The Notre Dame Fire & Why We Might Want to Give Culture Its Props
The Notre Dame fire isn’t one of those cases where we didn’t know what we had until we almost lost it.
The Paris Cathedral is known and admired worldwide. A wave of pain swept the globe as it burned on Monday, among people of all faiths or even no faith who appreciate a symbol for 850 years of beauty, belief, history, progress, strife, flaws and hope.
No, we know about Notre Dame. Monday’s disaster just reminds us what we appreciate about it — and maybe could also remind us that our cultural achievements, in the grandest and most ambitious sense, are something to which we should pay more ongoing attention.
Culture in the broad sense too often seems absent from our conversation these days, and preachy as it sounds, that’s bad for all of us.
Sure, we argue about everything in culture. It’s also something we all share, and in a world where so much seems hard, where we have to talk about health care, immigration, crime rates, climate change, disappearing jobs, technology and paying the bills, a good song or a breathtaking picture lets us remember life isn’t all problems — — that some of what we humans create is beautiful.
Thanks to the seductive ease of the Internet and social media, we chatter more today than ever. If we’re running short of honeybees, I’d suggest maybe it’s because we’ve filled all the available air with words.
It’s not that we ignore culture. No one would argue that Game of Thrones or the upcoming Avengers movie has been underdiscussed.
We just tend not to distinguish between cultural conversation that’s easy and empty, like the Kardashians, and recognition of art, music, poetry, theater, dance, architecture and more enduring cultural achievements that span generations and often glue those generations together.
This doesn’t mean we all need to become humorless academics. We’re not wired that way, and never have been. It’s a safe bet many of our ancient ancestors preferred gossip about the family in the next cave to an analysis on the sustainability of the wooly mammoth.
Still, we seem to have hit a stretch these days where we’re marginalizing the larger culture. Many schools no longer routinely teach music or arts, while institutions from radio stations to museums move toward “superserving” ever-smaller slices of the audience.
Consequently our common cultural vocabulary is shrinking, a frustration compounded when our leaders often seem to hardly notice culture at all. While that’s a widespead problem, we do have a top leader who tends to deploy the concept of “beautiful” mostly in connection with buildings that bear his name and barriers against immigrants — when in reality, the more enduring beauty of immigration lies in what those immigrants bring to American culture, from music to dinner.
This president has also sought every year to stop funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Congress, on both sides of the aisle, has not let that happen. But the president promotes it, because he feels that’s not a place we should be spending money.
With all due respect, it is.
A nation’s culture defines its people and their time. We know ancient Greece, 24 centuries later, because we know Plato, Aristotle and Euripides. We know the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment by the words they passed down. We would have far less understanding of the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam without the songs, books and dramas they inspired.
We don’t and shouldn’t underwrite all culture. What we do underwrite is a wise nvestment in our best selves.
Popular culture, the enduring and even sometimes the ephemeral, captures passions, contradictions and nuances. It’s the road map to a time, place and people. It shapes the way we understand the past and the way we will be understood by the future. Perhaps most important, it’s a blueprint for how we get a little better.
None of this was the first message anyone would be seeing in the flames of Notre Dame. It’s something worth taking from the ashes.