At some point during each episode of Las Culturistas, Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang ask their guests, “What was the culture that made you say culture was for you?” It’s a delightful and revealing question, sometimes excavating in their guests long-forgotten memories or helping them recognize that something was more significant in the shaping of their worldview than they’d previously thought. Frequently, while fantasizing making the rounds as a guest on my favorite podcasts, I try to answer the question for myself. Would I cite my earliest visits to the Art Institute of Chicago with my sister? Would I invoke Murder by Death, Neil Simon’s detective parody whose screenplay I could recite (but couldn’t necessarily interpret) by the time I was 7? Would it be watching my dad sitting at the piano, or watching his mother’s made-for-TV movies? Or playing Scrabble with my mom on her bedroom floor while watching The Golden Girls?
I could go on…through hundreds of intersections like these as a kid, I was lucky to be exposed to a wide range of cultural and artistic influences. Thinking back, it was a more diverse array of artists, media, and experiences than one might expect for a cis white kid in the suburbs. I didn’t become an expert in any particular art form, but I gained a kind of vocabulary, a rudimentary semiotic lens, to be able to encounter and appreciate people and experiences that I didn’t necessarily “understand.” Growing up, I wasn’t in frequent communication with people of color, people outside my family’s socio-economic bubble, or with queer folx, but when I finally did enter those spaces and meet those people, I didn’t face the kind of culture shock that many people experience. That’s not to say that I navigated those spaces flawlessly, but I think I was better equipped than many of my peers.
Through their media, artists shape the way we see the world, but it’s the subversive ones who make the longest lasting impact on our culture. Subversive artists — the ones who, through their art, challenge, overturn, and undermine conventions, institutions, structures, and systems of authority — innovate and see their media in ways that others before didn’t (or couldn’t). I’m not thinking of protest or political art (well, not necessarily or exclusively): I’m thinking of the ones who transform the way people see the world.