Popular Art


The late novelist and physicist, C. P. Snow, once remarked that the world would end "not with a bang but a whimper."  If alive today, he might wish to add that the "whimper" is being heard throughout an unraveling American culture, demonstrating its proclivity for one destructive fetish after another.

Consider the art of body graffiti, one form of which is the tattoo. While dining in a local restaurant recently, I observed a young, otherwise attractive woman with a macabre skull and crossbones inked into her back, immediately beneath her neck and above her shoulder blades. The tattoo was at least eight inches in diameter. It was a grostesque reminder of the fact that the characteristics of youth and ugliness, while natural incongruities, are often inseparable in today's culture.  My jaw fell as my eyes fixated upon this infelicitous piece of body art.  It was like I were witnessing a freak of nature or perhaps a crude drawing sketched on the inside wall of a dank, feculent roadside toilet. I wondered about the young woman's aesthetic sense and how ephemeral it would turn out to be. My suspicion was that she would, in ten years or so, conceal her back as religiously as she now displays it.

Yet her tattoo, by contemporary standards, is modest. Some souls have, I kid you not, checkerboarded their heads and faces to look like an outdated 1950's kitchen floor, while the limbs and torsos of their colleagues are often adorned with scatalogical or salacious images calculated to make even an old salt blush.

Body-piercing is in vogue too. A gold bead in the side of the nose or on the tongue makes an interesting statement. Decorative facial piercings, along with a "tramp stamp," which is the current (and appropriate) name for a tattoo in the small of a woman's back, bespeak of her "individuality."  But, with all due respect to Mr. John Stuart Mill, why does somebody not ask what is so commendable about an "individual" who exhibits the sociopathy of an Amy Winehouse or the depravity of a Madonna? Is it not possible to be both an individual and a barbarian?

A strong argument can likewise be made that it is unduly complimentary to refer to today's crop of youth as "individuals." No doubt that some are, but most seem to be anything but members of an avant-garde.  They appear instead to be heeding the call of the herd and to be radiating the mindless inertial energy that this instinct evokes.   

I have an opinion regarding what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might say about body graffiti and the kind of culture that breeds it. I mention these personages because they represent the best in our nation's heritage.  Their opinions aside however, the question arises: Do desecrations and mutilations of the human body not constitute a retrograde movement in American culture and Western civilization? How much distance is there between where we stand now and where primitive South American and African tribes are? The question is all the more pertinent, when our youth are now stretching their earlobes and lower lips. Secular?  No doubt!  Progressive?  Absolutely not!  All in all, this trend says good-bye to America, and hello Third World.

"Oh," but you exclaim, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder; what is comely to one person is not so to another." Is it not interesting that an absolute affirmation like this one is invariably used to defend a relative standard? One would think that relativist professors who liberally espouse this brand of nonsense to university students and others might take a strategic step back and ask themselves whether binding a female's feet, mutilating her genitals, or "ironing" her breasts could ever be beautiful. I have no trouble declaring these practices and their byproducts both evil and ugly. Of course, I am not a relativist either. I do, however, continue to be amused by feminists who, while condescending from their broomsticks occasionally to engage me in dialogue, never admit to the "beauty" of such customs in these primeval cultures.

Since relativism compels its proponents to take extreme and outrageous positions, it is a philosophy much easier to espouse than to defend. It is a mode of thought for lazy minds. What else can one say about a philosophy in which anything and everything can be true, beautiful, and just? It is always easier for an indolent fool to say okay to everything, regardless how perverse or outrageous, than to affirm critically a particular set of values.

Of course, in the absence of an explicit affirmation of values, what is left? Nihilism. This is the view that the universe yields no meaning; we either construct it, or it does not exist.  Let me suggest that people in our society who are compulsively spending their money in tattoo parlors are reacting, at least in part, to an underlying cultural pathology that is far more insidious than the tattooist's art.  They are attempting to affirm themselves as individuals in a world they are convinced has no intrinsic meaning or value.

The pandemic of body graffitti may, perhaps, best be described as an inherited condition, passed on to the young (and derivatively to those attempting to emulate them) by the default of the elder generation who, along the way, declared spiritual and moral bankrupcy.  The challenge of that generation was to be nurturers by making a convincing case for noble cultural values rather than the ones being sold to the young by a thoroughly debased popular culture. The challenge was not met, and this failure is the most basic meaning of body graffitti.

June 5, 2008