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image: Campus NewsPop culture and democracy
On a winter day in 1999 Timothy McVeigh, Ramzi Yousef, and Ted Kaczynski met in a courtyard of Colorado's SuperMax Prison.

"And what did the world's most famous coffee klatch talk about?" asked Edward Rothstein, PhD'94, cultural editor of the New York Times. "Movies. They talked about movies-the one experience shared by Americans no matter what their criminal background."

The wave of laughter that followed was among the lighter moments of the April 19-20 Democracy and Popular Culture conference sponsored by the University's John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy. Organized around the idea of Americans' ambivalence towards cultural distinctions, the conference ad-dressed popular culture both here and abroad, particularly in light of 9/11. Panels explored the divisions between high and low culture, pop culture's effects on citizenship, and the Americanization of other cultures.

Rothstein's remarks opened the conference's second panel, Democracy in Culture, which examined how democratic forces manifest themselves in culture, and he wondered at how democracy inspires both attraction and opposition at the same time. Opposition often finds its voice in artistic expression, he said, and some contemporary art "attacks properties of democratic culture in the name of democracy," embracing as its defense the very principles it attacks. Rothstein cited such works as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin as examples of the relatively recent movement to use the right to free speech as a defense of controversial art.

Also inherent in democratic popular culture, he claimed, is a tension between "obsessive diversity" and an "aspiration for something better"-a tension between giving all art equal status and making judgments about the quality of art. He noted that our democratic culture hesitates to say that one art form or one piece of art is higher or lower, better or worse, than another, citing the all-inclusive musical line-up at the first Clinton inauguration, which included everything from blues to rock to jazz. Yet Rothstein called the National Endowment for the Arts "nondemocratic" because it differentiates between artistic projects and decides that one piece of art is more worthy than another of funding.

This dual struggle within American popular culture was echoed by other panelists. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, discussed American society's "narcissistic self-hatred," arguing that although so many Americans criticize and claim to hate the U.S., they would never live anywhere else.

A. O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, pointed out that even those who criticize pop culture still enjoy it. He gave this example: in an interview with Scott, a lead writer for The Simpsons declared that the series' writers need "to disdain everything Americans hold sacred." The obvious irony, Scott said, is that The Simpsons is sacred to many Americans.
-S.A.Z.



 


  JUNE 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 5


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