Will American Culture Heal Itself?

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I foresee no resolution over the next 30 years of the stalemate in American culture between religious conservatives and secular humanists, among whom I number myself. If there is any shift in power, it may well be toward the religious side. Muslim jihadists have forced a confrontation with Western culture, which they portray as irredeemably corrupt, from its callous materialism to its empty hedonism. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the most vigorous defenders of the West against this challenge have come from the right wing, where there is equal rejection of the 1960s legacy of theatrical individualism and unfettered sexual freedom.

Religion has been intrinsic to American culture since the immigration of Puritan dissidents. No force was strong enough to combat it until the rise of Hollywood, the new Babylon, in the early 20th century. I have celebrated Hollywood as an eruption of the West’s buried paganism. But now the entertainment industry, which once drew from a vibrant milieu of popular performance (vaudeville, variety shows, operetta, musical comedy), has become a manic world unto itself—the only culture, aside from high-tech gadgetry, that young people know. In current movies, for example, there is an overreliance on glitzy special effects and dizzyingly rapid cutting, accompanied by neglect of basic matters of character, motivation, and setting. I am pessimistic about the ability of Hollywood to recover its creativity: Market forces are too strong (because of the staggering profits from world distribution), and studio decision-making is dominated by risk-averse corporate values.

The only answer to the competing tyrannies of religion and Hollywood is art. But art has never taken deep root in the United States; there is little sense that art represents the cultural heritage of the nation, as it does in Europe. The United States, which is still relatively young, began as a frontier society pragmatically focused on the future. Art was a luxury and frivolity. Fundamentalist Protestantism also discouraged image making on biblical grounds. Even today, art remains a minority interest. It has been a struggle in recent decades to defend even modest federal arts funding, a situation worsened by a series of bitter controversies over contemporary artworks of antireligious or pornographic content.

My hope is that, over the coming decades, art’s spirituality can be demonstrated for a skeptical American public. This effort would require a massive conversion of the educational establishment at the primary and secondary levels. The authentic vision of the 1960s counterculture, which still inspires me, was of the magnitude of both art and nature. Yet over the past 35 years, a nihilistic brand of theory (poststructuralist and postmodernist) invaded American humanities departments. It excluded nature from its discourse and subordinated aesthetics to a crusading politics. I may agree with those politics, but I abhor the distortion and marginalization of art that have resulted.

Theory is thankfully ebbing, but what will rise in its place? I am betting that a young generation of scholars will take up the cause of renewed evangelism for art. Secular humanists who deplore the interference of religious activism in debates over public policy must begin to recognize that rote appeals for "social justice" are simply not enough: The soul too must be fed. Intellectuals must offer a spiritual alternative to religion—the kind of expansion of consciousness and refinement of perception that are the gifts of art.

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems (2005).





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