In the United States, culture and art have long gone hand in hand. As American culture can be thought of as our national persona, American art generally follows as an expression of that character.
In the past, culture was the driver of art. Today, however, art often seems to be driving culture–perhaps into the ground. And though culture and the arts once seemed organic, they now appear to be less natural, more contrived, and even a tool for social manipulation.
American culture’s three core principles are found in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Equality is established in “that all men are created equal.” Freedom is recognized with all men being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” And self-government is secured as “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Our country’s founders were great thinkers. They understood the practicalities of organizing a government, but they also recognized human nature and its shortcomings and sought to create a societal structure that maximized freedom, while minimizing the threat of tyranny and other abuses of power.
While our Founding Fathers successfully established a timeless and universal framework that endures today, the freedom enshrined within American culture has also set forth two potential paths. The first path is where we’ve spent much of our rich history—a path that includes a strong nation with a healthy social order. However, a darker path leads toward the destruction of American culture. And if we unwisely choose the wrong path, today’s artistic culture offers the opportunity to assist in our country’s demise.
Our Founders believed that the enjoyment of freedom was predicated on recognizing and adhering to divine law and living a life of virtue. American and other cultures have historically attached importance to virtues including sincerity, kindness, generosity, justice, moderation, humility, courage, and selflessness.
In the United States, the erosion of these virtues can be tracked over the past 70 or so years, resulting in a society that’s more destabilized and vulnerable than in recent history. This trend is found in all aspects of culture, from visual arts to literature (both adult and children’s) to music to performance art. It presents Americans with a disturbing challenge that must be addressed—and addressed now—lest we risk losing our country and life as we know it.
How is this happening? And why? Communism, a political ideology that seeks to dominate the world, sees the United States as its biggest prize. In looking to take down the free world’s most successful country, communist actors have long strategized to subvert and sabotage American culture.
The Beat Generation of the 1950s, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the hip hop and drug cultures that became more prevalent within the 1970s started the degradation of traditional American culture. Pornography, video games, and a culture of violence further perpetuated this decline—especially as online opportunities and access proliferated in the 1990s.
The 1990s also ushered in political correctness. This weaponized use of language became a fan favorite for leftists seeking to redefine conversations and intimidate anyone who might disagree with them. And political correctness was the precursor to what’s now known as being “woke.”
Described by Merriam-Webster as “chiefly U.S. slang,” the dictionary defines the word as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
Throughout the years, the organizers and influencers of these various movements have had ties to communist or socialist ideologies. That’s no accident, and Americans must understand the threat that we face has permeated all aspects of society, with even the arts not being immune.
Ugliness as Beauty
For centuries, works of art have served as noble examples of man’s humanity. They helped to preserve human society at a particular point in time. Great artistic works have historically held exalted positions in Western and Eastern civilizations, as they transmit heritage, disseminate knowledge and wisdom, and fortify character.
Modern art no longer subscribes to the norms of the past. Instead, it often inverts conventional aesthetics by taking ugliness as beauty. It also aims to shock and is limited only by the artist’s own ghastly imagination.
With its 1987 debut at the Stux Gallery in New York, “Piss Christ” was tapped as a perfect example of both the concept of ugliness as beauty and having shock value. Artist Andres Serrano released a 60-inch-by-40-inch red and yellow photograph of a crucifix submerged in a vat of Serrano’s urine. The photograph sparked a congressional debate on U.S. public arts funding. It also was the subject of attacks and protests at various exhibition venues.
The piece returned to New York in 2012 as part of an exhibit examining 25 years of Serrano’s work. While many Christians find the work extremely offensive, Serrano has a different take.
“The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man,” Serrano told the Guardian. “And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death.
“So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.”
Most people of faith don’t share Serrano’s opinion.
