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Attitudes of the Times In Art, Architecture, and Music
Art, literature, and music are all forms of creative expression stemming from the dawn of man. They can take us into a total state of fantasy, reach into our hearts and, perhaps, get us to shed a tear. Take a look at any piece of work; and it is almost impossible not to find that the works show a piece of reality in its time; that, somehow, in their creativity, the artists' work reflect the attitudes of the times in which he or she lived. Social problems are often depicted in the works; and sometimes, the artists’ work may even represent a solution to social ills.
There are millions of pieces of art, literature, and music from which to choose, which can be analyzed to reflect the attitude of the times and how the works show a piece of reality in their time. Here are three works of art to consider:
- a famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe;
- one of the greatest engineering marvels of the world, the Great Wall of China; and
- the lyrics of “Who Protects Us from You,” a rap song by KRS-One. (Walker.).
Uncle Tom's Cabin
One of the most famous books in the world was written during a period in American history when there was a significant amount of social conflict, the mid-1800s. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Life Among the Lowly, served as a tremendous indictment against slavery. It was first printed as a series in an abolitionist paper, “The National Era,” in 1851 and was then published as a book in 1852. The story gained little attention while it was a series, but when it was published as a book, it was an unprecedented success. Approximately, 500,000 copies were sold in the first five years of its publication.
Stowe, the author, was known as a social reformist and was criticized for creating idealized characters in her novel. She showed interesting foresight of this criticism as she prefaced the book:
“What personal knowledge the author has had of the truth of incidents such as here are related will appear in its time”
She stated in her concluding remarks:
“The writer has often been inquired…whether this narrative is a true one; and to these inquiries she will give one general answer. The incidents…are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under own observation, or that of her personal friends. Some of the most deeply tragic and romantic, some of the most terrible incidents, have also their parallel in reality…there are living witnesses all over our land to testify" (Stowe, H. 403-404.).
Stowe's style of writing is referred to as a “sentimental novel” and was a major form of American literature that came from white writers’ response to slavery. Its aim was to shed a bright light on slavery and the true oppression of an entire race of people, since many held on to the false belief that slaves were well taken care of by their masters, a sentiment known as paternalism. While Stowe was not advocating revolutionary change at the time, she emphasized the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be “Christian.” She said:
“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so unnecessarily cruel and unjust…” (Stowe, H. 9.).
Slavery was an institution in America, as it was primarily under governmental control. A movement in society known as evangelical revivalism (The Second Great Awakening) inspired social reformation in the hearts of Northerners. They argued, “America was in need of moral regeneration by dedicated Christians.” This was the climate of the society in which Stowe lived. The sentiment of her novel was reflective of the times.
The book was nearly out of print by the middle of the 20th century; in fact, it was virtually forgotten except for the negative connotation and name-calling “Uncle Tom” to those Blacks that appeared to be sympathetic with white views. But it gained in popularity almost exactly 100 years later during the Civil Rights Movement – a reinvented struggle for equality of Blacks in the South. In her novel, Stowe demonstrated “slavery was not just individual cruelty or indifference but part of a vast interlocking social process based on profit, whatever the human cost.”
Most likely, part of the novel's appeal was that it showed slavery as a masculine enterprise emphasizing the lowliness of women in society, who were also regarded as property and were ignorant of their husbands' financial and moral infidelities. Her solution to the social ills rested in the conscious of humanity more than in any policy. Governments around the world had denounced slavery. Stowe revealed how engrained the value of slavery was in the American culture for even young children were trained to be Masters.
Stowe appealed to our “conscience,” questioned our sense of morality, and emphasized the consideration of all members of humanity. She was a woman ahead of her time, even ahead of our own time – the 21st Century. The fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin was able to appeal to two very distant generations of Americans is evidence of its significant value to American culture. (Stowe, H. 414.).
The Great Wall of China
Literature is certainly not the only form of the arts that reflects the social climate of the era in which it is created. Consider architecture. It can demonstrate the cultural beliefs, religious dogmas, or even the need for protection from warriors and invaders. This is the case with the Great Wall of China.
