How Do I Take in Better Stuff?
October 8, 2013 8:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I practice better taste - in my art, music, and other kinds of cultural consumption - without being a prude or curmudgeon or elitist?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to be more ... culturally enriched. I know lots of people say they want to give up TV, or stop following the truly ephemeral on the Internet or what not, but for me, I'm starting to viscerally feel the negative impact of some of the more salacious media - it stresses me out and makes my attention skittish. Plus I'm recognizing that I only have one life to live, and there's an endless pile of Proust or Chopin or Rafael etc to dig into.

So, I know what to look at, listen to, read, et al - or, at least, I can find out with relative ease. I want to know how I maintain the focus and energy and carve out the time to do it. More importantly, I want to do it without becoming the out-of-touch guy who knows about the opera but doesn't know about Breaking Bad, or looks down on "low" culture because it's low. I want to do this because I think it will make me feel better, not look better. Also, I can't afford to spend the kind of money that going to the symphony every weekend might cost.

Your tips about how you've made more time for high culture are appreciated. Resources are better. Help me replace my bits of time for cultural consumption during the day - the small ones at my computer, or the large ones after work's put away - with something more fulfilling.
posted by Apropos of Something to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Love your local librarian! (said the local librarian) But seriously. If you live near a good public library, it should have everything you need book, CD, and DVD-wise, plus the librarians will relish the chance to show off to you (or they should!) Good librarians have to know their Proust (Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, Guermante's Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Captive, the Fugitive, Time Regained) as well as they know Twilight (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn).
posted by Calicatt at 8:36 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand what you're trying to do here, but I think your efforts are slightly misguided. I've been there too, where the reddit/tv/Facebook/podcast/ohnotheydidnt/whatever is stressing you out because suddenly it's all you do. I've also been at the point where I realize I haven't read a meaningful/deep book in far too long and suddenly desperately needed to change that. For me, and probably for you, these are different (but often conflated) urges. It's a fine thing to want to get into more high-culture interests, and it's a healthy thing to pursue low-stress interests, and you can totally do both at once--but don't be disappointed when you find that the high culture stuff can be the same kind of stressful.

Personally, I find the biggest crossovers between high culture and stress relief in museums and fancy food, and an endless pile of Proust sounds like torture, or at least like something I'd be doing to sound smart rather than for personal enjoyment and enrichment. (No offense to Proust! Just not my thing.) I guess what I'm saying here is make sure the things you're budgeting time and money for are actually things you'd enjoy, not just another stress machine. I've been much more successful integrating things into my life longterm when I've paused after a trial period to decide whether I liked it rather than deciding beforehand that I need to read everything this person wrote because they're important. There's a lot of important authors/artists/composers/etc; make sure you choose the right ones for you.

Regarding the logistics, get books or music from the library and start out going to student performances. You might be able to get dress rehearsal tickets, which are generally cheap or free. Also, go to museums, and if you like it there become a member--single-person membership is paid off if you go a few times a year, and they'll email you about various special events and the like, including lectures and temporary exhibits. Also, give yourself a daily "task" where you read for ten minutes or listen to an opera a week during your commute, and time to actually think about it. Maybe join a book club or bother friends into doing it with you, or start a blog? I personally stick with habits better if I'm reporting to the internet or doing it with a friend.
posted by mismatched at 8:41 AM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Stop watching broadcast tv. You instantly get back about 20% by not being advertised at.

Stop watching TV altogether until a show garners significant critical acclaim then hit the DVDs. This will reduces the number of ultimately unrewarding shows you watch and help you avoid shows that spiral into disappointment or never finish before cancellation.

Wait a year before watching any movies. You can watch them on DVD and not have to sit through commercials, previews or have travel time to and from the cinema.

Avoid sources of buzz.

However, I will say beware of the classics. Much of them are interesting because of the time they were written and because they have become culturally foundational rather than because they were good. I re-read Tolkien before the movies and came away so disappointment that I wondered what the hell i was thinking when I first read them. There are now hundreds of better books in that genre (though finding the good books in the fantasy/sci-fi genre is a huge challenge).
posted by srboisvert at 8:42 AM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Stop thinking that the things you like are in Bad Taste and the stuff you aspire to know is Good Taste. Let your interests dictate your enrichment.

I like modern art. I appreciate older art but modern art lights me up. Go to museums and browse. See what speaks to you. Then seek it out.

MOMA, the Warhol, the Tate Modern and the Georges Pompadou are amazing, but I'll stroll through the Metropolitain and the Louvre too.

I like Austen and Dickens (who were thought to be trashy in their day) but philosophy is SO not my bag! So I read Thackary, and the modern authors that write in similar fashion. I would never continue reading a book I found boring, that's a waste of time.

