Yesterday (January 6) I read the letters section of the Sydney Morning Herald. One of the subheadings that was used to group letters together was “Gen Y’s selfishness, narcissim, main reason for viciousness.” In this little group were letters that people had written in regarding the latest of many nightclub violence events in Sydney’s recent past. A couple of correspondents wrote in discussing the fact that the value a society attaches to education, and how it goes about encouraging cultural engagement of its citizens will have a huge impact on whether or not its citizens can achieve non violent forms of self realisation, self awareness and self expression. I certainly felt that this was a valid point, and it made me wonder how much as a society we emphasise this. Another wrote in raising a concern about the seeming hypocrisy of a society that bemoans what it calls ‘alcohol fuelled violence’, but sees no concern with having alcohol advertising widely available on all forms of media and at the center of the nations sporting events. Again, a reasonable comment. There was, however, a comment that left me feeling a bit frustrated, from a gentleman in Queensland who indicated that Gen Y’s general behaviour, “the trend towards selfishness, narcissism, breathtaking ignorance and an absence of what we used to call ‘good manners'” were clearly to blame for this kind of violence and that these things, left unchecked, would only make things worse.
Well, I agree with him that those are some pretty negative things that will contribute negatively to any group of people, but I am disappointed in the blanket characterisation of a whole generation of people as being all these evil things. I also must fight the temptation to fight back with the wisecrack that if Gen Y are so awful it must be because of the appalling example set by everyone who came before.
Equally disappointing, I feel, is the editorial published by the Sydney Morning Herald today (January 7), in which Christopher Bantick laments the celebrity culture that Gen Y obsesses over, the loss of high culture and art from our society, which has been replaced by the “moronic introspection” of various celebrities. It would appear that Bantick is also disappointed with the fact that “young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every world of their latest celeb mouthing inanities.” Uh oh. Looks like somebody didn’t read Richard Glover’s excellent piece a few days ago about the elite club formed by pronunciation snobs. Here is a summary: it’s fairly similar to the club that is formed by people who believe the only valid form of cultural expression is opera, classical music, and a book written by a Bronte (all texts/forms appealed to in this editorial as being worthy.)
In his column Bantick grieves for this rich, elite cultural history we have but which – tragically – has been all but abandoned in schools; he despairs that light and fluffy Young Adult novels have replaced the classics, that our society is bereft of depth and understanding because we somehow allowed Leonard Cohen to be popular at the expense of Mahler. He seems to suggest that it must be restored to this environment, that curriculum alone can save us from a cultural wasteland.
I’m not really interested in a debate over What is Art? That has been going on since art and culture happened. Depending on what political and sociological perspective you take you could arrive at any sort of conclusion about what ought to be valued by a society. I think any society has an obligation to encourage thoughtful expression from all of it’s citizens, just has I think that all citizens are obliged to develop critical skills to interpret the meaning rich world around them. Part of what I believe very firmly about art and culture is expressed very well by Amanda Palmer in a brief ukulele reflection on the music industry, which I shall post just below this paragraph. On the issue of swallowing whole any old piece of narcissistic garbage from someone with a pulpit (/column in the Sydney Morning Herald??), yes, I actually agree with Bantick that it is dangerous. A much better move is to instil the value of reflection and interpretation in all and allow them to make up their own mind.
Like Bantick, I am also a teacher, but in a quite different setting (public school, rural NSW). It would not be culturally or morally appropriate to walk into my school and present Jane Eyre and Mahler as some sort of benchmark and say “attain this or else”. When I walk into my English literature classroom with my students, some of whom are very exciting academic prospects, and some of whom struggle to write anything much more complicated than two or three sentences about the weekend football, I am trying to share with them one powerful idea. That everything we encounter says something about the world we live in, or the world that it is created in. That it is our job to think about what this is, and ask questions about it. That it is our job to try and remember this for next time we look at a new text and compare it across time, across history, across cultures. And I guarantee you that I have never been more proud of a student than when one of the girls in my Year 9 class who stuck with Romeo and Juliet long enough to realise that she understood the idea of conflict between two families and forbidden love between two teenagers because she’d seen it in a Home and Away story arc. And did I have a single problem with her engagement with Shakepseare after that? No.
Personally, I don’t watch Home and Away. My itunes has pretty equal measures of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Brahms. I’d visit an art gallery any day over any other form of cultural institution and I have a framed portrait of TS Eliot in my house as a daily reminder of the value I place in his poetry. That said, neither do I believe that popular culture, mainstream contemporary culture is invalidated because of its relative newness to our canon. Bantick seems to be arguing that by replacing Looking for Alibrandi with the classics in our schools we can ensure that children get a proper dose of culture and miraculously they will be cured of this shameless obsession with celebrity.
I think not. All people, children, men, women, young, old…whatever…deserve the opportunity to experience a cultural world that represents something of how they experience life. Every person also deserves and needs the opportunity to experience a world that represents how others apart from themselves experience life. And they need to the opportunity to develop the skills to reconcile that that reality exists. They need the opportunity to develop an interest in exploring the world through cultural artifacts – be they paintings, novels or pieces of music. The key to growing cultural knowledge is not to eradicate the low in order to salvage the high, but to start with the skills that are required to appreciate anything: the gift of being curious and inquisitive. Once that exists, people will follow their own nose into the cultural world out of sheer irrepressible interest to know more about other worlds, and other people.
I’m also willing to bet that the vision of self-realization and self-expression in non violent ways that was spoken of by an astute reader of the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, would be more likely realised by an inclusive approach that values individuals engagement with any form of culture. As a society we should aspire to high aims, but that is anything we do – politics, science, art and culture, but we shouldn’t dismiss anyone starting from somewhere different to us, and we should help them along.
Here’s Amanda Palmer again, making the same point, but with a nicer singing voice.