David and Art - Cultural Touchstones

Jan 27, 2020

Art can provide a good way for diverse groups to communicate with each other if we don’t shut ourselves to it.


I still vividly remember the student a few years ago who breezily told me she’d never seen a movie made before 1995.  I did a very poor job of masking my reaction.  But whatever amount of dismay I may have registered seemed to affect her not in the least.  Her light insouciance was thoroughly insulated by the certainty that she could not have missed anything worthwhile by not having seen “old” movies.  Even now, I relate that exchange to my classes when we talk about culture from the past and why some of it is worth their knowing.

All this got me thinking about how our relentless focus on the present and on what’s popular today is continually building a wall between younger people and things they would be fortunate to know.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

At one time, it could be taken for granted that even young people would have a pretty good knowledge of art and culture that existed before they were born. Anyone who remembers Mad magazine will tell you that it was hardly an arbiter of high culture. But at its peak of popularity in the mid-1970s, it could have served as a checklist of cultural institutions that were worth knowing about.

To understand its humor, one had to be familiar with a lot a stuff.  For instance, one needed to know melodies as varied as George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (written in 1906) and Leonard Bernstein’s “Tonight” (written in 1957) to get the parodies when alternate lyrics were provided.  Even if the writers were making fun of something, they could safely assume that their readership would know what on earth they were talking about when they mashed up the TV show “Hazel” with Eugene O’Neil’s avant-garde play “Strange Interlude” from 1928.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., is a teacher and the author of a celebrated 1987 book called “Cultural Literacy.”  He says that cultural literacy, unlike expert knowledge, is made up of things that are meant to be shared by everyone.  Such knowledge, he says “enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, Southerners with Midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Hispanics, and Republicans with Democrats — no matter where they were educated.”

Art has never been simply a private good; art is a means of communication. Those works that somehow communicate better than others become classics, and for each generation that discovers them, they remain as fresh as when they were created.

Being culturally literate will introduce you to wonderful things, from a Beethoven string quartet to Muddy Waters 12-bar blues; from a Langston Hughes poem to a Eugene O’Neil play.  And even to some classic movies, some of which may have been made before you were born.  But it all requires being open to the past, and the cultural inertia today, however, is sadly against it.