I like some opera, but not all. I like Broadway Musicals. I like Avenue Q.

I'm not a fan of the ballet. I've seen a few, meh.

Try everything but if it's not for you, don't force it.

Also, Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc, aren't all shit just because they're on TV. On the contrary, some amazing stuff is as easily accessible as your television.

Do stay away from local news though, that will rot your brain.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:44 AM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: First, let go of the idea that opera is "high culture" and tv is "low culture". Opera is not inherently better than tv, and there can be very bad opera and very good tv. It sounds like you simply want less guilty pleasure entertainment and more art. My number one recommendation is that if you get involved in your local arts community, you'll be more likely to fit art into your life. Step away from the computer as much as you can!

Here's what I do:
1) Follow longform publications about art, music and culture. A few off the top of my head that I like: The New Yorker, Artforum, Bookforum, NY Review of Books, freeform radio stations like WFMU and KCRW, Criterion, Sight and Sound.

2) Go to as many art events as you can, and try to be very open-minded about what you see. This does not have to be expensive. Music shows for indie artists are usually $10-20, and plenty of theater and classical concerts are in that price range too. College campuses and cities have lots of free options for all of these; likewise community theaters, orchestras, etc are often free. Films are likewise relatively cheap, and there are lots of high-quality options available on Netflix. You can also get memberships to local museums and go on free nights. If you really want free theater and classic concerts, try volunteering as an usher and you'll get to see loads of free shows.

3). Also, watch documentaries about artists and musicians. For example there's a great PBS series called Art:21 that introduces contemporary art, and I think all of the episodes are available via Netflix.
posted by susanvance at 8:44 AM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I want to do it without becoming the out-of-touch guy who knows about the opera but doesn't know about Breaking Bad, or looks down on "low" culture because it's low.

If it makes you feel better, opera was often "low culture" for its time, particularly opera buffa. You are not so fancy after all. Like what you like, but don't put on airs. I attend the opera, but I just go to the ones I like. Saying "I like opera" is like saying "I like movies" or "I like books". I don't like every opera anymore than I like every movie or book. Seriously, I think the Dummies books on opera and classical music can give you a crash course and help you figure out what you like. You can see operas on the cheap through Fathom Events at your local movie theatre, for example. Listen to your local public radio station, which will often play classical music. They may even play full operas, although I find it very unsatisfying to simply listen to an opera.

Also, to tag on what Ruthless Bunny said, there was a time when bobos used to sniff about how they didn't own a television. In recent years, however, the quality of television drama has become so good that not owning a tv is now cutting oneself off from excellent art, such as the Breaking Bad mentioned in your question.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:55 AM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't what is elitist about like well-made forms of culture. I figure I have only so many hours in the day, and I'd rather choose to listen to or watch the best stuff I can, be it hip-hop, opera, TV comedies or action movies. Low-budget doesn't mean bad and best-seller doesn't = trashy. And consuming some trash is good for you.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:00 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like to listen to classical music on my commute and at my computer while at work - making playlists on Spotify etc. That's one easy way to get a bit of culture into your day.

I go to the theatre a lot. I used to subscribe to RSS feeds for The Stage, Guardian Theatre blog etc (UK-specific, I know, but wherever you are, there must be similar resources) - so that I would know what was showing in the next few months, and I would try and book tickets for plays before they started getting nationally advertised and the tickets would get more expensive and difficult to find. I am less committed now, I still pay attention to posters in train stations, etc, for what's being shown in the next few months. It's a part of my social life; I go with friends, we grab dinner afterwards, etc. I don't have to carve out extra time for it.

I guess what I'm saying is that you shouldn't have to carve out time specifically and exclusively for culture consumption - do it as part of your regular life. Upload some Proust onto your Kindle to read on your commute; take your date to a museum instead of to a bar.

But I agree very much that you shouldn't go out of your way to consume culture just because you think you 'should'. (I don't watch a lot of TV, I'm barely at home and don't have the time or attention span to watch a lot of anything. I know I 'should' be watching 'Breaking Bad' and the other excellent TV out there but I have come to terms with the knowledge that I'm always going to be a little out of touch. Similarly, when I was in my 20s I tried hard to get into 'good' music by 'serious' musicians before realising it was depressing the heck out of me and I was always going to be a Top 40s type of girl.) Consume the culture you like! You said it yourself, life is too short.
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:20 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Beyond the work itself, think of the effort of the artist. The more work the artist has put into mastering his/her craft, the better they ought to be. Furthermore, the more effort required to master a skill, the more refined the art in general. Understanding this, you can then appreciate excellence in any field.

Take a few classes of said art. I love ballet, because I used to dance. I know the positions, the flexibility, the focus required. I love opera because I used to sing. I love sculpture because I used to play with clay. I've filmed a few short movies, and acted in plays and musicals, so I know understand that specific artistic process. I've tried to paint, and I can't paint worth sh*t.

