Family Holidays: Channels of Culture

AN observation from the weekend after Thanksgiving, the official kickoff of the holiday consumption season: Part of what the holidays are about for many people is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next.The summer holidays are a pause in the year for families to enjoy the sunshine and outdoor activities, to travel. The uncertain gray days of November and December are better suited to the indoor pleasures of the art museum and the concert hall. Families dress their little ones up to "expose" them to a favorite symphony, or wheel them in their strollers past the canvases that a little over a century ago were shocking but now are part of received tradition. And the parents seem to be reminding themselves, Yes, we do have time for this in our lives, this is part of what we are. We can take a break from the commuting and the shopping and the homework and the never-ending athletic practice schedule and make room for some beauty and music. What's available at this season is not always culture of the highest sophistication, to be sure; it doesn't always show the greatest originality of taste on the part of its patrons, who may let the marketers determine their preferences for them. But a weekend divided between the shopping districts and the more popular mainstream artistic venues leaves the impression of a useful intersection between commerce and culture at the holiday season. After all, the marketplace in which we buy "art" Christmas cards and museum reproductions is the same one in which we also buy videos and must-get toys of the season and the designer T-shirts that would turn us into walking advertisements - in fact, the museum may try to get us to do its advertising. And what culture is it that's being transmitted this season? The new animated Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" is being hailed as much for the marketing genius with which it is being promoted as for its cinematic virtues. The movie is a sort of two-fer: innocently G-rated at a time when, it seems, almost nothing else is, it appeals to children; but it is being pitched to the baby-boom generation of parents, who are after all the ones who buy the tickets. They can regard this as a classic to pass along to their children, to entertain them and inculcate "values" at the same time. (Never mind that "classic" for much of this cohort would refer more to Disney's earlier "Fantasia," say, than to the fairy tales on which this "Beauty" is based.) The new "Beauty," though it lacks any Christmas references, has the look of a holiday tradition in the making: "We do this every year." The Disney people evidently felt free to depart from the traditional Beaumont version of the original tale, if in fact they consulted it at all. To make the father in the story an inventor suits the technophile spirit of the 1990s, however foreign it may be to the world of fairy tales, where things are not invented, they are simply known, and have been known from time immemorial. And this new version focuses on the contrast between the obnoxious suitor, Gaston (who is not in the original tale), and the Beast, who is ugly but ultimately lovable. This highlights the point about inner beauty/outer ugliness at the expense of the psychologically subtler theme of a young woman's growing up and away from her father and into a relationship with the man she marries. However much the purist might wish that Disney had stuck closer to the original, though, every generation has had cultural purveyors that have put their particular stamp on this or that tradition, presenting a quasi-official version. This new Beast on the cinema screen may spare some young viewers from having to invent a (likely more horrible) Beast on the screens of their own imaginations, and some may lament that. But in earlier years, some may have lamented that fairy-tale collectors like Mme de Beaumont, Charles Perrault, or the Brothers Grimm improperly fixed into print what had been fluid tales passed along orally from one generation to another. The Christmas shopping season, always closely watched as a test of consumer confidence, is under particular scrutiny this year. Guarded optimism is the verdict so far. Let's hope the cultural marketplace does as well.

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