Schools in rural downstate Illinois routinely bundle off middle-school students in chartered buses and send them north. Our teachers hid what must have been acute, ulcer-inducing anxiety and set us, aged twelve, loose on the cultural institutions of Chicago with a sack lunch and little else. We sat through a musical. We were ushered into the shadow of great architecture. We wandered into and out of the art museum, but most of what I remember was a ham sandwich in the park, trying for a seat with the cool kids on the bus, and buying a t-shirt at the big city mall on the way home.
I felt like a bumpkin then, and not so much has changed. I have incredible access to renowned performances, venerable institutions, and masterpieces – and I tend to be concerned with dinner, who’s sitting across the table, and what I’m wearing. And why not? Without a basic education in the arts, we can only be expected to have a basic understanding of what our parents loved – German church music or maybe Shakespeare – and a vague anxiety about how little we understand of Culture. Other media comes easier and it’s usually more fun. Culture, however, was the reason our teachers risked lawsuits, abductions, and a long trip on a school bus with adolescents. Years on, most of us are failing the field trip.
We started Culture for Amateurs because we suspect that we’re not the only ones who are insecure about High Art and Culture with a Capital C. We’ve also become a bit skeptical. We’d like to find out what we weren’t taught – why our cultural institutions matter, if in fact they still do? Is ballet a better use of time than a baseball game? Why go see Shakespeare, even Shakespeare in the Park? What separates the Ring Cycle from the Lord of the Rings? Why put on jackets we don’t own to go to the Philharmonic instead of staying home to watch Harry Potter DVDs in our sweatpants? Why do performances so packed with universal Truth and Beauty need a four-year degree to appreciate?
We believe that the arts should be like the adult version of the game Tag: enjoyable, interactive, mostly free of rules, and mostly fun. We’re also willing to believe that it still has a place in society even if it appears as pointless as Tag. It gives us a natural middle ground. Not everything we read, watch, or listen to needs to start in the center, but we hope they can bring us to the middle for a chat or at least a good chase.
Everything else is up for discussion and a little bit of research. Culture for Amateurs will treat High Art and Culture the same way we treat everyone and everything else that works hard for our time and money. We’ll give it our attention, then our scrutiny, and maybe our respect. We’d like to know what we’re missing. If we’re not missing anything, then we’re going out for a beer.