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Daivd and Art - “More of What Everybody Else Likes”

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All we are saying is give art from the past a chance.

Last week I mentioned a harrowing experience I had recently in a classroom when I thought for a moment that no one there had ever heard of the Beatles. Thinking back on that reminded me of another conversation I had in a different classroom full of students.

We were talking about the culture of America in the 1920s and one student assured me that, certain cases notwithstanding, her generation knew more about older art and culture than the generation preceding hers. As we talked further, one student expressed consternation that another didn’t know what a “flapper” was from the ‘20s. Then she herself was immediately the object of the same kind of amazement from another when she admitted that she didn’t know who Billie Holliday was. Then it transpired that the student who called her out on Billie Holliday didn’t know who Julie Andrews was and hadn’t seen The Sound of Music. Another student couldn’t believe that she was the only one who had ever seen Fiddler on the Roof. And on it went. As all these students were freshmen—that is, part of the same generation—it called into question the assurances of that first student.

It wasn’t as though no one knew about anything, but commonalities around earlier cultural signposts were nearly non-existent. They had no touchstones beyond what’s trending right now. Following what’s popular now is by no means entirely pointless. One of the achievements of pop culture is that it brings a community into being where one didn’t previously exist. The pop culture of the 1880s took millions of immigrants with very little in common and fused them into an American people. But pop culture is also dismissive of the past, setting itself against what was popular even a short time before. The upshot is that any society dominated by pop culture becomes relentlessly focused on what’s current and consequently develops a very short cultural memory. Deeper levels of community erode as all that is held in common is what’s popular right now. This is related to the constant complaint that students today don’t know history.

There are lots of people who form their own opinions about art and culture rather than be swept along and reflexively adopt the tastes of the crowd. But there are many more who need encouragement and we should be ready to give it. I’m thinking of many younger people whose tastes are sometimes exclusively shaped by the tastes of those around them—kids who have no knowledge of anything beyond that which is popular at the moment, people for whom newness and novelty becomes the signifiers of worth rather than more substantive qualities. If a kid doesn’t know anyone who listens to Billie Holiday, how is he ever going to come to know her? How is he ever going to hear her sing “Strange Fruit?” It’s really up to all of us to be teachers.