Walls can serve many tangible needs: shelter, support, and enclosure; but they also serve psychological, cultural, and symbolic needs. The Great Wall is not one wall, as many may think, but consists of many great walls stretching some 1,500 miles across northern China. Construction began on the wall nearly 3,000 years ago, though very little of the original wall remains. The Great Wall (ChangCheng) was built in “piecemeal fashion” from the Fifth Century B.C.E., through to 16thcentury A.C.E., as a means of defense against raids from the northern nomadic tribes. In the hearts and souls of the Chinese, the wall protected them from the barbaric Huns. There was an additional significance: it separated the seemingly safe patterns of settled agriculture from the alien nomadic life of the steppes and deserts of the other side (Lindesay, W. and Qi, Wu.). The wall also serves to define China’s border since there is no clear natural boundary (Juliano, A.).
Before China was unified, feudal states would fight for control of the area that makes up most of modern-day China. Traditionally, the Chinese and their “barbarian” nomads viewed each other with contempt. The Chinese perceived the nomads as “barbarians, pastoral wanderers, cheese eaters, and milk drinkers who ate with their hands instead of chopsticks.” The nomads scorned the Chinese as “sedentary and agrarian.” Antagonism grew between the two-different lifestyles, as the Chinese became a sophisticated nation of farmers and bureaucrats (Juliano).
The Wall also represents imperial power. Rulers of ten dynasties built the Great Walls. Built partly of earth faced with brick and partly of masonry, historical texts record as many as 300,000 men working for ten years on the construction of a 500-mile section of the wall. Stories of the hardship suffered by these laborers were passed down, which contribute to the image of China’s first emperor, Shihuang Di, as a hated tyrant. The mountainous area was known for freezing rain and blizzards. The fertile plains of central China and the deserts of the northwest brought dust storms, brutal sandstorms, and broiling heat. These harsh conditions contributed to the deaths of thousands who perished while constructing what has been called the “longest cemetery in the world” since the laborers were often buried in the wall itself (Juliano, A.).
The strongest sections of the walls, naturally, protect the capital, Beijing (Lindesay, W). The most popular sections of the wall are 300 to 500 years old, which date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), the last native Chinese Dynasty. The watchtowers on the wall were used as guard posts; and signals of fire and smoke once alerted those inside the wall to invading armies. There were 14 towers at Simatai alone, stationed at quarter-mile intervals, which once housed squads of soldiers (Brown). Guards could always be bribed, so the walls never really deterred raiders.
During the Ming Dynasty, since the wall was a critical factor in the defense of the northern border, cash, silks, and even Chinese princesses were used to buy the friendship or neutrality of tribes near the wall; but still, it did not prevent invasion of the Manchus who ruled until 1911 (Juliano, A.).
The Wall is by no means void of any artistic impression. There is a stunning white marble structure known as the Cloud Platform. Built around 1345 during the Yuan dynasty, it served as the base for three pagodas, which were destroyed decades later. The platform has a hexagonal archway. The ceiling and walls are covered with extraordinary carvings of the Four Heavenly Kings and the texts of Buddhist scriptures in at least six languages, including:
- Xi Xia
- Han Chinese (Lindesay.).
The last fortress of the Great Wall, Jiayu Guan, has a watchtower. Outside the west gate stands a tablet etched with four large Chinese characters that read, “The martial barrier of all under Heaven” (Juliano, A.).
The emperor Shihuang Di, the “architect” of the Great Wall, built it “not only as a defense but as a definition of the empire he create” – a symbol of his own greatness. The Wall was as important for what it excluded as well what was enveloping on the inside: a new nation (Juliano, A.).
Listen to "Who Protects Us from You." (2:27 mins)
"Who Protects Us from You" by KRS-One
Music, yet another form of artistic expression, has been known to represent the social conflicts of society over the centuries. Not only may the social context be vivid in its lyrics but the patrons of music, or lack thereof, clearly defines the social climate in which music exists. It is both influenced by society and able to influence society. It is played; and people listen to it, and appreciate it, or not. In order to clearly relate to music, one must consider the relationship of the composer to the economic and social world in which he or she lives (Raynor.).
