Rule 9: Be Culturally Literate

Asbury Park, 8/20/11

I remember meeting someone years ago who, when I asked her what she did, eagerly replied with, “I’m a writer!” Well, okay. What do you write? “Science fiction and fantasy, mostly.” And who or what do you read? “Oh, well, I really don’t like to read…”

I’ll edit my mental response to a somewhat more family-friendly, “Excuse me?!?” Never mind for a minute that I find the idea of cutting reading (or music, or photography or…) out of one’s life about as sensible as cutting off your own kneecaps with a grapefruit spoon. It’s just as much the fact that a life devoid of culture – the arts, the written word – strikes me as being a sad, impoverished place.

The reason why some of us get worked up over things like arts education isn’t (just) because we weren’t terribly good at football. Even if you couldn’t possibly be less interested in creating something on your own, I think that cultural literacy* is a huge part of just getting by in, and making sense of, everyday life. Done right (by which I mean a lowercase-“c” catholic approach, being open to a little of everything), it has the ability to enrich our lives. It also gives us a means to qualify what’s good and distinguish it from crap or kitsch, which comes in handy when you’re trying to detect and/or call out crap and kitsch in other parts of life, like political speeches or paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

But let’s assume that you’re here because by some means or other, you choose to express yourself. From a more practical standpoint, if you don’t have, or are blissfully unaware of, a context in which you’re creating, how in the heck are you supposed to create? If you have no idea what’s been done before, you haven’t much idea of what’s possible, nothing to push back against, nor the sense of support and solidarity that arises even when you engage a work across cultures or centuries. Nor are our raw materials  limited strictly to the media in which we choose to work; they’re the sum total of sensory input that’s swirled around us every day of our lives from our very first days, even the dream material that arises when our subconscious mind decides to have its way with all we’ve ingested during the day. To willfully omit or block out a large portion of that raw material is to acknowledge that we’re willing to draw from a shallower well, and maybe even glad to do so. Or, to put it differently, nobody creates anything of worth in a vacuum.

I know that in many school districts, arts education is viewed as superfluous or frivolous (to say nothing of the ones that treat education, and educators, as unnecessary evils). If that is, or has been, the case where you live, teach yourself. Form impromptu discussion groups, go to libraries, concerts, museums, everywhere and anywhere your feet will carry you. But if you have the option and refuse it, do yourself a favor, and please – I beg of you – do not call yourself an artist (citizen’s enough of a stretch; artist is really straining credibility) if you choose not to be literate in, and outside, your chosen medium.

*By cultural literacy, I mean culture in all the different forms it takes, from lowbrow to highbrow and all points in between. While I think there are qualitative differences between Shakespeare and the Simpsons, I’m also more than willing to admit that life gets pretty dull if you limit yourself to one or the other.

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