Grunge and Gore

Stroll through any record shop today, and your eyes are assaulted with images of destruction and decay. A recent CD by a great group called Alice in Chains shows plastic flies imbedded in someone's spine. The cover of a new album by Prong features a gouged-out eye impaled on a dinner fork. Why does popular music celebrate gore and violence? That's the question art critic Martha Bayles probes in her new book, Hole in Our Soul. The degradation of popular music, Bayles argues, has roots in art theory. After all, music is an art form, and ideas taught in art colleges eventually find their way into recording studios. In the classic tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment, art found its home among the three absolutes: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Art was thought to embody objective norms of Beauty, while expressing what is True and Good. But the rise of modern science led to a philosophy called scientism—which anointed science as the only valid approach to truth. Art was cut off from the "objective" world, now defined by science alone. As a result it tried to create a purely subjective world—a world of creative freedom where each artist finds his own truth, his own rules. But it's impossible to create a private world in a vacuum. So artists began defining creative freedom in purely negative terms—as freedom from bourgeois society and traditional morality. In the late nineteenth century, the European avant-garde adopted the image of the artist as rebel, who kicks up his heels at conventional society. The avant-garde movement immigrated to America, where it merged with our own musical traditions—jazz, blues, folk, and gospel. The combination produced rock and roll and other modern forms of popular music. But in the 1960s, the avant-garde gained the upper hand: Making music became less important than mocking the middle class. Today, in punk and MTV, the relentless attack on mainstream values has built to a fever pitch of profanity and perversity. Lyrics that glorify death and violence. Album covers strewn with body parts. Is there any hope for a reformation of popular music? Yes—but only if we return to the root of the problem. It was the Enlightenment, with its philosophy of scientism, that severed art from truth and cast it adrift on a sea of subjectivism. To reform art, we must once again link it to truth and virtue. We must reassert the intimate connection between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This is a task that falls first of all to the church. When our young people want to listen to the same music as their secular friends, we cannot simply say no. We also have to teach them to recognize the wrong ideas that drive music—like the idea that, to be "authentic," art must defy convention and morality. We must also encourage Christian musicians who are struggling to work out an alternative to the secular youth culture. It's not enough to denounce perverse popular music from the pulpit and forbid it in our homes. Jesus also calls us to be salt in society—to renew our culture. We need to create a culture where music that exalts perversity can no longer "go platinum."


Chuck Colson


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