Thursday, April 10, 2008

American Pop Culture and the Catholic Church's Role in Saving Beauty

In reading John Murphy's article "Beauty Goes Underground" (referenced in Christopher's post on beauty), I was struck by a couple of paragraphs in particular:

Beauty as a mysterious, transcendent force is conspicuous by its absence in
American culture. If we divide culture into high and low, or intellectual and
popular, then we are forced to admit that pop culture has no authentic beauty
and high culture has divorced whatever beauty remains from truth and goodness.

Pop culture’s assault on beauty is too wide-ranging to elucidate here.
“Pop” may be “popular” abbreviated, but it also calls to mind brands like Coke
and Pepsi—producers of something fizzy, sweet, briefly stimulating, and rotten
in the long-term. Pop culture is junk culture. Its invitation is not to “savor
life” but rather to exploit it for the sake of instant gratification. It is
designed, manufactured and marketed to be consumed and thrown away.

When it comes to American pop culture, Beauty faces an uphill battle. If
you’re addicted to crack it’s difficult to appreciate a bottle of vintage
Bordeaux. Moral ugliness is given a surface-level spit-and-polish and the
results include: The Da Vinci Code, soap operas, E! television, daytime
television, crass commercials, American Idol, infomercials, Sex and the City
(okay, with a few exceptions let’s say “TV” in general and have done),
mass-market paperbacks, shallow self-help books, glossy magazines lining
checkout counters with covers featuring either airbrushed supermodels or
Photoshopped aliens (who can tell the difference?), summer movies with big
explosions, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and their paparazzi photo-ops,
cookie-cutter sequels, lowest-common-denominator plot formulas, on and on ad
infinitum. In the superficial realm of popular culture, “beauty” is a concept
co-opted by Cosmopolitan to sell more magazines. In the prophetic words of Hans
Urs von Balthasar, pop culture makes of beauty “a mere appearance in order the
more easily to dispose of it.”

And then he follows that up with the Catholic Church's role in saving beauty:

The Catholic Church, perceived by many as the bulwark of conservative, outmoded,
antiquated values, will only survive by being counter-cultural. We are no longer
part of an epoch that produced Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael as a matter
of state and Church policy. As soon as the Church kowtows to pop culture in the
guise of groovy services or to high culture in the guise of ghastly-looking
modern churches then there is trouble in paradise.

I've always thought of the Church's role in the world as preserving the good and the true, I've never considered its role in preserving beauty from a pop culture that has a limited view of our humanity. This thought is intriguing , until the author makes fun of the song "Eagle's Wings" and the folk mass. I, for one, really like that song and I enjoy folk masses. I don't think my enjoyment of that form of music makes me barbarically uncultured.

This illustrates that the difficulty of tasking the Catholic Church with the role of preserving artistic beauty from pop culture is that the Church does not have a clear standard to distinguish between what is beautiful and what is not. With faith and morals, the Church can point to the reality that God became flesh and taught us truth and objective morality, and that the Church has been tasked with safeguarding these truths throughout time. I don't think the Church has that same claim on its ability to judge beauty. I think the best the Church can do is teach truth and morality so man can flourish in his humanity and use his free will to create beauty.


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