If you can understand the work required of any art, you can start to discern the mediocre from the divine, the talented from the 'also-ran'. Then you will appreciate any skill without being a snob about it. From this place, you can explore anything, as Ruthless Bunny mentioned above, without thinking of things as Good Taste or Bad Taste. It's just Quality vs. Hack. So just learn and explore and, like any language, your fluency will improve with practice.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:45 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you need to manage your information diet. You're getting too much junk and feeling an emotional backlash against it, I feel that. However, forcing yourself to pursue classics and opera because they're "good for you" is the wrong way to go. It's like realizing you're eating bad food all the time, so you decide to become a vegan because that's what healthy people do. You'll backslide into crap because you're not doing what's good for you, you're doing what you believe you should do. Follow your tastes!

I got sick of commercials several years ago and ditched cable for Netflix streaming and DVDs. I put AdBlock on my browsers at work and home. I set up RSS feeds of curated information sources and piped them into Flipboard. I stepped out of the flow of junk information and have tried to remain that way. I didn't cultivate a brand new set of interests, I focused on the stuff that interested me and that was enough.

Listen to the music you like, explore the genres you enjoy, let your Pandora stations wander if you need to discover new stuff. Let your friends and family introduce you to new stuff they love.

Don't watch hype. There's great stuff out there, but it's buried in a steaming heap of Dancing With The Stars and the Kardashians. Ask your friends what's good and let them introduce you to the stuff they love. Give it a chance, but if it doesn't work you're under no obligation to love it as much as they do.

Finally, stop listening to cable news and talk radio. Don't pay attention to pundits. Don't depend on the chattering class for analysis. That is the hype cycle personified and it will never, ever do you any good. Read your news from a few reliable sources and stay the hell away from anyone who's paid for their opinion. Never read the comments section (except for MeFi it's all a lot of trogs, trolls, spammers and chuckleheads).

Oh, and listen to Calicat. Your local librarians can hook you up with anything you could ever imagine needing. I should know, I'm one too.
posted by Lighthammer at 10:00 AM on October 8, 2013

Best answer: Take comfort -- and I mean this -- in the fact that you will miss almost everything. There's not a person in the world who will do anything except die without ever reading (mathematically) practically any of the books that have been written, seeing practically any of the movies that have been made, looking at practically any of the paintings that have been painted, or watching practically any of the television that's been made. That's just the way the world is and it is a function of the relationship between how much time you have and how much stuff there is.

So try not to pressure yourself. Think about it in terms of enriching your days, not getting through a pile of what exists. The pile will never, never get meaningfully smaller. Think about adjusting the balance of your time, not renouncing the things that you gravitate to naturally in favor of things you don't. Have respect for your own taste, because you will never really defeat it. You can absolutely go out of your way to become more active, and I think that's what's key -- be more active about choosing, and less passive about letting things come to you, and the rest will take care of itself.

Don't follow anyone who tries to give you genre-level rules -- don't watch horror, don't read romances, don't watch reality shows -- because they're all bogus. Don't try to become a purist, because being a purist is unavoidably at odds with your desire to still have a sense of what's going on in the broader culture, which is never purist.

Spend more time seeking and choosing and less time just opening the spigot and seeing what comes out. I truly believe that for most people, it's not the things they choose that aren't fulfilling, but the time they spend watching/listening to/reading things they never even really meant to choose. Twitter is a spigot, channel-surfing is a spigot, "you might also like" recommendations are a spigot. Spigots are great! But you want to balance them with conscious decisions about seeking something out until you find it. It's okay to spend an hour just digging into what's kicking around, but after that, think of something that's not in front of you and go find it.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:07 AM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Like any kind of over-consumption (eating junk food, overspending), you need to (a) probably cut what is bothering you for a period if you can with the understanding that this is not a permanent thing, (b) engage in some self-monitoring, (c) adjust accordingly.

So drop the salacious media for a set period. During that time, get a better handle on where your free time/entertainment budget is going - you may even want to mark it down so you can get a visual idea of what "resources" you have to work with. Then, start experimenting on yourself a piece at a time, identifying what adds value. This will help you figure out when you've hit the saturation point and want to add back in more low-culture. For example:

-start your day with half an hour of "high-culture" music
-spend one hour with literature each night/at lunch/during your commute
-identify the things you would like to be at and schedule them (art exhibitions, plays)

Also identify friends with high-culture interests you appreciate, if possible, as conduits to what is worthwhile and as sources you can engage with. I think a lot of what makes high-culture good is actually the discussion that it spurs which is why some radio programs do add value to listening experiences if the presenter can give good context, but informal discussion is also pretty rewarding.

