Replacing the Beautiful and Wise with the Cute and the Clever

Dallas Willard noticed and described in detail the process by which mass media led to replacing beauty and wisdom with the clever and cute. The process he describes is worth the price of The Divine Conspiracy. The book is about how to connect to Christ in a world where absurdity reigns, even in the Christian churches. But the opening chapters explain the philosophical, theological, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends that made things so weird in the United States. Willard had obviously become very suspicious of mass media. One principle he outlines elsewhere in his book is that the results you get are the precise outcome of the system you use or have designed. So he had to see that a great deal of what he describes below was intentional.

The question to ask, of course, is why would anybody think that smothering the world in platitudes, inanity, nihilism, and sensualism is a good idea?

Cuteness, like cleverness, has certain aesthetic possibilities—as do sex and violence—but they are very limited. Picasso is the most familiar and brilliant illustration of how it can be well used, and of how it goes to seed. But as we now know, masses of people can be cute, and clever as well, who have no ability or sense of art at all. As creators and consumers they fill the field of pop culture today, which is an economic enterprise and only by accident occasionally has something to do with art. Art objects are now commonly referred to as “product” by those who handle them and only make news when they are sold for absurdly large sums or are stolen.

Art is lost in pop “art” as sport is lost in professional “sport”—which is an oxymoron of the strongest kind. Absurdity reigns, and confusion makes it look good. Currently, through pop “art” and the media the presumed absurdity of life that elites previously had to be very brilliant and work very hard to appreciate is mindlessly conveyed to hundreds of millions. It comes to us in Bart and Homer Simpson and endless sitcoms and soap operas involving doctors, lawyers, and policemen, along with the bizarre selections and juxtapositions imposed by what is called news. You have only to “stay tuned,” and you can arrive at a perpetual state of confusion and, ultimately, despair with no effort at all

In the shambles of fragmented assurances from the past, our longing for goodness and rightness and acceptance— and orientation— makes us cling to bumper slogans, body graffiti, and gift shop nostrums that in our profound upside-down-ness somehow seem deep but in fact make no sense: “Stand up for your rights” sounds so good. How about “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten”? And “Practice random kindnesses and senseless acts of beauty”? And so forth.

Such sayings contain a tiny element of truth. But if you try to actually plan your life using them you are immediately in deep, deep trouble. They will head you 180 degrees in the wrong direction. You might as well model your life on Bart Simpson or Seinfeld. But try instead “Stand up for your responsibilities” or “I don’t know what I need to know and must now devote my full attention and strength to finding out” (consider Prov. 3:7 or 4:7) or “Practice routinely purposeful kindnesses and intelligent acts of beauty.” Putting these into practice immediately begins to bring truth, goodness, strength, and beauty into our lives. But you will never find them on a greeting card, plaque, or bumper. They aren’t thought to be smart. What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound

…In fact, the popular sayings attract only because people are haunted by the idea from the intellectual heights that life is, in reality, absurd. Thus the only acceptable relief is to be cute or clever. In homes and on public buildings of the past, words of serious and unselfconscious exhortation, invocation, and blessing were hung or carved in stone and wood. But that world has passed. Now the law is “Be cute or die.” The only sincerity bearable is clever insincerity. That is what the clothing and greeting card graffiti really scream out. The particular “message” doesn’t matter.

Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (pp. 9-10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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