Mainstream Culture

Mainstream Culture

We all need beauty, pleasure, inspiration, and relaxation in our lives. This section reviews some of the many ways people meet those needs in mainstream culture.
  • For some of us, these activities are sidelines. We engage in them as time and money allow.
  • For others, the activities are lifelines, whether as
  • professions that bring them a living, or, for many,
  • passionate attachments to which they devote much time despite having to earn a living elsewhere.
Rather than detailing these multiple possibilities, this section refers you to Web sites that might be useful for the topics covered. This is not a comprehensive list of cultural activities, but is intended to give a general picture of the range of options.


Music is a constant accompaniment in our lives. Music has exceptional psychological effects on us. It can make us
  • feel tenser or more relaxed;
  • laugh or cry; even
  • ignore things we should be paying attention to.
Few of us go through a day without hearing music, whether we choose to or not. Malls and supermarkets use music to relax us so we will stay longer and buy more. Movies and TV shows use music to set a mood and to enhance a plot.  More and more, people are downloading music from Internet sites onto their own personal listening devices, so they can enjoy music privately wherever and whenever they want.

All cultures develop their own music forms. You can get a sense of the scope and variety of world music at a site maintained by National Geographic magazine.
American music today draws on many cultures. The genres listed below are grouped roughly by their cultures of origin. You can find free radio broadcasts of different kinds of music (if you listen past the advertisements). The Web sites listed here provide introductory information about each of these genres.

African-American Music

African-American rhythms, tunes, and themes predominate in many strains of American music, including
  • Blues, based on African-American folk songs; often sad. Learn more.
  • Jazz, which uses African-American themes and rhythms, and emphasizes improvisation. No two live jazz performances are alike. For an overview and to hear some jazz.
  • Gospel, Christian religious music. You can find information about the development of gospel. Hundreds of Web sites offer free broadcasts.
  • Rap, a vocal music in which the artist speaks, often in rhyme, to a synthesized beat. Rap music has been controversial because it is associated with the glorification of gangsters and crime and the degrading of women, and some rap artists have engaged in violent acts. You can find a short history of rap music here.
  • Rhythm ’n blues is characterized by a jazz beat combined with blues-like chords. There are many subgenres of rhythm ’n blues, including soul and funk. You can listen to a variety of these kinds of music.

European Music

European culture gives us
  • Classical music, a system in which exact musical notation passes on a composer’s work through generations. You can find more information about classical music below.
  • Country music, rooted in traditional European folk tunes, especially Scotch and Irish tunes. More about country music is at
  • Folk music is traditional regional or national music, handed down orally from generation to generation.  You can find examples of folk music at
  • Western or cowboy music, which also grows out of folk songs whose rhythms give us square dance and other folk dances and ballads. has some background on this. Note that if you google “Western music,” you will get many sites that focus on classical music intermingled with the cowboy genre.

Latin-American Music

Latin-American music, especially from the Caribbean, is often characterized by Spanish song forms, African characteristics such as syncopated rhythms and improvisation, and European harmonies. Some categories of Latin American music are

Combination Music

Combinations of these categories give us genres like
  • Rock ’n roll, a combination of blues, country, and gospel. Rock ’n roll features a strong blues rhythm with a strong backbeat. It usually features an electric guitar, and its themes often focus on rebellion. You can find some background information here.
  • Pops is music with broad general appeal, usually on light and cheery topics and with a short and simple theme. To get a feel for how this category both stands on its own and embraces many others, you can browse through some of the lists.
These are only a few of the dozens of music categories and subcategories used today.
  • There is really no definitive list, and there is disagreement among experts about the components and boundaries of most categories.
  • To find more categories, or to find out more about any of the categories listed here, google the name of the category and check out several of the listings that come up.

Music for a Purpose

Music can be characterized by its use or purpose. For example:
  • Marching or military music sets the pace and rhythm for marchers and sometimes other performers such as baton-twirlers. Marches are characterized by their steady beat and perky tunes.
  • New Age music is supposed to assist relaxation and inspiration. New Age music, also known as ambient music, draws on modern, high-tech instruments such as synthesizers, traditional Oriental instruments, and natural sounds like bird songs. It tends to be repetitious and long-drawn-out.
  • Religious music is intended to enhance religious experience and comes in an endless variety of forms, types, and styles—some thousands of years old, others invented yesterday.
  • Counter-culture music, such as grunge, heavy metal, and gangsta rap, focuses on negative ideas and images.

Modes of music

Music can also be characterized by its form or type, such as
  • Vocal or instrumental
  • Solo or ensemble (group)
  • Band or orchestral


Movie-going is an extremely popular leisure activity in the United States. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 1.4 billion ticket to movies were sold in 2007—an average of about 8 movies per person for the year. This number does not include people who rented or bought movies to see at home, or people who saw movies broadcast on TV.

Movies appeal in many ways:
  • Good movies are visually and musically thrilling and emotionally compelling. They take us into their own world with its own structure and, at the end, leave us with a sense of completeness that we seldom, if ever, experience in real life.
  • Movies are inexpensive. An hour’s work at the current minimum wage will pay for the average movie ticket. And that’s for a ticket to a theater! We can rent movies for as little as $1.00 each, or order them online for much less.
  • Movie content covers the range of human and fantasy existence.

Movie Ratings System

Most movies are rated according to their suitability for certain audiences, depending on the themes, language used, nudity and sexual content, and violence:
  • G (general) means the movie is appropriate for audiences of all ages.
  • PG (parental guidance) and PG-13 mean that parental guidance is in order to determine whether children (or children under the age of 13) should see the movie.
  • R (restricted) means that children under the age of 17 are not admitted without an accompanying parent or adult guardian.
  • NC17 (no children under 17) means that no one under the age of 17 is admitted.

The Motion Picture Association of America maintains the system and provides detailed descriptions of what these ratings tell you about a movie.

