of what’s beautiful, that can be appreciated instantly by people of all ages (including six-year olds) and ethnic backgrounds for many millennia is technical perfection, clarity, and reverence for nature and the divine. Our mainstream aesthetics have turned their back on these traditional aesthetics. For instance, in painting, the last 100 years has seen an explosion of weird painting genres that throw out traditions, the most basic being realistic depiction of the subject matter.

Take obscure paintings by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole (19th century) and modern artist Pablo Picasso (20th century), remove the name of the artist and ask people of all ages around the world which one is more beautiful. The overwhelming majority will say that the captivatingly realistic landscape painting by Cole is more beautiful than the Picasso. But, in practice, a Picasso will sell for many times more than the Cole. In fact, there is a good chance you haven’t even heard of Cole.

The good news is that this is not some “shadow industry” that is unreachable as LaPierre suggests. This is something each American can have a direct and immediate impact on and can really set their minds on fixing. They just have to let their individualism go.


In response to Chris below, Merriam Webster does clearly provide a definition that mine fits into, though it is possible I should drop the “s” at the end, I would be interested to hear others’ opinions:

a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight <modernist aesthetics> <staging new ballets which reflected the aesthetic of the new nation — Mary Clarke & Clement Crisp>

Second, Chris raises a question about beauty that is not what we would normally consider “beautiful” like a rose is considered beautiful. That type of beauty is known as the “sublime” and is encompassed when I speak of beauty in the general sense. This beauty could be readily found in a well executed “realist” war painting or picture of Falun Gong practitioners overcoming persecution in China, but is sorely lacking in Picasso’s modernist Guernica. Subtract Picasso’s prestigious name from that painting and you have a relatively cartoonish immature work in comparison to the aforementioned types of paintings. Most people would agree that the aforementioned are better than Picasso’s yet Picasso’s would sell for much more, that distance between our unified persective as a society and that of the individuals in the art market is precisely the warping that carries over into bizarre acts of violence we see today, in my view.

As for a political answer, I’d rather not get into that, as my personal opinion is that is a bit of a dead end, the more intense one political side gets, the more intense the other one gets too, like Yin and Yang. Let’s focus on something more constructive.


  • Chris Jasurek

    “Aesthetics” or “Ethics” or something else entirely?

    The author defines “aesthetics” as “What we find worthwhile to view, to listen to, and to take part in as acceptable and worthwhile creative expressions.”

    That may be the author’s definition, but it is not the actual definition.

    “Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics) is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” Google can be a useful tool—and in this case Merriam-Webster agrees.

    Obviously one can make a violent film and not be appealing to the viewer’s sense of beauty—and obviously not all art appeals to beauty. Art depicting terrible scenes can stimulate a sense of horror and outrage, as with Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and Fracisco Goya’s “Los Desastres de la Guerra.” Even some of the pictures painted by Falun Gong practitioners to show the horror of the persecution in China are not beautiful, thought they are excellently painted and very powerful.

    I don’t think any of the violent films or video games or comic books or any other graphically violent product marketed to Americans are intended to stimulate our aesthetic sense—they are indeed deliberately designed not to stimulate a sense of beauty, but rather to play to other emotions.

    Further, if the violent aspects of our entertainment industry were seriously so mind-warpingly powerful, why aren’t acts of mass violence more prevalent? Apparently just about every sane child and adult can differentiate a murder seen on TV or the movies form anything really happening.

    The ready availability of firearms to the mentally impaired, coupled with the state’s refusal to spend any money to deal with the mentally impaired, seem to be the real causes for the mass gun violence which periodically outrages all America.

    The lax gun laws that prevail in most states (and to my taste, gun laws are far too lax in the entire country—and I firmly support the right of Americans to own guns) adds to the gun-death rate between the occasional mass murder (which gun deaths are usually ignored by the public.)

    We could argue the causes of gun violence for a long time. In this instance, though, I would simply counsel the writer to learn the meaning of the word upon which he pins his entire argument.

    • Belle Kate

      Chris, it seems like you are making a semantic argument at the expense of a very important point.

      I especially disagree with this statement:

      “Further, if the violent aspects of our entertainment industry were seriously so mind-warpingly powerful, why aren’t acts of mass violence more prevalent? Apparently just about every sane child and adult can differentiate a murder seen on TV or the movies form anything really happening.”

      Countless studies have shown that when watching TV, our neocortex goes into a trance state. Since this is the part of our brain associated with rationality and logic, we are left with only emotion to process what we see before us. So, although our conscious mind knows what we’re seeing isn’t real, on a deeper level we’re unable to differentiate. This is why our hearts beat faster during a murder scene, or why we sob during a tragedy. The impact on children is even greater, with those under 6 being unable to differentiate between the real world and the virtual world when recalling recent experiences.

