Monday, March 02, 2009

Unpopular Thoughts

Galen Brown's critique on the Los Angeles Times article about Barack Obama and "The Arts" started me on an unpopular path that I thought I'd share with the people scattered around the globe who share my worldview.

I have often imagined that if I were stuck on a deserted island surrounded by nothing but bird life, fish life, and a bunch of animals that thought of me as a potential meal, I would have everything in common with another human being who happened to be on that island. It would be the same thing if I were in outer space.

The moment I gave birth for the first time 22 years ago, I felt that I had everything in common with every woman alive giving birth for the first time, as well as every mother who had ever lived. It was a powerful feeling, and in that moment I had a fleeting feeling of belonging that I have craved ever since. I have felt similar feelings during unexpected moments in concerts, times when the moment itself took over, and all the barriers that existed between the people playing and the people listening were simply gone. Those moments, unlike my birth experience, do not happen after a period of anticipation. Like elements in nature that produce stunningly-beautiful skies, they just happen when the conditions are right.

When our children were small I had a lot to talk about with other parents of small children. I felt I had a lot in common with other parents who were concerned with teething, diapers, lack of diapers, burping, breastfeeding, and other countless details of early parenthood. Unfortunately there was rarely any cultural common ground, and most of those adult relationships with our children's playmates' parents no longer exist.

What I do is terribly foreign to most of the people who live in my community, and it is completely foreign to a lot of the people who live in my country. I have never really "gotten" popular culture. I observe it, and I have been known to "consume" it (seeing popular movies once in a blue moon) occasionally, but my default setting is really that of an elitist. Even "highbrow" culture that is popular can send me back into my cave.

Fortunately my husband can serve as a watchdog for popular culture. He always seems to know, in addition to everything else, a lot about what's going on in the "outer world." If he didn't keep me up to speed, I would never know, for example, that there was this "thing" about bacon rolling around the internet that is now passé (evidently I never noticed it passing).

I have had feelings of community during this past political campaign. When Michael and I went to Springfield to hear Barack Obama introduce Joe Biden, I felt that I had, for that moment, a great deal in common (common cause, I suppose) with the rest of the people in that crowd.

Anyway, the general take on our First Family's cultural life does have fleeting interest for me. I don't care if Barack Obama listens to "classical music," but I do care about the fact that he understands that there are a significant number of Americans who do. What we need in our government officials are not people who press forward on personal agendas, but people who can step back and look at the big picture of our hugely-diverse culture, including the people who work hard at doing things that are not generally popular, and do not make a lot of money, like playing and teaching "classical" music. I believe we have that in our president, and knowing that helps me feel more like a contributor to the culture of this country than an outsider.

The fact that Barack Obama goes to his daughters' ballet recitals is a good thing. It shows that he is a good father. The fact that they dance and take piano lessons probably has a lot to do with the fact that he and Michelle are good parents who offer their children the kind of educational opportunities that allow them to be expressive. Either or both of their children may choose sports over ballet, or one of them may join that subgroup of people who live to dance, but at least they have exposure, the chance to build up knowledge and technique, and the opportunity to perform.

What is important is that Barack Obama and his administration recognize that there are people who need to participate in creative and expressive activities, either as "makers" and performers, or as viewers and audiences. I believe that they know that support for what we like to call "the arts" improves our greater culture.

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