The ratings are also useful for adults who have seen enough terror and violence in their lives that they don’t need to go to the movies for more, or who are uncomfortable with explicit sexual passages or other types of content.

Some foreign films and films intended for small audiences are not rated.  These will bear the notation “NR” in advertisements.

Also outside the ratings system are “adult” movies, a code term for pornography or severe violence.  

Classic Movies

Movies are such an integral part of American life that people quote from them, expecting others to understand the reference. Such remarks as
  • “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” (derived from The Godfather),
  • “You’re not in Kansas anymore” (derived from The Wizard of Oz),
  • “Houston, we have a problem” (Apollo 13), and
  • “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars)
have entered the language. 

Among the most quoted movies are Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. These are great movies, so if you haven’t seen them they’re especially worth seeking out.

A good way to track down a movie quote you don’t understand—and many are slightly misquoted—is to check out the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American film. 

This list might also be a useful guide to those searching out good movies in general.

Lists of “classic” movies

The fact that someone or some organization has designated a movie as “classic” doesn’t mean that you should see it, or that, if you do see it, you ought to like it. All these lists are based on the compilers’ personal preferences, which may be quite different from yours. Still, you will find some guidance about the most popular movies.

Movie Genres

Movies may be broadly divided into categories, or genres, such as drama, comedy, action, and science fiction. Some samples of sites with lists by genre are below. Some of these sites are commercial and want to sell or rent movies, but you don’t have to pay to look at the titles they list.Or you can just google the genres you want and get other lists.

Movie Reviews

To learn more about any movie you are interested in, you can google “review of” plus the name of the movie.
  • It’s important to remember that all reviewers, even the most prominent and professional, speak for themselves.
  • You are likely to find as many opinions as there are reviews, and your own opinion may not agree with those of the reviewers.
However, you will get a good idea of what the movie is about, who made it, and who is in it.

The Media

The term media refers to the various means of communication designed to reach public audiences. In the United States, this may mean a national audience, the population of a major metropolitan area, or a specific group of any size with a common interest. In addition to movies, today’s media include
  • television
  • the Internet
  • print media
  • radio

Different types of media reach different kinds of audiences. Some television broadcasts, like major sporting events, reach tens of  millions. At the other end of the spectrum, small, specialized print journals may circulate to only a few hundred readers. 

Some media outlets cover their costs mainly through charging for subscriptions. Others, such as newspapers and cable TV, charge for their products but also depend heavily on advertising. Others, like broadcast television, are free, their costs covered entirely by advertising. Learning to filter or resist advertising is a useful part of acclimatizing to mainsteam life.


Television, until recently, was the basic home entertainment for the entire country. Because of its potential to attract huge audiences, TV is highly attractive to advertisers. Advertisers pay in proportion to the size of the audience attracted, so broadcast TV (free to TV owners) tends to offer programs that attract huge general audiences, while cable or satellite channels (which charge subscribers) may focus on specialized topics, like news, sports, or cooking.

Television comes in three modes: broadcast, cable, and satellite.
  • Broadcast TV is transmitted over the air to users who have a television set and an antenna. Its reach is limited to the area where its signal can be received.
    • In urban and suburban areas where local stations transmit from nearby, you can get broadcast TV at no charge.
    • The number of stations transmitting over the air is limited; it usually amounts to little more than the five national networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS) and a few local channels.
  • Cable TV is transmitted by wire to subscribers who pay a regular monthly charge.  Most cable channels also have income from advertising.
    • Cable TV is widely available in urban and suburban areas.
    • To receive cable, each TV in a subscriber’s home must be connected.
    • Cable TV offers a far wider choice of programs than broadcast TV. Subscribers can receive dozens of channels.
    • Reception, unless it is disrupted by broken cables, is clear, and you don’t have to fiddle with an antenna to improve it.
    • In most parts of the country, cable is a monopoly—only one company offers service. This situation tends to reduce the quality of the service and increase the price.
    • The price of a cable TV subscription can be high because subscribers must purchase a basic package of channels, many of which they may never watch, and they must pay more if they want access to premium channels that are particularly popular. A one-year subscription to cable TV can run to several hundred dollars.
  • Satellite TV is the only way for many people in rural areas to get television reception. It is increasingly popular in urban and suburban areas, as well, where satellite companies are in competition with cable companies.
    • Satellite TV in your home requires a “dish” antenna strategically placed to capture broadcasts relayed from satellites in space.
    • If the antenna is outdoors, storms may disrupt reception.
    • Most satellite TV companies provide dish and installation free, but there is a charge for each set connected.
    • Satellite companies, like cable companies, charge a monthly subscription fee and insist on providing a package that may include more than 100 channels, many of which you may have no interest in watching.
TV programming includes news and sports events, plus a variety of other programs such as sit-coms, dramas, reality and game shows, and documentaries. Popular programs are generally recycled and shown over and over on both parent networks and smaller stations. You can also record these programs, borrow them on DVDs (digital video disks) from the library, and rent or download them from various onlline sites like Hulu. Some are sold in DVD format at bookstores and other retail outlets.
  • Sit-coms (short for “situation comedies”) are comedy skits centered on a cluster of stock characters who appear on every installment. Some sit-coms focus on families, others on groups of friends, others on an office or business. Examples of popular sit-coms are The Seinfeld Show, Glee, The Office, and Desperate Housewives.
  • Drama series are suspense shows based on a consistent cast of characters like police officers or medical personnel. Each show presents a complete story of, for instance, crime or medical problems. Perhaps the most popular drama ever is the long-running Law and Order.
  • “Reality” shows present nonprofessionals in a variety of situations, which are sometimes dangerous or demeaning. Theoretically, these shows are unscripted and the participants’ reactions spontaneous. However, participants are carefully selected and often coached about how to respond to situations. Two very popular reality shows are American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.
  • Game shows feature individuals or teams answering questions in competition with others for money or other prizes. Examples of game shows are Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
  • Documentaries are factual presentations, often about history, geography, and science. Many documentaries are produced by Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations, which are subsidized by government funds. Documentaries may be weekly programs such as Nova, a science series, or one-time productions. Confusingly, “docudramas,” fiction that takes off from a factual base, and “mockumentaries,” fiction presented as if real, have begun to appear, as well.

