I went with some friends to an outdoor singalong showing of the movie Grease. I turned twelve the summer that movie came out, and my best friend was obsessed with the show, so it holds a special place in my heart. I do recall as I got older, I started to question the suggestion that nice-girl Sandy could only get the man of her dreams by becoming a sexy bombshell. Something about that never set right with me.
But the other night, I think many members of the crowd sensed for the first time how many other lines from the songs we know by heart are not quite appropriate today, especially in light of the Me Too movement. In the song, “Summer Nights”– which has always been my go-to karaoke duet — there is a line in which Danny’s friends ask if Sandy “put up a fight” to his advances. As if that were a good thing. I kid you not, you could hear an audible groan go through the crowd as we heard that line in a way we never had before. How did we miss that?
And it’s not just old songs and movies I’m seeing in a new light. There’s a painting I’ve had since the early days our marriage that is giving me trouble now. It’s by Thomas Kinkade and features a gorgeous Southern plantation-style house. I’ve been enamored by that type of architecture my whole life. But now when I look at the painting, I don’t see beauty and romance, I see a house that slaves built. I’m looking for a new piece of art to replace that painting that I once loved.
As a historian, I’ve never been one to whitewash history or to advocate for changing or destroying art that feels offensive today. And as an artist, I’ve never been in favor of censorship. And then there’s the nostalgic part of me that wants to go on loving what I loved as a child and hold on to the joy it used to bring me.
Sometimes it feels like everything is turning upside down, like nothing I understood in my youth makes sense anymore. Sometimes I question my own integrity and how I ever could have thought something was right, when it now clearly seems wrong. And sometimes I’m not even sure what to say or think or feel anymore. Some of you may think I’m overreacting, and some of you may think I’m not reacting strongly enough.
But times change, our tastes change, and our knowledge of history, culture, and humanity evolve. Our sense of right and wrong evolves too. Sometimes we just outgrow some of the art we loved, and maybe that’s okay.
But I hope it’s also okay to hold on to the memories of what that art first sparked in me. I’d like to go on remembering how the movie Grease made my best friend throw her arms around me in delight or how it felt to buy “real” art for my house when I was still a young newlywed.
If art is about discovery, maybe at first it’s about discovering something that gives us pleasure, and later it’s about discovering how much we’ve grown.
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