Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Self-adornment, taste and the tension between individual sovereignty and cultural health

It seems pretty obvious that at least one major point of the photo montage at Clash Daily of bizarre and grotesque facial tattoos is to give the reader a little breathing room in which to feel superior to some of his or her fellow human beings. You know, "My God, what gets into some people? How do you reach such a nihilistic dead end in your life?"

An interesting question comes to mind: What did people who had reached nihilistic dead ends do to express it to the world before tattoo "artistry" became so prevalent? Were they just inclined to keep it under wraps? Is there a chance there were fewer people reaching nihilistic dead ends in our society 40, 50, 80 years ago?

When I was growing up, tattoos were generally sported by guys who had been in the Navy and had had a few too many drinks on shore leave. They'd generally get a simple anchor icon, or the silhouette of a shapely woman, generally on the forearm.

I guess it was biker gangs that started the spread of the phenomenon. Then maybe rock and roll performers associated with particular genres, such as southern rock or the various types of heavy metal. At some point, athletes went in for tattoos in a big way, to the point where it seems deeply ingrained in the ethos of several sports.

It seems to have coincided with the metastasizing of the notion of what body piercing is all about. Until the late 1960s, no one in our culture wore earrings except women. Then men began sporting simple rings in one ear. Then came the punk movement, and that was the end of any sense of limits.

Here's another question: Is there - ought there be - a line of demarcation between what is tasteful - acceptable - in the way of tattoos, and that which not only offends but properly evokes alarm and pity?

Consider the young adult woman who gets a small butterfly etched on the small of her back, or her ankle. We're talking about an innocuous lark, right?

I'd like to offer the possibility that its look-at-me factor feeds a sense of self-importance, of a neurotic yearning for autonomy that is one of the chief signs of post-American society's rapidly declining health. It feeds this notion that everything about our daily lives ought to bear our signature, that everything must reflect personal style. Compose your own playlist to pump through your earbuds. Festoon your car with bumper stickers - maybe even a license plate - that trumpet to the world what you care about, or what reviles you. Get your coffee, your pizza, your salad dressing, exactly like you want it. (Let's see if I can remember all the varieties of ranch dressing I saw when I was shopping for the original kind the other day: bacon, avocado, cucumber, buttermilk, lite, fat-free . . . I'm forgetting some, but you get my point.)

Then there's the question of what the balance is between Christian acceptance and the complete jettisoning of discernment in the name of being "nonjudgmental." We all know about the storefront churches and Friday-night coffee gatherings attended by people new to substance-addiction recovery or a change in direction from other forms of hopeless living. Their need for the gospel message is nothing short of desperate. Often these people sport tattoos in abundance. Some, upon coming around to an acceptance of grace and determination to act on the gratitude that that entails, go out and get tattoos expressing as much, emblazoning big crosses, or even likenesses of Jesus on body surfaces not previously covered in ink.

What's that about? Is there a bit of desperation involved in that, as if, without that constant reminder on one's chest, one might lapse back into an outlook that didn't include salvation?

It seems to me there's a bit of a dare involved. The fact that Christians come not only in all demographics, but with an infinite variety of individual notions about taste, is right up in everybody's face, even the faces of people from backgrounds in which tattoos just weren't done.

But consider who owns a given human body. One's own conception happens without the person in question signing off on it. One's body develops and then ages according to a timetable not of one's own making. I submit that this fact has everything to do with scriptural admonishments to be modest in self-adornment.

Conservatives have always been faced with the question of the extent to which they ought to "get with it." Moving that needle led to the refreshing breed of the movement's younger lights in the 1980s, such as P.J. O'Rourke. Even Rush Limbaugh made the splash that he did because of the rollicking irreverence with which he surveyed the scene before him.

But no cultural phenomenon remains static. In fashion, music, food, recreation, and even political opining and satire, anything provocative that comes on the scene is bound to metastasize, usually finding "mainstream" forms in which to manifest, as well as opportunities to manifest horrifically, as is the case in the above-linked collection of facial tattoos.

But it seems to me conservatives have been suckers for the notion that they ought to lighten up and accept the permanence of a great many things.

It's always been possible to argue that conservatism is actually the countercultural impulse in our society. National Review's 1955 mission statement, after all, says that the magazine would "stand athwart history, yelling 'stop!'"

For instance, is it not an establishment of a nearly all-encompassing kind that would mock someone for saying, "I can enumerate quite a few reasons why [fill in the blank with a particular cultural phenomenon] is ill-advised, in poor taste, and feeds the general atmosphere of narcissism"? And what is the rejoinder? Is it anything more elevated than, "Aw, let people alone and let 'em do what they feel like doing"?

Pretty weak tea if we're ever to recover a sense that it's laudable to cultivate our God-given dignity.

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