The Internet

The Internet is already a key resource for information (see Internet for research use), but you can also get
  • broadcast programs,
  • live sports transmissions,
  • games,
  • news, and even
  • movies
downloaded to a computer. Costs vary, from free to fees for individual shows or series, to subscriptions. If you missed a TV show or important sports event, look online.

Social networking sites

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are extremely popular. Joining these sites is free, and members can list “friends” or “followers” whom they wish to keep informed of their doings.

Businesses, politicians, celebrities, and organizations of any kind can also set up accounts on these sites. You cannot access these sites unless you join, and your privacy may be at risk on any of them. For more information about social networking online, see Social Networking Sites.

Print Media

Books can be lifelong sources of pleasure and learning.
  • Books require no apparatus. Every book is its own entity, and all you have to do to read it is open to the page you want.
  • You can
  • You can
    • find books on any subject,
    • take them with you wherever you go, and
    • pick them up to read whenever convenient.
  • You can read two, three, or any number of books you want at the same time.
  • You can
    • lend or give books to friends when you are finished with them,
    • donate them to a library, or
    • sell them to a used bookseller.
Electronic gadgets that allow buyers to buy and download books to store and read on a screen are growing in popularity.
  • The advantages of this system are
    • Covenience: You can buy a book whenever you want without leaving home.
    • Compactness, with all your books right at hand.  
  • Disadvantages are:
    • Cost: Pubic libraries are now making some books available electronically, but you must purchase an expensive gadget up front. If the library doesn't have the titles you want, you would have to pay for each title you download directly, sometimes more than a used hard copy would cost.
    • The difficulty of sharing books you enjoy with others.  You may not be able to pass these books along unless you pass your gadget along, too.
Magazines and newspapers may be large-scale publications like
  • news magazines
  • fashion and home magazines
  • celebrity and “sensation” publications
  • sports magazines
  • daily or weekly national newspapers
There are also thousands of local and specialized magazines and newspapers, ranging from neighborhood news to highly technical professional journals.
  • If you want to know what’s going on in your school district or county, look for a local newspaper.
  • If you have a hobby, you might find just the right magazine for your taste. For instance, one major online bookseller lists more than 400 hobby magazines.
  • For a magazine or journal on any subject you want, google the topic, plus “magazine” or “journal.”
Many magazines and newspapers publish online, and readers can access them without charge. If your online time is limited, or if you just prefer hard copies, the easiest and cheapest way to find print publications is through your local public library, where you can read them at no charge.


The earliest of the broadcast media, radio is still widely popular. Simpler and less expensive than pictorial media, radio broadcasts include
  • news,
  • live coverage of sports events,
  • religious and talk shows—mostly hosted by supporters of differing political and religious persuasions, and
  • music of all kinds.
Most radio shows are broadcast from local stations by transmitters of varying power.
  • Even the most powerful stations reach only a relatively small area of the country.
  • Some of the smallest stations transmit over a range of only a few miles.
This means that radio is a very useful medium for local news and local issues. However, national networks transmitting to dozens of local stations can—and do—send programs nationwide.

The only cost for most radio programs is the purchase of a radio.
  • Practically all cars come equipped with radios.
  • If you want to pay for special equipment and subscribe, you can also get radio programs broadcast by satellite. Satellite radio provides a huge range of specialty programs that reach across the country.

Sports, Hobbies, and Pastimes

Americans also enjoy personal interests—sports, games (card, board, electronic), collecting, and other activities that they pursue on their own or with groups of similarly inclined people.

Sports can be either for entertainment, when you watch a game, or for personal participation. Americans enjoy a huge variety of sports.
  • Some sports, such as hiking or swimming, involve little or no expense.
  • Others, like skiing or mountaineering, may require a great deal of expensive equipment in the long run.
  • Attending a sports event can be fun even if you know little of the refinements of the sport you are watching.
  • Participating in a sport can also be fun, even for beginners, provided your goal is to learn and enjoy, rather than to excel.
The following list briefly describes some of the most popular sports and suggests Web sites where you can learn more about each. (Note that many of these sites are commercial and primarily interested in selling you something. Just scroll down past the ads to find the information you want.)

Team Sports

Team sports involve competitions between organized groups of players. Following are the most popular team sports:
  • Baseball and its cousin, softball, are played in spring and summer. Here is basic information about the games and rules of baseball andsoftball. There are many levels of amateur and professional baseball, ranging from children’s organizations (called Little League), through training teams for professionals (the Minor Leagues), to elite professional teams (Major League). There are also professional softball teams, but they do not command the same interest as baseball teams. But softball is a popular amateur sport and is the highlight of many a company picnic.
  • Basketball is played professionally during winter and spring, usually indoors. Because it requires little equipment and can be played in a relatively small space, basketball is widely popular as a year-round participatory sport, as well. Basketball courts, both indoor and outdoor, are available in gymnasiums, schools, and playgrounds, although you usually need to bring your own basketball. Look here for basketball basics. You can also find some free instructional videos. Variations of standard basketball allow individuals to play on their own or in less-than-full teams.
  • Football is played during the fall and early winter. Here is a basic football Web site. Organized football requires expensive equipment, and involves serious physical risk. An informal “backyard” version, called touch football, is less brutal and a popular pastime.
  • Hockey, originally played on ice outdoors in winter, but now an indoor game, is growing in popularity. Basics of ice hockey are available online. A close relative of ice hockey is field hockey.
  • Lacrosse, which combines elements of football, hockey, and soccer, may be the ancestor of them all. Native Americans played lacrosse centuries before the Europeans arrived. Lacrosse is essentially a spring sport, although an indoor version may be played year-round. Once fairly exclusive to the east coast, lacrosse is becoming increasingly popular. You can find out more about lacrosse here.
  • Soccer is extremely popular in Europe and Latin America, and is rapidly growing more popular in the United States. Soccer is played both in spring and fall. You can find soccer basics online. Informal soccer games are widely available for those who want to play.
  • Volleyball is a popular amateur sport, although there are professional volleyball teams and leagues. Volleyball can be played either indoors or outdoors and is usually a fall sport. Basic volleyball information is here.
For videos of these sports, you can search online at For basics about team sports not listed above, google the sport by name, and add “basics.”

