There’s a term for people well versed in art and literature: cultured. When I hear this term I tend to think of sherry sipping, ascot-wearing snobs or of v-neck t-shirt sporting, fedora-wearing, scarf adorned hipsters in thick framed glasses. But that’s not entirely fair. Literature and art build cultures. They are the expressions of a developed culture, for better and worse. They express the values a culture holds. So to be cultured, in its truest sense, is to be tapped into the current of culture. It’s more than being versed in who painted what and which books released recently. It’s not being the first to know about new musicians or to have attended a foreign film festival or three. Nor is it to be encyclopedic in your knowledge of “the classics” either.
Cultured people are those who can interpret art, be it written, visual, or auditory, and explain what it expresses. They can read a culture by its art and recognize that which is of value and that which is slop or harmful. They can put their finger on how art has shaped culture and how culture has influenced art and trace both through the years. To do this one has to know what is out there and have a discerning eye and ear, but one does not have to be on the cutting edge of everything. That is an ego or thrill driven pursuit.
Being cultured has nothing to do with race or cultural background. It has little to do with socio-economic status (other than the fact that wealthier people have better access to education and the opportunities and experiences it affords). Rich and poor alike can and should hunger for knowledge and truth. You can find cultured people in the halls of universities or the front stoop of a bungalow in Watts. It has everything to do with curiosity. Who is asking the right questions and seeking out the truth in the expressions of culture? These are the cultured ones, the curious people. In this sense, all of us should aspire to be cultured
Literature and the Arts
Many of the same questions and considerations we put to media apply to literature and the arts. In our current day media and the arts overlap significantly as delivery methods for entertainment, news, and visual or audio mediums merge into a single stream. This isn’t bad. In fact it allows us to interact with material we might otherwise have completely overlooked. It does complicate matters, though, because we can no longer segment our life neatly.
For a curious person this is exciting. The merging mediums and outlets creates entire new experiences and opportunities for creativity. It also raises more questions and asks even more of us. A curious person will plunge headlong into these merged streams with eagerness and heightened discernment. We will seek to discover new ways to experience truth and wonder that we never thought of before. We should questions like the following to see what horizons might open before us.
What mediums should I gravitate towards and what am I missing? I am a book person. Always have been. I will always choose the written word over video or audio. I would rather read than tour an art museum. However, if I settle for that set of choices, that dichotomy, I am diminishing my experience of God through people’s creativity.
In recent years I have begun to gain an appreciation for photography (not taking photographs, mind you, just appreciating the artfulness of others’). I have made friends with some songwriters, being in Nashville and all, and am fascinated by their craft. I have sought to understand book cover design and graphic design (something more authors would benefit from doing, please, I beg you). I love listening to music as a consumer and have started to pay attention to the craft of music making. I still don’t love touring art museums, but I have learned to appreciate mastery and creativity in visual art forms.
I am no expert in any of these art forms and wouldn’t even qualify as a novice in them. I don’t bring them up to discuss my mastery – there is none – but rather point out the value of exploring and expanding our horizons. As I have explored these different mediums and expressions I have found my capacity for enjoyment and appreciation growing. It’s incredibly difficult to truly appreciate things with which we have no familiarity, so as we grow our interests find new ways to enjoy and now object for enjoyment.
If we do not expand our horizons we are missing out on God’s expressions of beauty. The written word is not better than a sculpture or a chord progression. We should not judge a book by its cover, but an artful cover is art – and good marketing. If we do not expand our horizons we are missing out on the people who love those horizons and the artists who create them.
Literature and art connect people. When I ask my songwriter friends questions about their inspiration, their craft, and their process I am tapping into something they love. I am honoring their expertise and passion. I am connecting and relating. I am learning about their work and their humanity. That is meaningful. And the same goes when they ask about me, my writing, or my podcasting. It isn’t a conversation about “So, what do you do for work?” like the awkward small talk shared at block parties or school functions we attend for our kids. We are sharing bits of ourselves.
Just as we see bits of other people and connect with them in new mediums so too we can see bits of God. God wired each of us in a way that gravitates toward certain expressions of truth and beauty, and that multiplicity is on purpose. My proclivity for the written word should enhance and be enhanced by your proclivity for film or music or graphic design or photography. We should learn from each other and in so doing learn something of how God reveals himself. We should see God’s hand at work both in the artists’ process of creativity and in their finished work.
We cannot let our preferences limit our experiences. God made us varied, and curiosity should drive us to experience and appreciate the variations. We will be richer for it in friendship, knowledge, and faith.