Times Critic: Just Chill, You Worrywarts

Some conservatives tend to overstate when arguing the case against modern culture. No one movie, television show, novel, song, or painting, no matter how corrosive, hastens more than infinitesimally the demise of Western civilization, and most works of art don't do even that. Much more common - and problematic - than such conservatives, however, are the complacent liberals who badly underestimate art's potential to negatively influence persons and, eventually, whole societies.

One of those liberals is Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, who, in a long analytical piece published in the November 5 edition of his newspaper, wrote, "The culture question raised during the [presidential] campaign hangs in the air: Is civilization really going down the tube?" Kimmelman's answer: "No. And let's stop repeating this nonsense before we actually come to believe it."

To call the fervent conviction of millions of Americans "nonsense" is to throw down a gauntlet, which I'll take up by responding to several of Kimmelman's major points, which are offered below, in italics, in the order in which he made them.

1."We can be disappointed in our arts without being made coarser as a society."

"Disappointed" describes a parent's feeling when his or her child brings home a mediocre report card. It's not strong enough to express the way plenty of us feel about, say, "Ally McBeal" or Eminem. For that, you need words like "disgusted" or "revolted."

2. "Why as a nation do we periodically presume that society is coarsened by culture?"

In fact, we presume that it works both ways - that culture coarsens society and that society coarsens culture. It's true that Bill Clinton's behavior caused the media to deal with sex in a manner that would have been unthinkable a few years before. But decades before Monica Lewinsky was a household name, entertainment television was peddling promiscuity to its viewers, many of whom were impressionable children.

And if Kimmelman doubts that society is "coarsened by culture," he must never have stopped for a red light and heard foul-mouthed, hyperaggressive rap music blasting from the car next to his, or watched a televised Sunday-afternoon football game with his children only to be assaulted by a raunchy promotional spot for a prime time show, or...

3."We live in blissful, some might even say sanitized, contradiction to the perception that culture has coarsened American life...There are more Jane Austen movies. More art museums. More people going to them."

The Austen cinematic boomlet was nice while it lasted, but it's over, and in any case consisted of only about a half-dozen films, "Clueless" included. At this point, Austen has only slightly more pop-culture visibility than the contestants on "Big Brother."

As for art, sure, exhibitions of works created a century or more ago draw crowds, but if we're talking about contemporary art, what makes news? Outrages, from Andres Serrano to Chris Ofili.

4."For good reason senators in the recent hearings [on the FTC report detailing the marketing of violent entertainment to children] stopped short of claiming that violent art causes violent behavior, because by now everyone knows that the facts don't reliably support the rhetoric."

A joint statement this past summer from such groups as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics said plainly, "Well over 1,000 studies...point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children."

It is absurd, of course, to argue that media violence is the lone cause of real-life violence - but it is almost as absurd to argue that media violence isn't a factor at all.

5."One man's civility is invariably another's hell, of course. Dan Quayle, running for re-election, railed against 'Murphy Brown' for its lack of 'family values' but said nothing about the body count in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'Total Recall.' In the 1950s, road rage wasn't yet a documented risk on Los Angeles's comparatively unclogged freeways, but blacks had to sit at the back of public buses in the South."

By advancing the smear that those who deplore cultural vulgarity are simply nostalgic for a time when TV was clean and minorities knew their place, Kimmelman demonstrates that he's eminently qualified to write speeches for Al Gore. And the suggestion that Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech was nothing more than an attempt to pander to that same reactionary constituency is...another smear.

Sorry, Mr. Kimmelman: As far as "going down the tube" is concerned, it may be a long tube, and we may be moving slowly, but the descent is well underway. That's the bad news. The good news is that the descent is reversible.