Individual Sports

Individual sports are those in which single individuals compete against each other. Some individual sports also may be team sports, as in tennis, where two individuals may join to compete against two other individuals, or they may be played in groups, as in golf. Groups of individuals may form teams that represent a larger group or country, as in national “teams” at international games such as the Olympics. Here are a few of the most popular individual sports, along with Web sites where you can learn more:
  • Bicycling is simply riding a bike for fun or competition rather than transportation. Biking can be as inexpensive as renting a bike for a few hours in a park or other venue, or as expensive as top-of-the-line training and equipment can make it. A helmet is advisable. Advice for beginners who want to train for serious bike riding is important.
  • Bowling is a popular indoor sport, playable all year long. Basically, bowling involves rolling a ball along a narrow path to knock down wooden pins at the end. Bowling can be an inexpensive, fun way to spend time with friends, or a professional activity. You don’t need to buy anything to get started. You can just rent shoes and use the balls available at your local bowling alley. Before trying it out, you might want to check the rules of play.
  • Golf is played on a spacious outdoor course. You can rent equipment, primarily golf balls and golf clubs. You also must pay fees of varying amounts for using the course. You can play golf on your own or with a small group of others. Owning your equipment can involve a fairly costly outlay. You can get an overview of golf here.
  • Hiking involves long outdoor walks, usually in a park or other scenic environment. A basic hike requires no special equipment. You can use a map or trail guide and go with a friend, or sign up for a group hike led by a guide. Although you can start with a simple walk in the woods, you might end up taking extended hikes through remote and difficult terrain.
  • Skating can be on roller skates or ice skates, and indoor or (weather permitting) outdoor. You can rent skates at indoor rinks. You can skate on your own or with a group. Information about roller skating might be helpful before you start. It’s said to be easy to transfer from roller skates to ice skates because the same skills of balance and movement apply. In some areas, you can ice skate year-round on indoor rinks. You can find ice skating rinks near you.
  • Skiing tends to be expensive because it requires a considerable amount of gear, even though you can rent most of it. To be outdoors in the snow for long periods of time you will need warm, waterproof clothing, as well as ski boots and skis. Skiing includes both alpine skiing—going down hills—and cross-country skiing—traveling on more level surfaces. Basic information about skiing is here.
  • Swimming, once you know how, is as inexpensive as the price of a swimsuit if you have access to a lake, ocean, river, pond, or pool. Instruction is essential, but you may be able to find free swimming lessons by googling “free swimming lessons,” plus your location. Many urban and suburban areas maintain swimming pools with no or low admission charges. To find a pool in your area, google “public swimming pool,” plus your location.
  • Tennis is played on a court with a net between the two sides. You can play either “singles,” with one player on each side, or “doubles,” with two players to a side. Basic playing equipment consists of a tennis racket, tennis balls, and tennis shoes. Many urban and suburban areas have public tennis courts where you can play free or for a minimal fee. For basic information about tennis, look here. To find places to play, google “public tennis courts,” plus your location.


Many games do not involve sports. The pastimes described here don’t require physical exertion. Some are entirely games of chance, while others call for a variety of skills. Some categories of the thousands of games are
  • Board games, which require a specially designed playing surface (although not necessarily a board). Most board games call for two to four players.
  • There are board games for all ages and skill levels.
  • Prices of games range from inexpensive to “out of sight.”
  • Two of the oldest and most popular board games, checkers and chess, are among the many that people at every level of skill can enjoy, including children as young as seven or eight years old.
  • Even children too young to read can enjoy games such as Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and Connect Four. These games make for great family fun (especially when a grown-up loses).
  • Some highly competitive games, like Monopoly, are complex, require a large dose of sportsmanship (i.e., not getting grouchy when you lose) and sometimes seem to endanger family harmony.
  • Before you get involved in a game, it’s useful to get an idea from a knowledgeable person how long the game will take to finish, and how stressful it’s likely to be.
  • Most games have guidelines about suitable ages for players, but these are not fixed rules. People younger or older than the guideline may be able to enjoy the game. For example, Scrabble is generally considered an adult game, but elementary school-aged children can learn to play a simple version without keeping score.
  • Card games are as popular and varied as board games. Like board games, there are card games for almost every age and every degree of complexity.
  • Many card games require only a standard deck of cards.
  • Others call for two decks, a modified deck, or even a deck specific to that game.
  • Some games depend entirely on luck, other games call for skill.
  • There are even Solitaire games, designed for just one person.
  • Many card games may be played for money, but it is not necessary to gamble in order to enjoy playing cards.
  • By far the best way to learn card games is to have a knowledgeable person teach you.
  • Written rules for most games use jargon words like trick, suit, straight, and so on, and they assume that you know what they mean. You can get some help from these brief definitions of key card-playing words.
  • To find rules for specific card games, google “rules for,” plus the name of the game.
  • For quick and easy reference, you may want to find an inexpensive copy of one of the many versions of Hoyle’s Rules of Card Games. You can find used copies in good condition online if you google “Hoyle’s Rules,” plus “used bookstore.”
  • Electronic games range from computerized versions of traditional amusements like crossword puzzles, to highly sophisticated competitive games that require dedicated software and high-powered computers, to fantasy games in which players operate in imaginary worlds.
  • Electronic games may be played on computers, hand-held portable devices, cell-phones, or specially designed separate machines.
  • Many electronic games involve eye-hand coordination and/or timed responses to situations the software and graphics of the game present.
  • Perhaps the most common form of electronic game is the video game, which involves images that the players manipulate on a video display or TV screen.
  • The most complex games involve something called virtual reality, in which players engage in fictional lives in an imaginary world.
  • Electronic games may involve seemingly simple tasks like matching a variety of objects, or complex projects like designing a city, or simulated spy games or wars.
  • You can find free games playable on the computer.
  • Although they are very popular, game consoles tend to be expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for the equipment and accompanying software.

