There are those who say that Mozart’s music, injected into your eardrums for a requisite period each day in therapeutic dosages, enhances your brain power. (Or not.) And if you can just painstakingly sludge through those timeless classics like the Iliad and The Way of All Flesh, you’ll generate beta waves and flex your cultural muscles with gusto! (Even better, imbibe their essential nutrients via prepackaged episodes of “Wishbone.”) But for the true gluttons for punishment among us, bent on self-induced indoctrination into the world of refined tastes and eager to collect conversational tidbits for cocktail parties (or even non-alcoholic fruit-juice shindigs), museums of all stripe await. (A few years ago while my sister Melyngoch and I poked around the exhibits in Boston’s Old South Church, we noticed two kids plugging the nose of a statue of Phyllis Wheatley and giggling. “Children!” their mother called out in a tone nothing short of vociferous. “Get yourselves over here right this instant! There’s a very important historical document you need to see!”)
I’m not opposed to “Wishbone” by any means. I’m definitely not opposed to babies listening to Bach. (I’m not even opposed to people plugging statues’ noses.) But I have to admit to experiencing a certain horror when I find that half the classical albums in a particular store’s collection feature naked infants and titles like “Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power.” I’m sure the albums themselves are just fine. I’m leery, though, of the cultural impulse that takes a medium Bach understood as a holy means of glorifying his Creator and repackages and recodes it as a sort of postnatal vitamin.
Undoubtedly there are benefits to this approach. As long as Appreciating Culture is a civic duty incumbent on all responsible citizens, maybe some of the better qualities of our art, much like the nutritional value of canned vegetables, are absorbed in spite of themselves. Maybe some who would otherwise never have encountered certain of the world’s works of beauty and passion are blessed with their discovery and thoroughly enriched by the experience.
But I wonder about drawbacks as well. Once we’ve made culture Good for You (and therefore, necessarily unpleasant, a duty to be borne with all patience and meekness in the holy name of self-improvement), it seems its very raison d’etre has been warped. Aerobic workouts certainly have value, but they’re a poor substitute for dance.
For my part, I found The Way of All Flesh (never heard of it?) insufferably dull. My attention span in museums rarely lasts longer than half an hour (and is better gripped by objects of historical interest than by visual arts). I may be compromising Bach’s vision (or rather, audition), but, when listening to his cantatas, I invariably skip the recititatives. And (is there a genetic predisposition for this?) I think most of Mozart’s music is trite, the aural equivalent of Marshmallow Creme. There’s so much that’s of interest to me that I can’t be bothered to bore myself into cultural betterment. (Three cheers for nurturing your inner Philistine!)
At the same time, I’m convinced that familiarity is a necessary element in appreciation, and further that appreciation does not always come without effort. So I have to concede that the process of determining which works of “high culture” I will find most enriching and worth investment in energy is far from straightforward. The first time I heard it, I was not particularly taken with much of what I now consider my favorite music. At the same time, there’s an enormous body of music (even classical! oh, the heresy) that I’m confident I will never like, no matter how much I expose myself to it. Familiarity does not necessarily result in appreciation. (And what, finally, is exposure minus appreciation good for?)
Canonization of art, like canonization of scripture, is of course primarily a human endeavor subject to all the usual foibles. But it is also a form of enshrinement that simultaneously makes something more and less accessible. The danger is that the art itself gets lost in its own surrounding fog of obligation.
This fog extends beyond content even to form. Several years ago I read a column in which a concerned reader wrote in to ask whether she was experiencing the full benefits of reading when she listened to books on tape rather than forcing her eye to follow words across a page. Is there a sense, she wondered, in which this was cheating? (And while we’re at it, could someone please tell me whether it’s cheating to eat cheesecake with a spoon instead of a fork?)
One thing I suspect this attitude betrays is our characteristic concern with products over processes, the product, in this instance, being our own selves (intellectually and culturally enhanced and inducted into the realm of the sophisticated).
During the Enlightenment, rigid principles of logic were misapplied to language, resulting in a burgeoning of explicit grammar rules where none had been before. These stringent attitudes toward language usage naturally found fertile ground among the middle class, whose hallmarks include insecurity and a lust for upward mobility. (Such factors combined to spawn that strange and savage creature we’ve all encountered somewhere, sometime–the Grammar Fascist–known especially to prey on hapless elementary school children.) I suspect a very similar dynamic obtains in the way canonized art (understood loosely) functions in our present social milieu.
Obviously art serves a variegated range of functions. But at the forefront, I hope, stand intellectual and aesthetic pleasure.
So in the best tradition of Bruce R. McConkie (“Job is for people who like Job”), I submit that Henry James is for people who like Henry James.
Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing.
- 23 August 2006