January 1, 2001 -- "Is civilization really going down the tube?" asked New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman in an article entitled " What's This about Cultural Pollution? " (November 5, 2000) His unhesitating answer was "No."
Wisely, Kimmelman did not take on the hopeless task of denying that culture (meaning, roughly, art) is going down the tubes. "Popular culture is getting more juvenile," he conceded, "and the serious arts, or what used to be the serious arts, often emulate popular culture."
Now let us be clear about the so-called art that Kimmelman is discussing. "On January 25, [2000,] Jonathan Yegge, a twenty-four-year old student at the San Francisco Art Institute, performed Art Piece No. 1 on an open-air stage in front of some twenty fellow students, two professors, and various passersby….[I]n the words of an Associated Press wire story, it 'involved unprotected oral sex and exchanging excrement with a bound and gagged classmate.'" (Roger Kimball, "Beyond Criticism," American Outlook, Spring 2000). To characterize such alleged "art" as "juvenile" seems radically insufficient.
And Kimmelman might concede as much. For what he wishes to deny is not the appalling condition of art and culture but its negative effects on society. He wishes to deny that "society is coarsened by culture," no matter how coarse the cultural artifacts may be.
That, of course, is to deny exactly what many conservatives assert. Thus, the Weekly Standard published a debate over the desirability of censorship (August 23, 1999), and in it Terry Eastland wrote: "It defies common sense to say that education is morally trivial; and we are educated, for better or worse, through the various media." Irving Kristol has used the same argument: "Was anyone ever corrupted by a book? This last question…[is asked], incredibly enough and in all sincerity, by university professors and teachers whose very lives provide the answer. After all, if you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book. You have to believe, in other words, that art is morally trivial and that education is morally irrelevant."
Much "modern art," such as Detroit's Heidelberg Project, is actually offensive non-art. This large, open-air "exhibit" consists of nothing more than painted trash and abandoned houses.
But few teachers, I think, would make the argument that mere exposure to great art and literature improves the minds and souls of students. Great literature contributes to the moral life through its broadening and deepening of experience, says John M. Ellis. In it, the material of ordinary life is "abstracted, focused, sharpened, heightened." And, he adds: "You learn a lot from literature, but that is because it contains a great deal of productive thought about things that are important to you, not because it tells you what to do." To extract such lessons, obviously, takes mental effort, sometimes great effort. And those who do not make the effort do not learn the lessons.
By the same token, coarse art does not impose its values on people. Most passersby, observing Art Piece No. 1, would probably feel repulsed, disgusted, and sullied. Yet there is no reason to think that the degraded values of the artist could somehow pass uninvited into the soul of the observer.
Thus, Kimmelman may be right in denying that art alone can corrupt civilization, but that is not the end of the story. He may still be wrong to deny that civilization is "going down the tubes." At most, his argument shows that any decline in the standards of civilization is not caused by a decline in standards of art. But there is something else-namely, philosophy-that is causing the corruption evident in the art and civilization we see around us.
The reason behind philosophy's power is that neither the scientist, nor the statesman, nor the artist is an original philosophical thinker. They get their values and their ideals from the ideas that are dominant in their society. In the Age of Reason and the early Enlightenment, the philosophical dominance of rationality produced Newton and Bach. In the later Enlightenment, the philosophical dominance of individualism produced Jefferson and Beethoven. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the emptiness of postmodernism has produced an impoverishing and intrusive government in Washington, political correctness on campus, vicious lyrics and mind-shattering rhythms in music-as well as Art Piece No. 1.