One of the most controversial forms of music in America is known as rap music (some have called it “noise”). Rap music is one of the most popular genres of the late 20th Century. A repetitious, heavy bass, drumbeat permeates the sound of the music. The rhymed storytelling of the rapper addresses numerous issues, including:
- Racial conflicts
- Power and control
- African-American (aka “Black”) cultural priorities
- Social and economic conditions
These musical artists rap about these struggles and the way Black youth responds. Rappers use ever-changing combinations of Black urban slang. While there is no doubt the lyrics are educational with regard to social problems, the media prefers to focus on describing the lyrics as profanity and anarchic, violence at rap concerts, and the illegal use of music samples. The media suggests that the violent music video images and sexually explicit lyrics contribute to the moral “breakdown of society.” But isn't that argument similar to the one about which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Rose.).
In reviewing one particular piece of music, a 1989 hit “Who Protects Us from You,” by KRS-One, the lyricist in a group of rappers called Boogie Down Productions, it is clear the rap is an address to the power of the police and the history of police brutality and harassment of the Black community:
Fire! Come down fast!
You were put here to protect us, but who protects us from you?
Every time you say, “that’s illegal,” does it mean that it’s true?
(Chorus) Un Hun
Your authority’s never questioned, no one questions you
If I hit you, I’ll be killed, if you hit me, I can sue
Clearly, KRS-One is talking about the police though he does not mention them by name. Evidence that this rap is about law enforcement is found in the lyrics where the function of law enforcement is supposed to "protect us" as a society, that law enforcement makes determinations about what is "illegal", and has "arrest" authority. The rap pushes us to reflect on legal codes, morality, and the great divide between legality and the truth. The call for “Fire” at the beginning of the song is a Rastafarian metaphor for “massive social change, the destruction that precedes revelation, precedes new knowledge.” (Rose.).
White, middle-class Americans do not have police brutality or racial profiling in the forefront of their consciousness because historically, as a group, they have not been subjected to the dehumanization of slavery, institutional segregation, and continued discrimination and prejudice. People quickly forget about the harassment and abuse by law enforcement during the Civil Rights Movement, as seen by millions via television during the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet, apparently nothing changed in many police departments, even in 1989. Little changed a few years later, as in 1991, a media frenzy surrounded the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which served as a catalyst to rioting within the community. In a more recent example, the incident involving police officer Darren Wilson who shot an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, sparked outrage and protests included a string of riots following the refusal of a grand jury to indict the officer. These are just a few of the stories covered by the news media involving allegations of police officers abusing their power. Still, too many people in society think, “If it isn’t happening to me, it isn’t happening at all.”
25 Years After The Rap Song...
Many times, probably more often than not, artistic expression may not hold the key to changing social ills. But expression brings the social conflicts to the surface in a way that is easier to accept
Share your views
How do you view art, architecture and music?
Brown, J. D. Frommer’s China: The 50 Most Memorable Trips. Frommer. 1998.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. "Uncle Tom's Cabin." 2011. https://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/. Access date: February 10, 2015.
Juliano, Annette L. Treasures of China. Richard Marek Publishing. 1981.
Lindesay, William and Qi, Wu. Beijing. Odyssey Publications, Ltd. 1999.
Parker, Lawrence. "Who Protects Us From You?" Ghetto Music: The Blueprint Of Hip Hop (BDP). Boogie Down Productions. 1989.
Raynor. Henry. A Social History of Music from the Middle Ages to Beethoven. Barrie & Jenkins. 1972.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Wesleyan. 1999.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin: Life Among the Lowly. Reader's Digest Association. 1991 (reprint).
By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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This hub was originally entitled "Art, Literature, and Music Reflect Attitudes of the Times." It has been substantially altered and edited.