Conservatives rightly condemn the moral relativism that is eating away at the foundation of our society. Yet some of the most eloquent conservative publications unintentionally have been promoting a variant of the same disease: aesthetic relativism.
This is found in some of their movie reviews, written by younger conservatives, which endorse violent, vulgar and even obscene movies that have no redeeming aesthetic values. We might describe these authors' disregard for age-old standards of beauty, excellence and good taste as a conservative generation gap.
One notes specific examples of the conservative generation gap on websites and in magazine reviews. Frontpagemag's Chris Weinkopf, writing in a brief symposium, "Are Movies Art?" in last winter's The American Enterprise magazine, asserted that movie artistry "extends about as far as good pyrotechnics." What an extraordinary statement. So much for "It's A Wonderful Life", "Singin' in the Rain", the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, the great foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Frederico Fellini, and so on. These movies and directors elevate the viewer. They should be treasured as templates of our former healthy and wholesome popular and (unarguably in the case of the Europeans) high culture. That they should be dismissed down the memory hole by even one writer in a distinguished conservative journal is extremely unfortunate. It is like dismissing painting as merely a technical matter of brush and canvas.
Weinkopf listed the "Star Wars" trilogy, "Die Hard" and "Terminator 2" as his favorite movies. The latter two also were praised about the same time by an estimable editor of The Weekly Standard, Victorino Matus. How can a conservative possibly praise the Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies? The dialogue in Die Hard seems to consist mainly of four-letter words, which alone should read it out of court. (Likewise, how can Rush Limbaugh be a fan of foul-mouthed rubbish like HBO's "The Sopranos"?) Both are contrived exercises in, yes, pyrotechnics and extreme violence, cynically designed to appeal to crude, primitive instincts. They are leading examples of the dumbing down of popular culture; they should be condemned, not praised.
The Weekly Standard also twice in the past year criticized '50s movies basically as hidebound and barren. This (left-wing) clichÃ© is totally inaccurate—the decade saw directors like Vincente Minnelli ("An American in Paris," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Band Wagon," "Gigi"), Alfred Hitchcock ("Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "North by Northwest") and Billy Wilder ("Sunset Boulevard," "Love in the Afternoon," "Some Like It Hot") at their very considerable peaks, and it was the heyday of the musical, the adult western and film noir. Further, many superb lesser-known directors flourished (now cult figures like Budd Boetticher, "Ride Lonesome"; Andre De Toth, "Day of the Outlaw"; Phil Karlson, "99 River Street"; and Joseph H. Lewis, "Gun Crazy.") Their achievements put to shame the "liberated" unrestrained vulgarians of today, like the director of Eminem's "8 Mile", Curtis Hanson (considered a major talent by contemporary critics), and the talented but sordid Martin Scorsese. The latter's latest journey into the gutter, "Gangs of New York," was praised by Matus in The Weekly Standard, joining the same chorus as the now radical New York Times, which welcomed the film as yet another chapter in the deconstruction of our history. More important, the '50s were the last decade when moral tradition and social convention—not to mention accomplished craftsmanship—governed popular culture. Conservatives should be praising the '50s and holding up the movies of that era for moral instruction, not joining the left in dismissing them. (On the subject of inner city youth, the '50s produced "West Side Story"—on Broadway, filmed in 1961; this decade has "8 Mile.")
Which brings us to the new Eminem movie, the subject of a laudatory review by Eli Lehrer on Frontpagemag.com last November. When Frontpagemag and the New York Times both publish articles endorsing essentially the same thing, particularly on popular culture—here the "legitimation" of rap—then something has got to be wrong. A similar positive notice, by Eric Cox, was published on The American Enterprise Online's Hot Flash last November as well. Like the younger citizens in 1984, these conservatives apparently have succumbed to their own benighted time and do not seem to understand the high moral and artistic ideals that governed even popular culture (at its best) in earlier ages.
