For the past few months I have been our editorial department's designated observer on the culture front. It has not been an entirely comfortable perch. Contemporary culture, like contemporary politics, seems perpetually at war with itself. So it often happens that, having set out dutifully to address the former, one is driven finally to talk about the latter, too.
We live in a post-modern culture, which, as the name implies, is associated with the style in art and literature that followed the modernist movement of the first half of this century. Modernism was a conscious rebellion against everything that had come before, and its rallying cry was "Make it new!" Indeed, the "shock of the new" became a hallmark of the modern style.
By the mid-1960s, however, the foremost exponents of modernism -- Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce -- were safely ensconced in the pantheon of great artists of the past. Not only were they not new anymore, their works no longer had the power to shock. Those who followed had to go in a different direction, and the path they chose was post-modernism, a curious pastiche of styles that manages to look backward and forward at the same time.
The post-modernists discovered they could be "new" by harking to the past -- but not the "old" past of Beethoven and Rembrandt. Instead they drew inspiration from pop culture: advertising, comic books, road signs, the decaying shards of industrial machines and household appliances. So Andy Warhol painted soup cans and Irving Penn photographed the crushed remnants of discarded cigarette butts.
These experiments were shocking simply because no one had ever imagined such objects as subject matter for art. It was but a short step to the notion that a new idea of what constituted art was tantamount to the work of art itself. Hence the rise of "conceptual" art, then "performance" art.
The public reacted to these developments with predictable incomprehension, embarrassment and, finally, outrage, especially after it became apparent that some of the offending artists were being subsidized by government grants. It was all well and good for the government to, say, help struggling photographers document farm conditions during the Great Depression. But taxpayers balked when public revenues were used to underwrite Robert Serrano's crucifix dipped in urine, or Robert Mapplethorpe's homo-erotic photographs.
Yet the post-modernists had stumbled upon a disturbing truth. The Farm Security Administration project that produced Dorothea Lange's famous photograph "Migrant Mother" in the 1930s operated on the assumption that powerful images move people to action. Give people a vivid picture of a social ill -- of farmers stricken by drought, of hungry migrant children sharing a crust of bread -- and they will be stirred to correct the problem. That was the theory at least.
What the post-modernists discovered was that strong images don't necessarily create in people a desire for anything except more images. And since even the strongest images eventually lose their impact, the artist must provide ever more lurid agglomerations of the grotesque and thrilling simply in order to win an audience.
That is why post-modern art seems to reduce all meanings to pure spectacle -- be it Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" set in a Brooklyn diner or cyborg mass murderers in "Terminator 2." Such entertainments are meaningless except as spectacle. Likewise, the promotional campaign of an Italian clothing retailer whose ads in glossy women's magazines consist entirely of wrenching photos of death and disaster is a perfect example of the post-modern impulse.
Ours is an art that somehow seems to have lost its moral center. Many people no doubt are vaguely aware of this, although to voice such suspicions often is to invite ridicule as a philistine or prude.
When Vice President Quayle complained the TV sitcom "Murphy Brown" set a bad example by portraying unwed motherhood in an attractive light, he was rightly criticized for using "family values" as code words for all the things the Republican Party intends to run against in the November election.
Mr. Quayle knew, or ought to have known, that single women don't rush out to get pregnant because of a television show. But his criticism nevertheless struck a chord with many voters because it jibed with a sense they already had that something terribly corrosive and corrupting is going on in the culture around them, even if they can't quite put their finger on what it is. Still, it may affect how they vote this year. Which is one reason why, even when you start out talking culture these days, you so often end up talking politics.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.