Other Activities

The activities listed above are by no means the whole story.
  • Millions of people enjoy activities such as fishing, stamp collecting, gardening, working puzzles, and building model planes or trains, that this brief summary does not even touch upon.
  • The possibilities are practically endless. If you have an interest, or perhaps even a curiosity about some sport, hobby, or pastime,  you can look for a way to explore it without making a huge commitment of time or money. Even learning that you are not that interested, after all, is helpful. But you may find a lifetime pursuit that brings you much pleasure.

Fine Arts

“Fine arts”  usually refers to art forms that have been developed with an emphasis on pleasure and beauty rather than usefulness. The term also refers to the long years of training needed for someone to master disciplines that require highly developed techniques and skills. The urge to cultivate beauty is almost as old as the evidence of human existence, reaching back to 30,000-year-old drawings found in caves.

Fine arts are often seen as “highbrow,” for intellectuals only. Yet a key measure of great art is that it resonates with millions of people across centuries of time and dozens of cultures.
  • You can enjoy great art of all kinds without extensive background or specialized education.
  • Not all forms of fine arts appeal to everyone, and, within a genre, not all works of a given type of art appeal to everyone.
  • But if you explore some of the possibilities, you may find much that you enjoy.
The term fine arts includes both visual and performing arts (theatre, dance, and classical music), although, confusingly, the term also can mean only visual arts.

Visual Arts

Visual arts include, among other media,
  • painting,
  • sculpture,
  • photography,
  • prints, and
  • architecture (Though some buildings are designed with little concern for beauty, others, such as cathedrals, are clearly meant to be beautiful.)
You probably see some examples of visual arts—well-designed buildings and outdoor sculptures—every day. You might also enjoy exploring collections of artwork in galleries and museums.

Visual art is a very personal experience. Few works of art appeal to everyone, and it will help to look at different styles and kinds of art to develop your appreciation and discover what appeals to you.
  • Some art museums are dedicated to art of a specific kind or period. Others offer collections of many kinds. In general, the larger the museum, the more varied its collection.
    • Some art museums are free, but many charge for admission.
    • Prices vary depending on the museum’s need for funds and the popularity of its exhibits.
    • You can find information about art museums in your area by googling “art museum.” plus your location, or going to your town’s Web site and searching for “art museum.”
  • Another way to explore visual art is by looking at art books, which you can find at the public library. Art books have good photographic reproductions of great artworks, accompanied by written discussions. Books may focus on
    • individual artists, like Rembrandt, Monet, or Picasso;
    • a school of art, such as the Impressionists;
    • particular periods of art, such as the Renaissance;
    • the collection of a given institution, such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum; or
    • a specific type of art, like medieval architecture.
  • Art galleries are stores that sell visual art. You might enjoy walking into their smaller spaces and viewing their more limited collections.
    • Many galleries and stores sell only a single style of art, or the works of only a few artists.
    • Because galleries are displaying art for sale, they seldom charge admission. The limited selection may be a plus if you find that looking intently at the artwork tires you out.
    • If you visit a gallery, try to find one that shows the kind of art you are likely to enjoy. If you don’t like abstract art, for example, look for a gallery that features pictorial art.

You can find information about the history of art.

Performing Arts

Performing arts include theater, classical music, and dance. (Movies, also a fine art, are such a major part of mainstream culture that they have a separate section, above.) Ticket prices to performances range from free to expensive. Most prices are within the range of tickets to professional sporting events.


Theater refers to plays performed live before an audience. Plays are often classified as
  • comedies, which are light-hearted, full of jokes, and have “happy” endings;
  • tragedies, which lay bare human failings and sorrows; and
  • dramas, which are serious studies of human dilemmas that don’t necessarily end in disaster.
Many plays contain all these elements, however.

By far the best-known and most-loved English playwright is William Shakespeare, whose 400-year-old dramas still draw large audiences. There are dozens of good contemporary playwrights and thousands of theater companies presenting plays all over the country.

Live productions
  • Challenge both actors and audiences more than movies. The immediacy of live drama, as opposed to movies, is an attraction for many.
    • Actors must convince their audiences with more limited settings and only one try at each scene.
    • Audiences must use their imaginations more to overcome the obvious artificiality of a group of people all pretending the audience isn’t there.
  • Need not be expensive, although high-end productions on New York’s fabled Broadway may charge astonishing prices for tickets.
    • All across the country, small companies with modest budgets offer competent performances at reasonable prices.  
    • Some cities offer free or very low-priced outdoor performances during the summer.
You can read reviews of local productions to get an idea of what a play is about and whether you might enjoy it—although you may not always agree with the reviewer after you see the play.

You can find the scripts of many plays at your public library, but it is hard to enjoy or even get a good grasp of a play just from reading the script. Scripts are the skeleton of a play, and they are meant to be fleshed out with scenery, costumes, and the actors’ and director’s interpretation. You can also find scripts for some plays, including Shakespeare’s here.

