The cultural landscape in America is both vigorous and frightening; hale and heartless; ubiquitous, but claustrophobic. It happens, to an increasing degree, in front if a keyboard and it is ladled out, not in complete sentences, but in presumably more digestible tweets, sound-bites, and platitudes that would have made Oscar Wilde an angry man.
I will go no farther than my own computer, from which I learn so much about psychological disorders (as they apply to celebrities-du-jour); political activism, particularly from the Angelina Jolie Institute of Human Bondage; and global warming, which is served up nice and hot by The Stupid Class, spearheaded by Republicans who believe that wind power is behind it all.
Small wonder that our cultural landscape - which, at one point in our history included a dollop of poetry; public sculpture; and newspaper discourse by authors rather than ideologically tainted journalists or sportswriters-become-moral-guardians - is fast-disappearing. Everything else is.
How many people whose business it is to think end up on television that isn't strictly educational? How many people whose job it is to mirror a somewhat subjective, but provocative, reality - as in painters or photographers - are ever asked what they think about what life looks like (I mean, outside of an online publication that speaks to photographers and painters only?)
My litmus test for cultural literacy used to hinge on the numerical, as in: "You there. Do you know the names of ten practicing poets? How about five? What are poets, you say?"
Having been a painter, I would pose the same question about visual artists.
A: Uh. . Picasso?
A: Oh, you mean alive!
Q: Yes. I said that.
A: How about Stan Lee?
A: You said ten?
Q: Eight will do.
A: Eight. I should be able to come up with that many. Uh. . .alive, you say.
A: How about if I name some Disney movies?
Q: They're a collective enterprise.
A: Jeez. This is harder than I thought. Can I Google?
Q: You could, but I seem to remember from my distant youth that when I took a test, I had to know something about its content already.
A: I don't have time for this.
Q: Yes, I can see.
Not that name-calling (or dropping) is the be-all and end-all of cultural literacy. While I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to such things, I don't expect for Everyman or woman to be the plaque-reader I am. Yet names do suggest a certain familiarity, if not immersion, in a field or pursuit that is at least marginally important. I know the names of hundreds of ballplayers. Aside from the nerd's need-to-know mentality, such unnecessary retention shows a love of the game, as one might say, which is passionate by nature and doesn't require all those names. But they stick because I was at the ballpark via the sports pages, electronic media, and on my own two feet - the best circumstance of all - constantly. When you have no names, you have a limited currency, which cannot be spent in any worthwhile conversation ("I don't know who he is, but he's really great!") or credible situation ("That guy, he's the kind of. . .I mean, if I had the time and money. . .well, you know what I mean.")
I would much rather there be a passion for something first and a pop quiz later - or not at all. Sadly, none of these things are happening at the moment. Yet even in that distant day of which I have spoken, opportunities for uplift were not rampant. To see a play or look at a painting fell under the rubric of a sissy activity, the opprobrium of which was so unthinkable that, even when some of us too an interest in such things, we pursued it clandestinely - and, on occasion, disguised. I was considered a sissy throughout junior high school - in spite of an athletic prowess I could nervously demonstrate and a self-hating contempt for All Things Sensitive. (Thanks to Dick Cavett, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen et al, things got a little better.)
In those days, however, literate people - assuming they were gainfully employed, did not support the Communist Party, and avoided hippie attire - could read a serious novel and expect a lot of other like-minded folk to do the same. As I wrote the previous sentence, a coffee-stained copy of In Cold Blood popped into my head. This particular copy had been purchased by a neighbor and passed along to my mother, who must've enriched the chain with a third person. Such books were always coming and going and there was no apparent shame attending their presence. My mother had lots of other books - the produce of library foragings - around all the time. When she wasn't being domestic, she was curled up on the sofa (there were no "toofers" in our little saltbox) with the sort of middlebrow literature that was often made into a movie. Or wanted to have been.)
There were also reproductions of famous paintings on strategic wall-spaces; a few record albums that lacked singing nuns, and the furniture, if budgetarily chosen, did not suggest that we would have preferred to reside in a cheap hotel. We had fewer opportunities, but made the best of at least some. I remember my first play, a Broadway hit that had struck a dinner theatre impresario as boffo stuff and was mounted, amidst bus-tray and steam-table, at a theatre-cum-dining-room that, over the course of a lip-smacking three hours, tittered with laughter, rumbled with gas, and was illuminated, when everything was said and done, with house lights that became instantly and forever sad.
Some years ago, I had found the leavings of a Richmond family's basement in a convenient dumpster, which yielded ballroom-type stationery, a clutch of personal correspondence, and a stack of yellowing newspapers. After sorting through these artifacts, I took one of the papers and leafed through it. Amidst the melancholy product advertisements, the forgotten journalists, and time-specific messages to the poor and hungry, I found the Arts Section, which was distinguished, not for its capsule reviews and artists' profiles, but by column inch after column inch of prose. Here a prominent writer was asked about the state of letters as he understood them to be. (He was delightfully opinionated on this subject and slews of others as well.). In another, the "crisis" of modern art was discussed for as long as the writer cared to. This newspaper was, for all intents and purposes, a digest of thought and opinion that was unapologetically offered and gratefully received. It was not only the warm bath of box-scores and gridiron triumphs, it was the lifeblood - or at least a viable source - of a community's intellect. Rather than assume that readers did not care to be challenged, the editors stuck them all with a mind-elevating abundance. In doing so, a pact was made. Read this and we'll give you more. It is our pleasure - just as we hope that it will be yours.
How could so much have changed over the course of thirty-odd years? When one thing goes out fashion, one may rest assured that another thing will take its place. And while I will not wax sentimental about a location (Richmond, VA) and an era (the early sixties - which is to say, before The Sixties got started), it is instructive to acknowledge that, even when blind spots seem to define an era, there are eye-openings that should not be ignored. While segregation thrived, so did reading. (It is my guess that one rarely fed the other.). While toxic chemicals were released into lakes and rivers, serious literature had a public face. And while a costly war was getting on its feet, intellectual property was the province and possession of the many - or at least, more - rather than the few. It isn't the lack of cultural literacy that alarms me; it's the virtual segregation of serious - by which I mean multi-dimensional - discourse. It is among us, but we, who have other options, choose the greasy, get-dumb-quick buttons that are so obscenely plentiful that everybody has more opportunities than ever to eschew critical thinking; reject cultural traditions that cannot be maintained easily enough; and jeer at the notion that hearing both sides can do anything less than equip you for the nuanced decision-making that should be the lot of every responsible citizen.
What do we have now? Splinter groups maintain various aspects of our culture as others attempt to undermine it. One shouting match is superseded by another. And our unofficial legislators - by which Shelley dubbed his fellow laborers with quill and paper - are drowned by the voices of greed, bigotry, and ignorance.
Are these voices new? Of course not. Now, however, they are the most strident, ubiquitous, and opportunistic. And I fear that before their sound and fury is fully spent, they will so dominate our media that the saner voices, having been pushed to the very margins, will not be heard at all.