Though many of us have become accustomed to seeing culture as an aggregate of an artistic and historical heritage, this is a rather broad term. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, culture can be defined as customary beliefs, social norms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time (Merriam-Webster). In this meaning, western culture is experiencing a prolonged decay, despite its technological novelties, proclaimed tolerance, equality of opportunities, and constant striving to make everyday existence more safe and comfortable.
So why do we say that western culture is in a state of decay? In the past, English politician Edward Gibbon had suggested several criteria of the Roman decaying culture. Among them he listed: common concern about looking wealthy instead of being one; freakish art; and the widening disparity between the rich and the poor (Goodreads). Surprisingly, it seems that these criteria are suitable not only for ancient Romans, but for the western modern world as well. Let us take a closer look.
One of the main reasons for western culture’s decay is its focus on displaying wealth and creating images of it, instead of amassing material gain or being true to oneself. This problem is deeper than it may seem; it is not an innocent show-off. Mass media, public opinion, commercials, and product manufacturers teach western people to assess themselves and others by their possessions. If to simplify this thesis, it would not be a great exaggeration to say that a person with a yearly income of $40,000 is often considered less worthwhile than a person with a $100,000 income, though this is an unfair and erroneous way to treat people. This leads to a specific type of behavior. Instead of working on self-improvement and building up wealth and career, people seem to be more engrossed by the external signs of success and prosperity, even when they completely differ from the image they try to create. In order to be able to purchase “status signs,” which are often rather expensive, they get into debt and take loans, which creates a negative effect on the economy and spins the wheel of consumption even stronger.
According to recent research, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. In 1967, those in the lowest percentile of American earners made a median salary of $9,300. By 2010, that was up to $11,900—a 28% increase (measured in 2010 dollars). The 90% of the richest Americans went from making a median of $85,800 in 1967 to $138,900, which made a 62% increase. Median income households saw real earnings go from $40,800 in 1967 to $49,400 (Face the Facts USA). This illustrates a phrase that “the richest become richer, the poorest become even poorer.”
If we look at modern art, which directly refers to the term of culture, we will see that its priorities have changed significantly, starting from the beginning of the 20th century. Today’s art is mostly flabbergasting; its main purpose is to shock the viewer, make them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, anxious, or angry. This is often achieved by the heavy exploitation and amplification of sexual, violent, and religious scenes, and granting them a deep meaning. For example, Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, showing a black Madonna covered with animal feces, was described as “playing with the ideas of blasphemy and worship, race and religion, toying in a gently ironic way with the space between public outrage and private expression to make his own spiritual statement, which among other things is not original” (The New York Times). When an art product like this one appears once in a decade, it may be called a daring provocation, but when they become trendy, it may be considered a diagnosis for culture.
Western culture, full of contradictions and uncomfortable compromises, is slowly slipping out of balance. This can be seen by the increasing social inequality expressed in the widening gap between the rich and the poor; in art, most of which is completely unaesthetic; in people’s obsession by external signs of success, and not in real development, or in other words, in their obsession of the artificial. Social norms and customary beliefs, affected by these and many other factors, constantly transform to make their careers more adapted to socio-economic and cultural processes, which gradually runs out of control.
Gibbon, Edward. “Quotes about Cultural Decay.” Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/cultural-decay>.
Kimmelman, Michael. “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; A Madonna’s Many Meanings in the Art World.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Oct. 1999. Web. 01 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/05/arts/critic-s-notebook-a-madonna-s-many-meanings-in-the-art-world.html>.
“Income Gap between Rich, Middle Class, and Poor Widens.” Face the Facts USA. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 01 July 2013. <http://www.facethefactsusa.org/facts/income-gap-between-rich-middle-class-and-poor-widens/>.
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