From almost the beginning of human culture, artists in all genres and for all purposes have used pieces of cultural vocabulary in their works. But in all case, the artist shapes the cultural vocabulary to his or her own purposes. For example, Odysseus’ wiliness is heroic for Homer, treacherous for Virgil and bombastic and legalistic for Shakespeare; in James Joyce’s hands, the character of Odysseus is transformed into a self-abnegating Jew in turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin. Botticelli’s Venus is a Christian neo-Platonist symbol of divine love, whereas Titian’s Venus revels in the sensuality of the real world and Paulo Veronese’s embodies the civilizing effects of love. Select virtually any cultural icon that has been around more than a few hundred years and you will be able to find different versions of it throughout literature, art, pop culture and even history. In a sense, the artist “cannibalizes” the cultural icon by spinning the shared understanding of the icon with his or her own meaning.
Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly—be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as Napoleon at Waterloo or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer prostitution scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, news programs, comic strips, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art and book titles are just some of the communication forms that routinely cannibalize cultural references. One week, we’ll see hundreds of references to twerking and a few weeks later, they’ll be gone, only to be replaced by hundreds of references to 1970s race car drivers, thanks to the movie “Rush.” Like twerking and “Rush,” most of this cultural phenomena is ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow. But you can still provoke a heart swell with a reference to Moses and Lincoln, or a chuckle with an imitation of Richard Nixon.
Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs primarily through direct reference or through imitation, parody and, travesty. James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic and a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator,” referring to another movie in another genre. Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, sometimes to the point that we cannot recognize the original, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative in the Russell Crowe movie remake instead of someone who takes from the rich to give to the poor; or when Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community in place of seeing him as representing civil rights and civil disobedience. We morph cultural icons, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu transform into good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these cultural expropriations over a period of years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to joke about the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody 30 years later to sell suds to housewives.
The longer a cultural artifact remains part of the cultural vocabulary, the more it changes from its original form and meaning, until finally it can mean anything to anyone. In a sense, frequent morphing of a cultural artifact hollows it out so it becomes an empty vessel that can be filled with any idea. Take the United States constitution, not the document itself, but its cultural meaning as a holy icon that guides our society and sets our laws. In any given year, dozens of conservative, progressive and centrist writers invoke the constitution, each to mean something completely different. Years of reinterpretation and misinterpretation by the news media, politicians, writers, filmmakers, composers and public relations professionals have slowly hollowed out the concept of the constitution, so that it can come to represent anything—and everything.
Another example is Martin Luther King. Our public celebration of King’s birthday displays a great ignorance of what he stood for. The media give us an overly generalized story and one quote about a dream. Politicians and writers mostly either refer to his legend without defining it or attempt to attach that legend into the beliefs of the speaker or writer. Even conservatives try to connect their ideas to King’s legacy. That’s the great thing about cultural artifacts that have been hollowed out: they can contain any idea one likes.
Making Dr. King’s birthday commemoration a day for volunteering distorts both Dr. King’s views and the good he did. Spending the day collecting for the poor, performing a charity show, reading to the elderly, cleaning up city parks and doing all the other things that people now typically do on MLK Day are all admirable, but this volunteering relates only in the most nebulous of ways to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers whom King enraptured and engaged 50 and 60 years ago. Those volunteers did two things and two things only: Walk for peace and justice and sit for peace and justice. Just as the news and marketing media transform King the social revolutionary into a mainstream American leader, so social action morphs into volunteering in ways that attend to social ills without addressing how to cure them. King becomes a fatherly figure who reminds us to help out others, a kind of Smokey the Bear of volunteerism.
Tomorrow will be a final edition of this special series on our shared cultural vocabulary. In it I weasel out of predicting what our cultural vocabulary will be in the future.