Musicals—in which the drama is heavily interspersed with songs and dances—are a popular subdivision of theater entertainment. Some of the most popular musicals have been made into movies, which you can see on DVD.

Classical music 

Classical music is often rather foggily defined as “art music” derived from European church music. (Confusingly, in non-Western cultures such as China, classical music refers to music that lacks European influence.)
  • The boundaries of classical music are unclear. For instance, a jazz composition such as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” might well be considered classical.
  • Perhaps most simply put, classical music is that in which there is little room for improvisation. The composer has written detailed instructions for the exact notes to be played; which instruments are to play the notes; in what key, rhythm, and tempo they are to be played; and even whether they should be loud or soft.
Live performances of classical music can be expensive; but you can find free or inexpensive performances if you live near a university or music school, where advanced students are encouraged to perform as part of their education.
  • In some areas, you can find CDs of classical music in your local public library.
  • You can also find bargain CDs of classical music when recent recordings reduce the prices of older recordings.
Web sites that offer free classical music online are mostly radio stations that stream their broadcasts. Because of the radio format, it is hard to find complete performances of any pieces longer than 15 to 20 minutes. You may get only a part of a symphony or a short piece from an opera.

Opera, orchestral, choral, and chamber music are the major forms of classical music.
  • Opera is a music drama, in which actors’ roles are sung, rather than spoken. Opera performances
    • require a cast of singer/actors, an orchestra, and a stage set with scenery and costumes.
    • may last two to three hours or longer and call for dozens of highly trained musicians, plus an unseen presence of designers, coaches, directors, and stagehands.
  • Orchestral music refers to compositions primarily for instruments, although some very famous works have singing parts.
    • A full-sized orchestra may use anywhere from 80 to more than 100 musicians.
    • Orchestral compositions usually are divided into segments and generally take between 25 minutes and 40 minutes to perform.
    • Concerts of classical music usually consist of two of these longer pieces, plus one or two short pieces.
  • Chamber music is performed by small groups of musicians—quartets (four musicians), quintets (for five musicians), trios, duets, and solo performances. There are also chamber orchestras, with 50 or fewer musicians, devoted to music of the periods when that was the standard orchestral size.

  • Choral music is performed by groups of trained singers, from church choirs to colleges. Choral music may be combined with instrumental music, or performed without instrumental accompaniment (a capella). Much choral music is religious, and ranges from simple hymns to mighty masses and oratorios intended for performance before large audiences in great cathedrals.

A useful Web site for more information about classical music is , which also offers free downloads of selected pieces.


Dance refers to performances by professional dancers.
  • Dance is a form of communication without words, in which performers moving to music convey a story, mood, or idea to their audience.
  • Professional dancers are highly trained athletes who at times appear to defy gravity and other limitations of the ordinary human body.
The two principal types of performance dancing today are ballet and modern dance.
  • Ballet, originally developed in 17th century France, is a formal dance with elaborate requirements for precision and graceful movement.
    • The ability of ballet dancers to execute elegant steps and leaps without even putting their full feet on the ground—just their toes—enhances the sense of floating.
    • Full-length ballets, like the popular Nutcracker Suite, make up a whole performance; shorter ballets are combined in twos and threes for a performance.  Many ballets are danced to music composed for the purpose.
    • You can find a brief history of ballet online.
  • Modern dance, as its name suggests, was developed in the early 20th century. Modern dance is less formalized than ballet and tends to focus on expression of moods or abstract ideas, or even social comments.
    • Dancers often perform in bare feet and do not use the toe shoes required for ballet.
    • The accompanying music may be classical, jazz, or other nonclassical style.
    • Dances may be experimental and/or improvisational, rather than prescribed.
    • Extremely experimental modern dance may border on the absurd.
    • For is a short history of modern dance, look here.
As with other art forms, you can find a range of dance performances, from highly polished companies with national recognition, to talented local or student groups, and ticket prices that vary accordingly. You can find a brief video overview of dance here.

Religion and Spirituality

Adverse experiences in a religious or spiritual group may strongly influence your feelings about a particular religion or religion as a whole, but religion is an important part of life for many in mainstream culture. The vast majority of people in the United States today—83 percent—consider themselves affiliated with a religion. However,this leaves a significant number of people who are unaffiliated, including atheists and agnostics. You will find mainstream Americans in all of these categories, so the information below about discussing religion and religion in the workplace may be useful to you.

Thanks to our country’s bedrock commitment to freedom of religion, the United States harbors a wide array of religions, among them Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. As a practical matter, there is no need for anyone to get involved in any religion; but for those who are interested, there is a plentiful assortment—numbering in the dozens—to choose from. It is not uncommon for people in America to change their religions, a token of the openness of opportunity in this area.

Seeking Religious or Spiritual Guidance

If you are seeking religious or spiritual guidance, it’s important to understand that you’re on your own in a variegated spiritual bazaar, where options range through dozens of religions and, within those dozens, thousands of individual congregations and spiritual leaders.  If you have left an abusive spiritual or religious group, you will know that not all spiritual groups are healthy and not all spiritual leaders are trustworthy.   
  • There are no laws or regulations in the United States about the principles, structure, or beliefs that constitute a religion.
  • However, religious practice is not exempt from the law. For example, beating someone for religious reasons is considered assault, which is a crime.
  • Leaders of spiritual or religious groups include people at all levels of qualifications, from rigorously trained graduates of highly respected schools of divinity, to self-anointed individuals with little or no formal education in any area.
  • Religious credentials, like any other credential, do not guarantee character. Religious and spiritual leaders of every background may be upstanding citizens, or they may fall short in many ways.
  • Ethical spiritual or religious groups should meet the general standards for groups of any kind.
  • Ethical spiritual or religious leaders and counselors should respect the boundaries that apply both generally and professionally.

