It may seem naive but I really do believe that art – and that covers music, literature, film, TV paintings and sculpture – can change your life. Although perhaps I should explain that I really don’t mean that you see a single film (or whatever) and then you are a completely different person. I don’t believe that that really happens or if it does it is part of a process of change that has already started even if only on a subconscious level.
However, I do think that you are a product of whatever you read, listen to, watch. These are the things that help to shape how we think about the world. The things you love and the things you hate help to create your personality as much as the things that you do and say. They send a message to other people about what you think and about who you are. I really do believe that it is that important.
That’s why I find popular culture a little depressing at the moment. Reality TV. Simon Cowell’s choice of Christmas number one. It’s all so thoroughly empty. What sort of people will the current generation be, with their heads filled up with Made in Chelsea and their ears full of the aural equivalent of candyfloss. What will their world be like if this is all they expect from culture, all they think that people can achieve? A miserable world indeed.
I can still remember the first time I felt truly amazed by a piece of literature. At GCSe, I studied A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. I was blown away. I was an avid reader even then but I had never read anything that felt quite so relevant to me. The characters seemed like people you might meet. A pregnant teenager, her black boyfriend, her (probably but never directly acknowledged) gay best friend, her scarily uncaring mother. It was much more like reality than anything else I’d read or been taught.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Macbeth and Of Mice and Men which we also studied. But well written as they are, they didn’t feel relevant in the same sort of way. I have no doubt that studying A Taste of Honey started to shape my opinions about important things such as racism, sexuality and freedom. A first step on a lifelong journey.
It is also true that the current educational system is failing students in many ways. For a start, there is no imperative to even study a whole text. As long as you read the scenes that are to be tested in the exam and watch the film, there is no need to read the whole thing apparently. Except for the obvious one of enriching lives by reading a piece of literature which presumably wouldn’t have been included in the syllabus if not considered worthwhile in its entirety.
A lot of young people feel disconnected from the literature that they are made to read at school and this is perhaps understandable when often the most modern thing they read is Of Mice and Men. Perhaps its about time they were encouraged to think that literature is about more than murdered kings and war. If they read something about their lives perhaps they would understand why reading is so important.
I have changed a lot since I was that sixteen year old reading A Taste of Honey for the first time, obviously I suppose. We all grow up, get jobs, study, have relationships and so on. As important as all that is, I would be a different person sat here today if I hadn’t read A Taste of Honey and all of the great books, films, art and music that came after that. I’m grateful to them all for changing my life.