      The US govt is fully aware of the psychological impact of everything communicated via the mass media, which is why we rarely see US flag adorned coffins returning home from Afghanistan. Considering that the media employs the top phsychologists and behavioral experts on the planet, how can we still be flooded with news about these cowardly schoolyard slaughters, with killers becoming household names? Why can we see similar acts of violence carried out by our celebrity heroes 24/7 on most channels? Why are children encouraged to actively participate in slaughter via their video games? Why do pop music stars make their music videos in army barracks, and show countless scenes of their own bloody deaths? This is an intentional glamorization of violence and murder, it is deliberately aimed at inverting our moral compasses and devaluing human life, and it is working on a global scale.

      The true purpose of art is to uplift humankind, inspire reverence and morality, and instill in people’s hearts a true sense of beauty. For an artist to achieve true aesthetic beauty in their work, they, themselves, must possess an inner beauty and purity.

      The mainstream media is the world’s largest artistic platform, and there is no greater channel of influence in the world today – the impact is unfathomable. If, across its various forms, the media was able to truly achieve, convey and even require true aesthetic beauty, it would most certainly inspire a shift in people’s values, and I do believe there would be a natural decrease in heinous violent acts.

      More laws, on the other hand, will achieve very little.

    • Guest

      The usage in this article is more along the lines of the philosophy

  • David G Jones

    Every country on Earth lives with the media storm. Almost every child has access to computer games. It’s quite inappropriate to equate environmental situation with causality.

  • cheryl casati

    The author of the article and Mr. Jasurek have some valid points. I’m not sure gun laws are a major cause of the violence if someone wants to commit this type of criminal act they will find a way.

    Case in point is highlighted in this article, where 6 killings of school children took place in two months in China. Hardly a country of individualism, and no guns to the general populace.


    The killers here had no guns, but kitchen knives, and easily found axes, things actually used in daily life. The problem lies deeper and is much more complex, perhaps elements of each article contribute, but do not represent the larger whole.

    As far as Americans being individualistic, everything is a double edged sword so to speak. Mr. Mantyk uses individualism like a bad word, which it is not, perhaps the more appropriate meaning might be selfishness, which afflicts people in every nation in the world to a greater or lesser degree. Also media reports more about negativity , so following that line of logic all media is culpable too. Not just art and movies. How many lead articles are about something wonderful that has happened, how many of them have you seen this week or any week in a year?. Those stories about good things are out there….why not put them on the front pages, why not make a choice to report them more often?

    It’s my opinion, that each person and group has to choose to help uplift things, focus on the positive, refocus on true beauty, nature, compassion and goodness. Perhaps we need to realize each thought, and feeling either aids life or harms it. Morphogenic fields are thought of as fields of thought created by everything in existence; the input/output of creation.

    With every thought and action (or non-action)every individual strengthens one of those fields of thought, either good or bad, and the focus of enough minds and hearts create a new field. Also called mass consciousness or even a dye vat, this is the morphogenic field. It can consist of peace, compassion, forgiveness and integrity or fear, judgement, selfishness, it’s global though some countries add more good things some add more bad. It’s a responsibility of each and every person, group or media type, in my opinion.

  • ben grinberg

    I think there’s an objective standard for beauty and ugliness and right and wrong. To say that traditional art is a representation of beauty or “what’s right” is an aspect of it because the real principle is invisible. But it is these principles which guide people to do different things. And since no one can say that the awful things going on around us today, mentioned in this article and so forth…. aren’t truly awful, we have to say there exists an objective standard for good and bad. So it must also apply to art and aesthetics. Fundamentally, anything a human being does is motivated by his or her thoughts, and, those things aren’t just neutral. They either consider others or they don’t. Selfish or selfless. Be it art or actions, whatever people create reflects their morality. So when we create things which indulge our sense of “self” or we indulge ourselves in those things– in a way, we’re destroying our morality. When a whole culture becomes based on this aspect of “individualism”, the whole culture’s morality crumbles and terrible consequences abound.

  • humblist

    I as,Knowledge.

  • Striving

    Speaking of individualism, Evan, this really opened my eyes when you mentioned individualism in this article. So many of my hardships in life is because I cling to this false sense of the individual as opposed to taking thins lightly and going with the flow. I became a lot more clear later that not only is it better to sublimate oneself in the beauty of life, as opposed to trying to be eccentric and “modern”, but also that if we do the beautiful thing, as it exists in the traditional sense, life itself becomes beautiful.

  • Striving

    When I first saw “Guernica” I said that a drunk in a bar could’ve
    scribbled it. I was reprimanded because after all, this was “Picasso”.
    I.e., these works of art have gained fame because of the seeming
    historic significance they have. But that significance is that they
    destroyed upright conceptions of beauty. Also, when we see modern art,
    the contrast between it and classical art has become so stark that it
    becomes very easy to intellectually understand what really is beautiful.
    That’s another purpose of ugly things. But the only reason that
    people look at that stuff is because their own sense of aesthetics have
    sunk. The only reason things like Newtown happen is because society’s
    moral standard has absolutely collapsed and the unspeakable becomes


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