New York Times columnist Frank Rich has been to the front
lines of the culture wars to witness the carnage. He visited the
Homewood campus Nov. 13 to report on what he had seen.
The former drama critic and cultural observer spent the better part of 1996 covering the Clinton and Dole campaigns as part of his twice-weekly column that appears on the Times' Op-Ed page. In particular, he looked at how culture and cultural symbols were used by both candidates to rally their own supporters and demonize their opponent's.
To his dismay, he found the first victim of the culture wars was culture itself. "Reporting on this kind of warfare is not dangerous," he told a nearly full house in Mudd Hall's Newbury Auditorium. "The only casualties I witnessed were common sense and good taste."
Rich offered his remarks as the 31st annual Frank Kent Memorial lecturer. University president William R. Brody introduced Rich and welcomed him to Johns Hopkins, noting there was a "happy coincidence" that the annual lecture series was beginning its fourth decade with a noted New York Times columnist just as it had begun its first.
The inaugural Kent lecture featured Times columnist James Reston on Feb. 7, 1965.
Established in that year in memory of Baltimore Sun political columnist Frank Kent, the series provides an opportunity for prominent journalists, broadcasters and other members of the media to address important issues of the day.
Rich chose to talk about "Cultural Wars in an Election Year" in a 40-minute speech that ranged from National Endowment for the Arts funding to reducing sex and violence in films and on network television. He argued that many of the issues provoking debate among the electorate are significant only symbolically.
Rich was a young boy in Washington, D.C., during the Eisenhower era, a time he remembers as culturally sterile.
"I remember very distinctly all the talk about a cultural renaissance when John Kennedy arrived in town because at the time I was working as a ticket taker at the National Theater," he said. "On two occasions when I was working the president and Mrs. Kennedy came to the theater, but on each occasion the president didn't arrive until long after the first act was over. Well you can't be very interested in the theater and only watch the second half of the play. Even back in those days of my youth it was apparent to me that the enthusiasm for the arts was not very sincere."
In the Kennedy administration--as today--the arts were used symbolically by politicians to convey certain messages to the voters, said Rich. "It's been 35 years, but in my experience the relationship of politicians to the arts hasn't changed much," he said. "In general, politicians have a complete disinterest in culture."
Yet, by the same token, many politicians have recognized the rich symbolic significance available through the arts. President Kennedy welcoming Pablo Casals to a White House recital--when in fact, Kennedy's preferences ran toward "Sinatra, Camelot and Peter Lawford movies," Rich said, is one example of the exploitation of culture for political purposes. The opposite end of the spectrum includes North Carolina's conservative senator Jesse Helms, denouncing the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.
"The fact that [political conservatives] are still talking about Robert Mapplethorpe years after his death indicates to me that it's not about content, it's about symbolism," Rich said. "Mapplethorpe's photographs become icons of a perceived social failing, in much the same way expensive toilet seats symbolize waste at the Department of Defense."
Yet Rich believes the potency of these cultural symbols may have diminished somewhat during the last election.
"In the role of culture in politics in general there's been a tremendous amount of hypocrisy on both sides," he said. During the primaries, cultural symbols became volatile and sometimes even defining issues.
"Steve Forbes was absolutely pilloried in the Iowa caucuses because his family owned a Mapplethorpe photograph. Never mind that it was a landscape, or that it was owned by a family foundation and not even Steve Forbes personally. It was the symbolism that mattered."
Bob Dole too was involved in the battle over cultural symbols, traveling to Hollywood to denounce the entertainment industry in one of his most reported speeches of the entire campaign. President Clinton responded by subsequently inviting television industry leaders to the White House where he pressed industry leaders to adopt the V-chip, a computer circuit that, when installed in televisions, would permit individuals to screen out some programming deemed too violent or sexually offensive.
"Yet the most revealing thing about the culture wars in this election was that both sides seemed to lose interest in these cultural symbols as the election drew nearer," Rich said. "I think the issues are spent. I don't see them coming back at the national level in any meaningful way. Now I think the fighting will move to the local level and into the schools."
In Colorado, he said, a bill called the Parental Rights Amendment would have enabled parents of schoolchildren to remove books deemed offensive from school libraries and have given them greater input into teaching curriculums. Favored and promoted by the Christian Coalition, a national organization of social conservatives, the bill nonetheless went down to defeat. "But they promised to bring it back," Rich said. "I think this is the model of the future direction these battles will take."
As drama critic for the Times for more than a dozen years, Rich attended hundreds of plays, many of them funded at least in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The decade-long battle over federal arts funding has "essentially gutted the NEA," said Rich. "It's basically been destroyed, despite [NEA chairwoman] Jane Alexander's best efforts. There are only so many ways you can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Yet the issue never addressed, he believes, is the efficacy of arts funding in the first place.
"During the '70s and into the '80s most of the plays I saw at theaters like [Baltimore's] Center Stage were the recipients of at least some NEA money. I must tell you that during that time I saw a lot of rotten plays. Now as a tax payer I might have objected to my tax dollars being used in this manner, but the truth of the matter is that the issue of mediocrity never comes up in these debates," he said. "I'm not convinced that anyone out there cares about the culture. It's being used as a political pawn."
The emphasis on cultural symbols may actually aggravate problems by distracting attention from more serious--and, Rich believes, more pressing--issues.
"There are serious cultural problems facing this country, ranging from a severe shortage of money for arts institutions to the conglomeratization of the media," he said. Nor does he expect the situation to improve any time soon. "I would say we have not seen much leadership from a Democratic White House that professes to care about these issues."
In the end, Rich suggested, government's efforts to support culture--or its complete abandonment of those efforts--is probably less important than the continuing human need to push the boundaries of art.
"You can look at what the most popular plays of the 1920s were and I can guarantee you it wasn't O'Neill. It was writers whose names you've never heard of," he said. "Artists will always be pushing the boundaries, and as long as they do, there will be some people made unhappy by that."
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