Even to use the word “Aesthetic” in casual conversation is a sure way to alienate your audience. It is a foreign, archaic word, like “metaphysics” or “quotidian” or “stoic.” It’s not just that our vocabulary has narrowed. We have become a practical people. Functionality, objectivity, measurability are the words of the day. And really why not? Beauty (it is supposed) will not save the ozone layer, or make the computer faster, or improve your SAT scores. Art is not science. Science got us to the moon. And thus, the virtue in having aesthetic concerns or of being as “aesthete” is lost to us. That is, except in the domain of food. And there it is very much alive.
Consider the cultural phenomenon of the foodie.
What kind of person is this? Simply put, this is a person who loves food. No, this is a person who loves food. They love it so much that they obsess over the ingredients of every dish, how they are grown and procured and assembled. They are up to date on Georgian or rustic French cuisine, on who has invented a new food substance and whether it is worth trying, and on which day of the week is best to order fish. Though they cook themselves and are eager to throw together a dinner party, they know they will forever be amateurs. Chef is a term that has not suffered a loss of potency. Chef is a term of honor. And thus, a chef can withstand a drubbing if he or she deserves it when the foie is poorly made for a foodie is above all a critical thinker when it comes to the pleasure of eating. A foodie eats with the body and the mind.
Understandable as this is, why then are so few people capable of speaking about art in this same way?
These days, one cannot talk of a poem without immediately talking about meaning. Forget the curious concatenation of words, forget music, and rhythm and tone. Forget effect. Right away, someone wants to tell us what the poem means. And if not meaning, then context: The psychology of the author, the effect of the war, the region he came from. So many us cannot help but make a novel into a history lesson, or worse, a moral discussion. This is a book about child abuse, and that one is about race in America, and this one here is a book about the civil war. For most people, a trip to through the gallery of a museum is nothing less than a really visceral Powerpoint on the history of art. Or it is an obligation. One goes to the symphony the same way one goes to church: every so often, guilt-ridden and half-hearted.
Well, why is that?
If we return to our food analogy, then we will see that this is the opposite of our foodie. This would be like someone who ate only for nutrition. Just so many grams of protein, so many of carbs; this for beta-carotene and that for Vitamin D; today a famine, tomorrow a feast and that is the way we will fool the body into thinking its has eaten when really it has not.
Perhaps there is a place for this kind of thinking. Perhaps there is a personality that needs such austerity. But tell me, who would you rather go out to dinner with? Would you slave for hours in a kitchen for such a person? Ask yourself a question: When are you most happy? When you watching the food network with its gratuitous use of sizzling butter, the long pan of the counter-top replete with puddings, and meats, and sauces. Or when you watch an exercise show? In fact, there isn’t a show for people who eat according to nutrition only. Such a show would be sad and depressing and lonely.
Here’s a tip for those who are looking to derive greater pleasure from art: talk about it the way you would talk about food and you will derive so much more pleasure from the task.
Feast your eyes on a painting, but do not ask what is in it. Read that novel, but do not expect it to change your life. Did your breakfast change your life? Savor a poem the way you would savor a leg of fried chicken. Leave no meat on the bone! Listen to music the way you catch the scent of morning bacon; Both should transport you to a seated position of quiet waiting. When you see a film, go ahead and ask yourself How on earth did they make this? Write to the director and ask if you can have the recipe. He probably won’t give it! But if he does, and you are so inclined, make something of your own. You will quickly see that it is no easy task to cook something up. You will find yours will be gelatinous and cold. But you will still eat it and be thankful and fulfilled.
But would it have meaning? Yes, of course it would. But one need not reduce an art experience to “meaning” to make it “meaningful.” Sometimes all that is required is a little quiet time to digest.
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