Re-add low culture or salacious media gradually by evaluating what you actually miss and what was just taking up time.
posted by skermunkil at 10:24 AM on October 8, 2013

I want to know how I maintain the focus and energy and carve out the time to do it.

You need to actually like whatever it is.

Don't approach it as a homework assignment. Seek out "high culture" stuff you actually like and nerd out on it until you get your fill.

If you find it hard to sustain enough interest in "high art" and would rather just watch TV, that is also fine. But you may want someone's HBO Go password.

Seriously, though, if you don't like Proust or Chopin or Manet there's really no point.

In terms of specific strategies to get exposed to new "high culture" stuff:

- Join your local art museum, or one that isn't too far away if you live in a place that lacks serious art museums. Gallery openings and such can also be good, but if your community doesn't have a worthwhile art museum, it's unlikely that the local galleries are going to be showing anything that would fall under the category of "high culture", anyway.

- Start listening to classical music on public radio. They'll identify the pieces for you, and idly listening as you do other things is a good way to casually pick up the difference between Mozart, Wagner, and Bartok. They also play a lot of more obscure stuff, which is more interesting than, "Yup, that's Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which I already knew, because I grew up watching Looney Tunes." But then sometimes they will play a piece you know and you can feel kind of cool. For varying values of cool.

- Similarly to the local art museum membership, if there's a nearby opera company, subscribe to their season and go see the required number of performances. Actually, anything where you subscribe to something and have to choose an arbitrary number of things to see in order to get your money's worth is good.

- Go to the local art house cinema or experimental theater company and just see whatever it is they're doing right now. Or, if you live in a huge city where there's lots of that stuff, pick one you like or that is convenient to you, and go see anything they do, as often as you can.
posted by Sara C. at 10:43 AM on October 8, 2013

It's not an all-or-nothing diet, friend! I'd encourage you to devour all sources until you can parse for yourself what you consider High vs. Low, Quality vs. Crap. I do this all the time with books in particular. You won't spot bad writing in genre fiction unless you occasionally dose yourself with someone like Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, etc.

Having said this, I'd avoid TV like the Plague. Do the thing upthread where you can find out the zeitgeist and wait for it at your leisure on DVD.

Listen to a jazz show occasionally on the radio for a hour. Classical, also. But also marinate in the local station and get your groove on.

Also, a fantastic way to create more culture is simply um, to create more culture. Get involved in regional theater, volunteer as a docent at a museum, start attending poetry readings/open mics/stand-up comedy shows. In short, GET IN THE MIX. The more you hang out with people actively building the culture at your local level, the more exposure you'll get to new sources.

And please remember the little people like me when you blow up and get all famous.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 10:45 AM on October 8, 2013

Lots of good advice here. I'd just like to add that part of it is a matter of perspective; 'elitist' is just a nasty word to describe what happens when you're interested in the best of something.

You can care about art and culture and music and coffee and whatever else at the highest level, but when you appreciate why it differs it really means something. Much of what we consider 'great' was created as a response to extant currents in that medium— "when there's nothing new coming from the brush, discard the brush" in painting for example.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:09 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can't. It's elitist and naive to think there's a "better." There is no "better." There are only things I like.

So watch everything that catches your attention. Seen an ad for it on the subway? Watch it! The people are talking about it? See it! Be a consumer whore! A slave to advertising! That is the only way, the only yardstick. Everything else is deluded elitism, elitism of elitism, all is elitism.

But for the love of all that is holy, don't go to open mics to get your culture feed. Open mic poetry is the death of love.
posted by Nomyte at 11:09 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to much of this, but your question about elitism. Like what you like, unapologetically. But try new things! Go to art museums and listen to a symphony and try some high falutin' book. And if you find things you appreciate about them, great! I discovered I really like opera. I majored in Modernist French literature (I like Proust!). At face value, these sound insufferably snobby, but you know what? I genuinely enjoy them, so I don't care.

I think what it boils down to is that it's not snobby or elitist if you're doing it for you. It could become that way if you're just doing it to impress other people.
posted by chatongriffes at 11:15 AM on October 8, 2013

One great way to do this is begin with artists you respect, and trace their influences. Their resources will lead you to other resources. That way, you develop an individual pathway that follows your own tastes.
posted by effluvia at 12:56 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got interested in Opera from listening to "THE MET" on public radio (CBC Canada) on Saturday afternoons. They broadcast a live Opera with some commentary every week starting at around 1:00pm or so EST. I would listen to the first act while puttering around the house, and if I thought it was interesting I would turn it up a bit, but if I thought it was boring or annoying I would turn it down or do something else. I've also learned that you don't have to like everything.
posted by ovvl at 4:33 PM on October 9, 2013

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