Talking About Religion

People in mainstream American are expected to get along with others whose beliefs about the world and the universe are not only different, but may even seem bizarre or silly. If experience in a high-demand group makes religion a sensitive topic for you, the following guidelines may help:
  • You need never feel obliged to explain your own personal beliefs to, or discuss your religious affiliations, background, or experience with anyone.
  • You are expected to treat others’ beliefs with respect, no matter how weird they seem to you.
  • You may encounter genuine interest about your religion from a person of another religion. This interest often arises from friendly curiosity and is not meant to be offensive.
  • It is also OK for you to show similar interest in someone else’s religion.
  • You may also run into attempts from supporters of other religions to persuade you to their beliefs. Because they are usually doing this from a genuine desire to help or “save” you, a polite, but clear response is in order if you are not interested: “I understand that you are sincerely concerned about my well-being, but I do not care to discuss this with you. Please drop it.”
  • It’s perfectly all right to ignore casual questions about your personal spiritual state, especially from people you don’t know well.
  • If a colleague, supervisor, or teacher repeatedly expounds beliefs that are distasteful to you or shows a bias against your religion, it may call for some serious self-restraint and tact to manage the situation. It’s a good idea to consult your peers before you take any action.
  • Continued persistence by anyone in raising issues of religion in a workplace or school may be considered harassment.

Religion in the Workplace

There is increasing discussion of workplace religious issues. Some religious organizations require their employees to follow policies that grow out of religious tenets (i.e., not mentioning abortion as an option for an unwanted pregnancy).
  • It’s OK for employers to ask potential employees to adhere to these policies in the workplace, but it’s not OK to require obedience to the policies in their personal lives.
  • Job applicants in this situation need to decide whether or not they can conscientiously follow such policies on the job, and then to agree or not, accordingly.
Another workplace controversy occurs over the rights of individual employees or business owners to refuse to offer goods or services that conflict with their religious convictions; for instance, whether
  • a pharmacy can refuse to offer certain types of birth control, or
  • an employee of a pharmacy can refuse to serve a customer who requests these things.
Presently, these questions are unresolved.


Shopping may actually be the most popular leisure activity of all in the United States today, but the old saying is still true: Buyer beware!
Shopping can be a very enjoyable experience.
  • It’s free -- sort of. There’s no charge for going into a store and looking at, or even, where appropriate, trying on or testing the merchandise.
  • The weather indoors is always right, the merchandise is fun to look at, and there’s something for every age, size, and taste.
This is not an accident. Skilled human-behavior experts design stores to offer merchandise in the most seductive and tempting manner. Marketing and advertising professionals earn good livings because they know how to
  • make you want something,
  • get you into the store, and
  • persuade you to buy.
People in mainstream society are ceaselessly bombarded with messages, both open and subtle, designed to part us from our money.
  • Mass-media ads suggest that you will be better-looking, more successful, and more sexually attractive if you buy such unrelated products as the car or beer they are promoting.
  • Lavish houses and expensive clothing denote the “successful” characters in movies and TV shows.
  • Toy manufacturers imply that children using their products will develop superior skills.
The American economy depends heavily on people constantly buying things. As a shopper, the challenge is to keep your focus on what you need and want, and to resist the enticements to buy things you don’t want or like, or can’t afford.

Shopping Tips

Those who like shopping may find it invigorating and enjoy hours of browsing and selecting among dozens of choices. Those who dislike shopping may just want to get it over with. Whichever description fits, you can benefit if you do the following:

Educate yourself about the product. Doing this need not be a huge task. Most of us know what to look for in most of the things we buy. But when you are making a major purchase, such as a computer or a car, it’s important to learn about basic aspects of the product.
  • Most public libraries subscribe to Consumer Reports, a nonprofit monthly magazine that tests products ranging from cars to pots and pans. (To use the Consumer Reports Web site, you need to subscribe; you can limit the subscription costs by buying a monthly subscription.)
    • Information from this or other consumer-oriented testing organizations will alert you to important features of the products they test.
    • You may not care about some of the features, but others might matter a lot.
    • The ratings of various brands may also give you an idea of their quality, although sometimes the difference between the highest- and lowest-rated brands is not significant.
  • The many online “consumer review” sites mainly offer individuals’ reactions to particular products, which is not useful if you want to learn about a product in general. Consumer reviews are a bit suspect because it is easy for a seller to arrange for favorable reviews and a competitor to post unfavorable reviews.
  • You can compare prices online at sites like and
Shopping will be more efficient and satisfying if you plan ahead. Once you have basic information about a product, you can decide what is important to you and how much you can afford to spend. You can
  • Check local ads in print or online to get a realistic idea of the local prices, and to learn what stores are most likely to have what you are looking for.
  • If you have a long list of items, like a supermarket list, write them down. (Remember to take your list with you.)
  • Check to be sure you have the relevant information about size, color, and style.
  • Try to stick to your plan, including the budget.
Regulate your time and energy. When you are tired, hungry, or in a big hurry, you are more likely to make mistakes—to buy something just to get it over with, or to get overwhelmed by a “bargain” that gives you more than you want and costs you more than you planned to spend.
  • Try to allow enough time to shop without undue pressure.
  • Notice any personal signals, such as a headache or hunger, that tell you it’s time for a break.
Watch the impulse buying. Especially if you are on a tight budget, try to avoid buying anything not on your list, from the “today only” specials to the candy bars at the checkout line.
Consider the relative importance of cost and quality. Sometimes it pays to spend more and get better quality.
  • If you are buying a car or other big-ticket, long-lasting item, it may be better to spend more and get a better product.
  • In contrast, if you are buying a swimsuit for a child who will almost certainly grow out of it next summer, there’s little point in spending more than the minimum necessary to make it through the season.
Read the fine print, if there is any. For example,

Subscribe now! Only $3 a month!

may be followed in very small print by

“for the first 60 days, after which it will be $30 per month. Subscriptions are for a minimum of one year and price is subject to change without notice.”

