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Karen Zacarías

Karen Zacarías, author of The Book Club Play

In a time where I can download Ulysses and have it sent straight to the Kindle that I toss into my purse with the rest of my personal debris, the distinction between high and low culture becomes less concrete. This line is further blurred when I put on my headphones and listen to Nicki Minaj on Spotify in the Starbucks while beginning to tackle the nine hundred page monster that is James Joyce’s seminal masterpiece. The cultural gulf that we have constructed between what art is “good” for you and what popular art is for “funsies” has become intangible and irrelevant. People tend to blend their consumption of high and low art. This makes our tendency to place literary high art for the “cultural elite” on an unscalable pedestal seem out of touch.

The Book Club Play, directed by Chris Hanna and presented by the Virginia Stage Company through 16 November 2014 at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, VA, topples this pedestal as it poses the philosophically heady question “What constitutes literature?” in the realm of everyday people. The show connects high and low art to a real community of people. Throughout the action, the characters endear themselves to the audience by inviting them into their personal struggles that are simultaneously comic and authentic. The book club, lead by the “smart . . . accomplished . . . mother bee” Ana, argues about whether it should be reading Twilight and The Da Vinci Code or Moby Dick and The Age of Innocence.

After reading Karen Zacarías’s script, I couldn’t help but think about how the distinction between high and low art creates a value system which says that certain art is for certain people. Alex, a character in the book club, advocates for Twilight, “the cultural phenomenon,” by Stephenie Meyer. Ana argues against the book club taking a turn for the popular, saying the the book club is about “real literature.” She wouldn’t be caught dead reading something so “trivial.” I caught myself agreeing with Ana; it wasn’t hard for me to picture her lines coming out of my mouth: “No, of course I don’t like that book” or “that song.” And I think we have all made similar statements that try to distance ourselves from popular culture that is somehow below us.

But how do we make that determination? And when we make those statements, what are we saying about the “other kind of people” that consume that art? I mean, it is popular for a reason: people enjoy it and are clearly getting something out of their interaction with that art. And isn’t that the point of all art, to give something to the people that enjoy it to affect them in some way? Does it matter whether the effect is intellectual and “good’ for you or is emotional and is just for “funsies?”

The Book Club Play reminds us that art and culture only truly happen when people get together as a community to exchange ideas prompted by artistic and cultural products. In other words, the value placed on art has to be based on its impact within culture. It doesn’t matter if the art is being discussed between a college professor and her students or people sitting on the train on the way to work. In this respect, the value or relevancy of a work of art, whether it be The Fault in Our Stars or Paradise Lost, is created when people connect through the work itself. As it turns out, good and fun art don’t have to be antonyms after all. Or as Alex puts it in The Book Club Play, “A truly cultured person sees La traviata, Swan Lake and American Idol; a truly cultured person listens to both Bach and Beyoncé.”

Kat Martin – AltDaily

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