The “Fifty Shades” series of erotic novels by E.L. James provides an important example of contemporary literature’s decline. While certainly not intellectual reading, the trilogy, which includes “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2011), “Fifty Shades Darker” (2012), and “Fifty Shades Freed” (2012), had sales of 35 million print and e-books between 2011 and 2019.
The trilogy chronicles the relationship of a young woman and her mysterious, seductive, and (of course) wealthy boyfriend, with a focus on the BDSM aspect of their relationship.
“Now, as the 2010s near their end, James’s ‘Fifty Shades’ books hold the first, second, and third place on a list of the decade’s best-selling books, according to NDP BookScan, which collects point-of-sale data for the publishing industry,” CNN reported in 2019.
Sales of this magnitude again reflect contemporary culture–and that reflection is less than flattering. This point is further made when 100 years prior, “The Secret Garden,” a novel for children written by U.S. author Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a top book.
And speaking of children’s literature and today’s culture, parents appearing at school board meetings routinely use examples of library books as educational tools being used in the indoctrination of students. An Anti-Defamation League-sponsored program known as No Place for Hate offers a “Books Matter” reading list that provides excellent examples of today’s juvenile literary culture.
Music is also no stranger to cultural changes. From the late 1950s into the 1960s, songs such as “Wake Up Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers (1957) were removed from airplay due to teenagers sleeping together. “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darrin (1958) was also banned, as it suggested nudity. Ten years later, the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1967) caused the band to be banned from “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Drug references nixed airtime for Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” (1962) and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (1967).
Fast forward 30-plus years and hip-hop songs generate controversy, but are rarely banned. Many titles contain profanity and song lyrics are almost exclusively lewd language with violent and sexual imagery depicted. The article “50 Violent Rap Lyrics That Will Make You Cringe” provides examples of these genres and their contributions to American culture.
Performance art perhaps most reflects the inverted cultural aesthetic that replaces beauty with ugliness and aims to shock. In 2016, CultureTrip.com published the article “14 of the Most Extreme Performance Art Pieces.”
One of the pieces that made the list, “Self Obliteration” by Ron Athey, is described as “ideas of masculinity, sexual desire, and trauma … picked apart in … Athey’s extreme body art and performance art.”
“Athey was born in America and has centered a large part of his work around HIV awareness,” the article states. “His controversial work focuses on performing physical acts to his body as a way of transcending bodily pain. In ‘Self Obliteration,’ Athey sat in a glass box wearing nothing but a long blonde wig with needles hidden underneath against his scalp. As he brushed the wig, blood spurted from his scalp onto the surrounding glass walls.”
American designer, landscape architect, and performance artist Vito Acconci performed “Seedbed” for three weeks in January 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. “Much of Acconci’s artwork is considered controversial, including his famous performance piece ‘Seedbed,’” the CultureTrip.com article states.
“For this performance, visitors entered a room on a low wooden ramp. Acconci, who lay hidden under the ramp, masturbated while whispering sexual fantasies about the guests walking around above him. His voice was projected by loudspeakers throughout the gallery so that the visitors could hear every dark fantasy he came up with. Acconci kept up this activity for eight hours a day over three weeks.”
“Shoot” by Chris Burden further demonstrates the redefinition of performance art as seen in the 1970s. Per CultureTrip.com: “Over the course of his career, American performance artist Chris Burden has endured many brutal, self-inflicted performances: He nailed himself to a Volkswagen Beetle, spent five days and nights inside a locker in the fetal position, and was kicked down two flights of stairs. In ‘Shoot,’ Burden has himself shot in the arm with a .22 rifle. Although his works seem outrageous and untraditional, Burden, like many other artists of the 1970s, was fueled by the violence and suffering of the Vietnam War. In a world seemingly desensitized to pain, Burden forced viewers of his performances to confront the discomfort.”
For so many decades, we appeared to thrive. But as our 250th year approaches, American culture is undeniably on the decline. If today’s art expresses our nation’s persona, then we’re in trouble, and any hope for reversal must start now, not later.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.