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