Lehrer writes that "8 Mile" recounts the protagonist's "struggle...to retain personal decency amidst moral bankruptcy." Cox likes the film's theme of overcoming obstacles to gain a better life. This is true as far as it goes—which is not very far. Our hero has an innocent little sister who he is seen trying to protect from their mother's degraded environment. But this does not prevent him from physically attacking mom's useless boyfriend in front of the girl, making her cry. Nor would she have had to witness his beating at the hands of a black gang had he not earlier assaulted a photographer for engaging in (willful) sex with his new "girlfriend." In fact, our hero, true to the rappers' underclass creed, has little control of his base instincts: he impregnates one girl and has sex with another, the new girlfriend (actually a virtual stranger) in the plant where he works. But Lehrer finds him "a decent, hard-working person" and Cox finds him "worthy of admiration." (Incidentally, contrary to easily pleased critics, Eminem's acting is wooden, covering the gamut of emotion from the proverbial A to B.)
More troubling is the acceptance by Lehrer and Cox of the film's aesthetic—if one can dignify it thus. For, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the aesthetic is the message. The dialogue is filthy, smeared with four-letter words in every line. If the ratings system had any meaning, this film would have been rated NC-17 for the filthy language alone—for which reason it deserves condemnation by every conservative who understands the paramount importance of protecting our children's innocence and upholding traditional standards of decency. (I observed a couple in the theater with their two children, aged about three and six.) Yet Lehrer is silent on the filth and Cox writes, "The one obvious defect...is a gratuitous sex scene," absent which, "the film may well have earned a PG-13 rating and been more accommodating to the young fans...."!
This brings us to the "music," which, Lehrer writes, is established "as a viable art form" in the film. (He also discusses it together with Elizabethan theater—Shakespeare?—and classical jazz, after quoting a "lyric" with a certain obscene four letter word!) In truth, rap and music are an oxymoron. Except for some rhythm (perhaps) rap is devoid of fundamental elements of music called melody, harmony, form and development. Music—pop, rock, classical—is a skillful and creative combination of these and other elements. Singing is supposed to employ breath control, dynamics, phrasing and legato. Rap is hardly composed at all. And its substance is as primitive as its form: in the film's climax, Eminem competes against another rapper before an orgiastic mob, expressing not his hopes and dreams but trying to outdo the other guy in personal insults ("I'm just a piece of [same expletive] white trash!" he exclaims).
Neither author has much to say about Eminem's other "songs" of hate and violence, which have been condemned by Lynne Cheney and William Bennett. And by the liberal New Republic, whose reviewer, David Bromwich, wrote in the October 28, 2002 issue: "The ritualized strut and nod are supported by a trite poetic diction that offers rage, resentment, and dull self-pity as the only admissible emotions." He also condemns "the glamour of the bad and its legitimation." Rap and this awful movie represent "art" as the unbridled, debased self, all civilized constraint cast off (and thus joined in their means of expression in the same camp with "Piss Christ" and the recent anti-Christian outrages at the Brooklyn Museum). This assault on the Western artistic tradition of aspiring to something above ourselves (beauty is truth, truth beauty) has been the project of the avant-garde left for more than a century. Yet Lehrer identifies the avant-garde with progress. The praise of "8 Mile" in leading conservative journals is an appalling demonstration of just how daunting is our campaign to reclaim moral decency in the culture wars.
These younger conservatives' aesthetic relativism is the artistic flip side of moral relativism: our culture's abandonment of age-old standards of beauty, virtue and self-restraint in the name of the unbridled self is of course the same as society's widespread rejection of age-old moral standards in the name of the liberated self and radical egalitarianism. When they embrace rap "music" in particular as a legitimate form of self-expression—essentially on the ground just that it is expression, even if it possesses no redeeming aesthetic and is in fact ugly and dirty (maybe they think that's okay because the performers are poor and downtrodden, and, Lehrer writes, sincere and humorous)—they are saying that self-expression is more important than moral or aesthetic limits, indeed, that there are no limits and no standards of excellence. And without limits, there are no do's and don'ts, no right and wrong. This is the nadir of non-judgmentalism. What Roger Kimball calls "the long march of the counterculture" in The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, has reached into the souls of respected post-'60s conservatives. How sad.