The Other Columbus: Cultural appreciation isn’t a given

A Shakespeare museum and the music industry hold lessons on the importance of stewarding an appreciation of cultural offerings

Scott Woods
William Shakespeare

Moss Landing, California — a town of 54 people and dropping — is the home of the Shakespeare Society of America. Don’t get excited: It’s essentially a small museum with thousands of Shakespeare-related collectibles run by one man, Terry Taylor. And thanks to some lazy headlining, he’s being dragged by the internet when he should be applauded.

The museum does some programming when it can, but it is $300,000 in debt and Taylor, a volunteer to boot, hasn’t taken a day off in two years. Compounding the bad press, Taylor tossed off a comment to a writer at SFGate (whose recent article launched the SSA’s woes once again onto people’s radars) that has been interpreted as dismissive of Shakespeare. According to the writer, Taylor “doesn't actually love the bard.”

Even a cursory reading of the article reveals that Taylor isn’t dismissing Shakespeare. But then most people don’t read articles; they read headlines, then proceed to log a high score on Twitter that day by dunking on the subject instead of the content. It’s a dull cycle made even more unfortunate by the fact that in the dissection of Taylor’s commitment to Shakespeare, we discover something sorely missing in much of today’s cultural offerings: the commitment to the development of audience appreciation. 

It would be impossible to forget Shakespeare, but knowing Shakespeare is not the same as appreciating what his work can teach us about ourselves. I don’t mean that solely on an individual level. Shakespeare’s work has informed pretty much every aspect of American society, from language to politics, and he died 160 years before the U.S. became an official country (depending on which critical theories your state allows). We’re practically a Shakespearean society, especially if you read the tragedies. But none of that means we get the human lessons in his work in any meaningful way as a society, and that’s where appreciation comes in.

Appreciation is central to the puzzle of culture. Without it, you can still produce culture of some kind, but it cannot mature. The practitioners of culture cannot build off of its history and lessons because an unappreciated culture always sees itself in competition with the past (if it acknowledges it at all), and the audiences of such culture rarely glean anything useful or new about the human condition. It’s how we ended up with a generation of lackluster music which, for once, can’t blame the criticism it receives on generational disconnect. 

To continue whittling away at my core audience with a scythe, mainstream music today is worse than pretty much every previous iteration, and that’s hardly even a subjective commentary anymore. There are lots of reasons why that’s true, but one of the main reasons is because appreciation for better music isn’t curated in mainstream spaces. No one who controls popular music cares if it’s any good, including most of the people who make it. With the technology and access to audiences the music industry enjoys today, we should be experiencing the best music ever created. In reality the opposite is true, and it's unlikely to change until the industry completely eats itself. Or we get better gatekeepers.

Developing appreciation for cultural offerings is how we get better things, not just bigger or slicker things. The people who create these better things need not be slavish to history, but they should make time to incorporate what it has to teach them. Technique is not just the playing of notes or scales that may exist in a song, but also the personal, artistic and cultural context that might have gone into the decision to use those notes and scales.

The thing about appreciation is that it rarely happens spontaneously. It requires some degree of stewardship to develop. Someone has to sacrifice things to commit to nurturing the deeper lessons and notes that most audiences may not comprehend with a casual level of engagement with culture. The wheels of curation are greased with the blood of unfinished art, wrecked homes and emptied wallets. I don’t even want to think about all of the poems, essays and books I haven’t completed because I spent a year booking a venue. It is work I love, but I had to make some hard decisions, and I just have to trust that the appreciation will grow and pay off. The payoff is moving the needle on Columbus culture, and most days that return on investment seems worthwhile.

Shakespeare’s legacy is secure. What is not secure is how it will be applied to people’s lives, and that is something all culture bearers should consider. Culture without any application to people’s lives slips quickly into mere commodity. Terry Taylor may not be the keenest CEO I’ve ever seen, but he isn’t a rube. He sees what’s important about understanding Shakespeare’s work on a deeper level — what can come from being able to place the words into a denser, hands-on context — and that is what he’s trying to preserve.