Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Culture and Common Culture

Last night’s Halloween trick or treating brought with it a couple of experiences that remind of me of the importance of sharing great cultural accomplishments with all young people — and, indeed, having the confidence that in the canon of Western Art there is great power. Marina and the boys were out in costume, so I was the designated guy who stayed home, answered the door bell, and handed out treats to the parade of goblins, witches, and other magical creatures who arrived. I didn’t have a costume but to add some spooky drama I decided to play music that would set a mood. So music was filling the house. When the kids came home, they were cold and tired, and Sasha rushed to the couch to read — by then I had Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet on; I told him it was by the same guy who had composed Peter and the Wolf, and asked what the music said to him. As it happened he was reading the second Twilight book, and when he heard that the music was Romeo and Juliet — which, apparently, figures prominently in that plot, he said — I want to see it. Via vampires and popular fiction, he is now eager to see, hear, learn the story of R and J.

Sasha is just starting to learn the cello, so I put on the Bach suite of unaccompanied cello as background to his vampires in love. Just then the last group of trick or treaters came to the door — a mother escorting two 10ish-year-old Hispanic girls. One stood there transfixed by the sound of Yo Yo Ma and, shyly, asked — “Excuse me, what is that music?” This was a kind of beauty she had never heard before.

Our kids are aswim in popular culture — fine, we were, kids are. But when we share great achievements with them we offer them a step out, a step up, a step beyond that insistent drumbeat of what is easy, what is available, what is endlessly offered to them for sale. They of course need to have their own world. We don’t trust that the art and culture we value will “translate” — we fear it will come across as boring, old fashioned, out of touch. But we forget that popular culture is as much a limiting trap as it is an appealing adventure. And great art gives our kids’ ears and eyes a chance to be refreshed, to be expanded, to know more. Great art is a gift, not an obligation — or at least it can be. I told Sasha we’d get him the 1996 DiCaprio film, but then I added West Side Story and the ballet as set to the the Prokoviev score — I am not sure he is going to have the patience for all of them, but I’ll try.