Use your own judgment under pressure, whether from a friend or a pushy salesperson.
  • Friends are usually there because you welcome their opinions.
  • Well-trained sales people will almost always have suggestions about what additional items you should buy.
  • You’re the person who will pay the bill and use the purchase. It’s wise to listen to others, but you need to make your own decisions.


Bargains may or may not be the real thing. There are plenty of real bargains around. Among other places, you can find them
  • at stores that routinely reduce prices on merchandise after it has been in the store for a set time,
  • at post-Christmas or mid-summer sales,
  • at “outlet” stores,
  • in promotional offerings at new stores, and
  • at thrift and used-furniture stores, although it may be harder to separate the junk from the deals.
But the slogan “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t” applies to some other kinds of bargains:
  • The man on the street who offers you a laptop computer for an “unbelievably low price” almost certainly has something to hide.
  • The repairman who volunteers that he will fix your problem after work hours for less than his company charges is already cheating his employer. Why should he treat you any better?
  • The jewelry store that’s been having a “going-out-of-business” sale for the past year is actually staying in business, presumably by pretending its actual prices are reductions.
Bargains work when
  • you’re knowledgeable enough to judge whether you’re truly getting one, and
  • there are safeguards if something goes wrong:
    • Can you return the merchandise?
    • Will the company repair it?

Shopping Online

Buying things online gives you access to a huge assortment of products and is very convenient, as well; you can shop at any time, and purchases are sent directly to your home (although someone may need to be there to receive the package). Or you may just want to browse online to get an idea of styles and prices of items you need.
  • Most online sellers are honest and reliable.
  • Many are large, well-known retail chains.
  • Others that have no actual retail stores are equally good sources.
If you have any doubts about the reliability of an online store, you may be able to check it out at, which has information about many sites.

Online swap sites are exchanges where registered users can list items they want to give away and look for items they need. This option can be useful if, for instance, your family has outgrown a crib and you need a bed; or if you have clothes you no longer want.
  • Before you sign up on a swap site, it’s a good idea to
    • browse through the items listed, note who is listing them, and determine how often people are listing items;
    • read through the FAQs carefully so you know what is and is not allowed, and
    • find out what you can do if something goes wrong with a swap. To find swap sites, you can google “online swap sites.”
Swap sites tend to come and go, so note carefully the dates of reviews and other postings.

Online personal seller sites. You can also find money-based exchanges, where individual sellers list items for sale. Some, such as, are auction sites, where buyers can enter bids of different prices, and the item is sold to the highest bidder. The owners of sites like these supervise them closely to protect potential buyers from fraud, but a few additional precautions are in order when you are shopping on them.
  • Unless you are buying a standard item, it’s advisable to limit your purchases to items located where you can actually see them before you buy.
  • Some things are quite expensive to ship, and shipping charges may or may not be included in the price stated.
  • You need to know what to do in the rare case that an item you buy through the site is not what it was represented to be.
Ordering online. Some important precautions when you order online include the following:
  • Double-check before you click Submit or Buy, to make sure that the merchandise you ordered is in stock, and that it is correctly listed on the order.
  • Check and understand the shipping and return policies so you know when to expect your order, and what to do (and how much it will cost) if you want to return it.
  • Make sure you are using a computer with up-to-date antivirus software.
  • Print out or save all online receipts so you have an exact record of the transaction, including the order number, in case of a dispute.
  • If you aren’t familiar with the merchant’s name, see comparison shopping sites such as and to ensure that you are buying from a legitimate merchant, not a scammer.
When you provide your email address, you can expect a barrage of advertisements. Businesses that advertise by email are required to offer you a way to cancel these ads. If you don’t want to get these emails, look in the small print at the very end for instructions on how to “unsubscribe.”

Paying online. There are several ways to pay for online purchases:
  • Bill Me Later is an online service that lets you purchase from merchant members without a credit card.
    • You order and purchase from a participating store on their Web site.
    • Bill Me Later will bill you.
    • You can pay through an online checking or savings account, a written check on your account, or a cashier’s check.
    • There is no charge to join Bill Me Later, but you will pay a high interest rate on any overdue balances.
  • PayPal is an online service that you can use to pay for purchases at many online sites.
    • Rather than giving your personal credit information to a merchant, you can give it to PayPal, which will then reimburse the merchant.
    • You can also link your Pay Pal account to your bank account, which will allow you to transfer money from a PayPal account to the bank or send money to another PayPal subscriber.
  • You can use your credit or debit card.
    • Before you enter your personal information and credit card number, it’s important to make sure that the SSL sign or padlock is showing in the browser’s address bar. If it’s not on the page that is requesting your personal and financial details, don’t enter them. Cancel the transaction and shop elsewhere.
    • Note that if your debit card information gets stolen, you are more exposed to loss than if your credit card information is stolen; so if possible, avoid using a debit card.

Problem Purchases

Things you buy sometimes turn into problems, rather than solutions. Products may not arrive, may arrive damaged, may not be as described, or may fall apart on the second wearing. Service may be slow or incompetent. Especially with high-tech items, support personnel may be ill-trained or difficult to understand. You can use the methods described in Personal Problems to correct these situations, whether dealing with the government or private companies.

The runaround. Sometimes you run into an exasperating sequence of referrals, as if no one will take responsibility. This is a common problem with computer issues: A software company blames a hardware company or Internet provider, and the hardware company or Internet provider blames the software company.
  • One approach is to get a second opinion from a knowledgeable person about where responsibility really rests.
  • If the situation is serious enough to justify the effort, keep track of the different people you have contacted and the dates of the contacts, and write a letter to the boss—the director of the agency, the president of the company, or the government office that regulates the company.
Try not to take this experience personally. Getting the runaround is indicative of a poorly managed organization, not a reflection on you.