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David and Art - "“Rearranging the Luggage"

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Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
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The more you learn about art, the more rearranging you may have to do, but that’s a good thing.

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A long time ago I worked at a record store. I really enjoyed it. Every couple of months, each of the employees got to pick a new album to open that we would play on the house sound system. Inevitably a subtle contest developed over whose music got played.

I thought I knew what was good and that’s what I wanted to hear. And it isn’t that what I liked wasn’t good, but everything I didn’t want to listen to—everything the other employees picked--particularly a college student named Derick--was, automatically, not as good.

It seems like when it comes to our opinions, we can either be open and receptive or double down on what we already like. I was aggressively in the latter camp then.

One of the great things about getting into art is that you can always find something that’s new to you. Even if it’s something that’s hundreds of years old, if you’ve never heard it or never seen it, it’s new. I’ve said many times that the more you learn about art the more likely you are to find new favorites. And that’s true.

There’s a slight downside though if you’re complacent, or if you’re particularly comfortable with all your tastes being just as they are. One of the things that new art can do is unsettle us. Great art, even good art, makes us think and see things in new ways.

And even more than that, it can force us to rearrange those fixed, comfortable patterns in our tastes. If you find something new that you like, it forces you to move all your preferences around and re-examine them. It forces you to rearrange the luggage down in your hold.

There’s a great deal in common between how we learn more about art and how we learn more about history. It’s astonishing how many of my students come in certain that that Columbus was the only person in 1492 who thought the earth was round. When I tell them otherwise, they then with furrowed brows, process through everything that comes with having to reexamine.

Learning new things about history forces you to readjust what you once felt sure of, maybe that you held dear, and new information can sometimes be tenaciously resisted. I bet we could think of some examples of that.

Art doesn’t have to be as confrontational as that, but new art does move things around in your tastes. If you think that Beethoven is the end of the conversation about great music, and that’s all that you listen to—or want your symphony to play—you’re gonna be shook up a little bit when you discover William Grant Still’s symphonies.

Or like, when decades later, you find yourself avidly listening to the Talking Heads, and realize that maybe your 19-year-old self didn’t really know everything there was to know about music after all.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.