To be contemptuous of the fine arts in suburbia has by now come to seem as “peculiar” as respect for or practice of the fine arts used to be in small-town America. The suburban Babbitt knows that he had better appear to be a cultivated man—by whatever lights and cues his new environment provides him. Artiness, and artsy-craftsiness, if not estheticism and erudition, are de rigueur. Middletown was never like this. Nor was Prairieton nor Plainville nor Winesburg nor any of Thorstein Veblen’s country towns nor the provincial communities so savagely and lovingly satirized by Sinclair Lewis three or four decades ago.
Neither Lewis nor Sherwood Anderson nor the silent movie makers could have envisaged the present situation. Could they have foreseen a population nearly strapped by the high cost of living whose upper middle classes for the first time do without domestic help chiefly to maintain their heavily mortgaged homes and the mechanical appliances they contain? These people, as young parents and total consumers grievously pinched by inflation and taxation, feel obliged to lay out significant sums of money for their own edification and for the artistic instruction of their young. With payments to be made on the washing machine—and then on the drier, the garbage disposal and the second car—a middle class suburban parent is often willing to pay from seven to ten dollars an hour, four or five times a month, for his son’s piano lessons. He may also help to succor his young daughter’s dream of becoming an accomplished ballerina at slightly lower, but still spiraling, cost to himself.
For young and old there are concerts, craft, service, and even “egg head” courses, lectures and dance recitals. All ages and both sexes are encouraged—indeed they are gently coerced by the same kind of social pressure that makes most of them church members—to avail themselves of these “rich opportunities.” Space is put to unaccustomed use: not only the Merry-Go-Rounders for the kiddies in their own high school auditorium, but the same auditorium for their parents’ amateur symphony orchestra in which a man may be a soloist. The community center and the YMCA offer programs in painting, lessons in music and lectures twelve times a year for those who wish to be informed on politics and the Sex Question