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Culture Notes

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

The golden oldies

Neoclassicism is back in style. Not only did Sense and Sensibility get an Oscar nomination, Jane Austen's other novels have become hot properties. A film version of Persuasion was released last year, and Emma is in the works (not counting the silly teenage hit Clueless, which rips off its plot). A TV mini-series on Pride and Prejudice was featured on the Arts & Entertainment network. Also, the TV version of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels took fourth place in the ratings, just behind NBC's Thursday night lineup. This period was more than the Enlightenment, with its secular rationalism and religious skepticism. It was also the age of Neoclassicism, which emulated the Ancients over the Moderns and cultivated a common-sense respect for traditional values. Austen and Swift-as well as conservative theorist Edmund Burke and most of the Founding Fathers-were neoclassicists. Swift was a conservative Anglican clergyman. The TV version of Gulliver, starring Ted Danson, despite some gratuitous psychology, was literalistically faithful, though it fell short of conveying Swift's brutal mockery of humanism.

Conservatives sweep Oscars?

All five nominations for Best Picture in this year's Academy Awards are movies cultural conservatives would have reason to love: Apollo 13, a patriotic celebration of real-life heroism in the space program; Babe, a G-rated tale of a pig who wants to be a sheep-dog; Il Postino, an Italian film about a postman and a poet, free of the existential angst and negativism of many European films; Sense and Sensibility, a faithful recreation of the 18th-century novel by the great preacher's kid, Jane Austen; and Braveheart, Mel Gibson's gory but stirring saga of freedom, Scottish family values, and a grassroots rebellion against a decadent central government.

The gay curriculum

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The school board in Merrimack, N.H., has passed a policy forbidding teachers from sanctioning homosexuality as an acceptable way of life. Some teachers and parents are suing to change the policy. With the attention of the media, teachers are claiming that the school board's ban on discussions of homosexual issues censors their teaching of literary classics such as Moby Dick and the comedies of Shakespeare. If this is so, then the "Prohibition of Alternative Lifestyle Instruction" also has the effect of preventing misreading of some great books. True, the Pequod is an all-male ship, Ishmael and Queequeg share the same bunk, and one can manufacture innuendos about the "sperm whale," but Melville's masterpiece is not about homosexuality. Although women were not allowed to act on stage in Shakespeare's day, so that female parts had to be played by dressed-up men, this was an example of Elizabethan sexual propriety, not a drag show. That some high school teachers cannot discuss these classics apart from homosexuality is evidence that the so-called "Queer Theory"-which reads all literature and all culture in terms of homosexuality or homophobia-has left the bounds of the universities and is now permeating the high schools. Merrimack's policy may safeguard not only the moral tone of the classroom, but its intellectual tone as well.

The lessons of art history

Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians crowded into the National Gallery of Art to see the Dutch Master Vermeer's breathtakingly realistic and grace-filled paintings of housewives and ordinary families. This blockbuster show, which closed in February, came on the heels of the Monet exhibit at Chicago's Art Institute, which attracted nearly a million people. Such art mania demonstrates that Americans are starved for a beauty they cannot find in most contemporary art. Both Vermeer and Monet emerged out of a change in art funding: With the Reformation, the Dutch church stopped patronizing art, so the Dutch masters began painting works that would appeal to the middle class. French art was being stifled by an elitist academy subsidized by the national government, until the Impressionists began painting for the bourgeoisie. If the arts today would shake their dependence on federal funding, might this result in new Vermeers and new Monets?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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