The virtues of obscurity

The most interesting cultural news in today’s New York Times comes not in the business section, where I’d usually expect to find it, but in the national news. There’s a piece on the new popularity of curling, after the Olympics, which I certainly can relate to, because my wife and I got fascinated by it. We’re not alone. As the Times reports, the United States Curling Association’s website actually crashed, because so many people wanted to look at it. (I was one of them.)

So the piece talks about all the reasons people like curling. It’s a game of strategy; it’s all about finesse; you don’t even have to be a fabulous athlete to join a team and play it. Plus there’s a deep vein of sportsmanship, with players (just for instance) calling their own fouls.

And then, at the close of the piece, came this: “This is so cool,” said one new curling fan they’d interviewed, and who had signed up for a learn-to-curl session next month. “Plus it’s a very obscure thing to say you do.”

A very obscure thing. And this is a virtue. Which doesn’t surprise me. That’s one of the trends in current culture. Because there’s so much available — so many tastes, so many lifestyles, so many different kinds of everything — many people don’t necessarily make the popular choices, and in fact there’s great cachet in getting into something other people don’t know about.

And that’s good news for classical music. The very fact that it’s not popular can very well impel some people to give it a try. I’ve been thinking, in fact, that we’re often too defensive about our cultural position. Classical music students I’ve met, for instance, sometimes say they feel they’re going to be looked at as hopeless geeks. But I don’t think that’s true. If you play classical music, and the people you know aren’t classical music fans, that might well make you interesting. So yes, maybe we have an uphill fight to gain wider attention for what we do, and to find a new audience, but that very fact — in today’s culture, or at least among younger people — gives us an advantage.

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