Zelophehad’s Daughters

Art is a Vitamin

Posted by Kiskilili

There are those who say that Mozart’s music, injected into your eardrums for a requisite period each day in therapeutic dosages, enhances your brain power. (Or not.) And if you can just painstakingly sludge through those timeless classics like the Iliad and The Way of All Flesh, you’ll generate beta waves and flex your cultural muscles with gusto! (Even better, imbibe their essential nutrients via prepackaged episodes of “Wishbone.”) But for the true gluttons for punishment among us, bent on self-induced indoctrination into the world of refined tastes and eager to collect conversational tidbits for cocktail parties (or even non-alcoholic fruit-juice shindigs), museums of all stripe await. (A few years ago while my sister Melyngoch and I poked around the exhibits in Boston’s Old South Church, we noticed two kids plugging the nose of a statue of Phyllis Wheatley and giggling. “Children!” their mother called out in a tone nothing short of vociferous. “Get yourselves over here right this instant! There’s a very important historical document you need to see!”)

I’m not opposed to “Wishbone” by any means. I’m definitely not opposed to babies listening to Bach. (I’m not even opposed to people plugging statues’ noses.) But I have to admit to experiencing a certain horror when I find that half the classical albums in a particular store’s collection feature naked infants and titles like “Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power.” I’m sure the albums themselves are just fine. I’m leery, though, of the cultural impulse that takes a medium Bach understood as a holy means of glorifying his Creator and repackages and recodes it as a sort of postnatal vitamin.

Undoubtedly there are benefits to this approach. As long as Appreciating Culture is a civic duty incumbent on all responsible citizens, maybe some of the better qualities of our art, much like the nutritional value of canned vegetables, are absorbed in spite of themselves. Maybe some who would otherwise never have encountered certain of the world’s works of beauty and passion are blessed with their discovery and thoroughly enriched by the experience.

But I wonder about drawbacks as well. Once we’ve made culture Good for You (and therefore, necessarily unpleasant, a duty to be borne with all patience and meekness in the holy name of self-improvement), it seems its very raison d’etre has been warped. Aerobic workouts certainly have value, but they’re a poor substitute for dance.

For my part, I found The Way of All Flesh (never heard of it?) insufferably dull. My attention span in museums rarely lasts longer than half an hour (and is better gripped by objects of historical interest than by visual arts). I may be compromising Bach’s vision (or rather, audition), but, when listening to his cantatas, I invariably skip the recititatives. And (is there a genetic predisposition for this?) I think most of Mozart’s music is trite, the aural equivalent of Marshmallow Creme. There’s so much that’s of interest to me that I can’t be bothered to bore myself into cultural betterment. (Three cheers for nurturing your inner Philistine!)

At the same time, I’m convinced that familiarity is a necessary element in appreciation, and further that appreciation does not always come without effort. So I have to concede that the process of determining which works of “high culture” I will find most enriching and worth investment in energy is far from straightforward. The first time I heard it, I was not particularly taken with much of what I now consider my favorite music. At the same time, there’s an enormous body of music (even classical! oh, the heresy) that I’m confident I will never like, no matter how much I expose myself to it. Familiarity does not necessarily result in appreciation. (And what, finally, is exposure minus appreciation good for?)

Canonization of art, like canonization of scripture, is of course primarily a human endeavor subject to all the usual foibles. But it is also a form of enshrinement that simultaneously makes something more and less accessible. The danger is that the art itself gets lost in its own surrounding fog of obligation.

This fog extends beyond content even to form. Several years ago I read a column in which a concerned reader wrote in to ask whether she was experiencing the full benefits of reading when she listened to books on tape rather than forcing her eye to follow words across a page. Is there a sense, she wondered, in which this was cheating? (And while we’re at it, could someone please tell me whether it’s cheating to eat cheesecake with a spoon instead of a fork?)

One thing I suspect this attitude betrays is our characteristic concern with products over processes, the product, in this instance, being our own selves (intellectually and culturally enhanced and inducted into the realm of the sophisticated).

During the Enlightenment, rigid principles of logic were misapplied to language, resulting in a burgeoning of explicit grammar rules where none had been before. These stringent attitudes toward language usage naturally found fertile ground among the middle class, whose hallmarks include insecurity and a lust for upward mobility. (Such factors combined to spawn that strange and savage creature we’ve all encountered somewhere, sometime–the Grammar Fascist–known especially to prey on hapless elementary school children.) I suspect a very similar dynamic obtains in the way canonized art (understood loosely) functions in our present social milieu.

Obviously art serves a variegated range of functions. But at the forefront, I hope, stand intellectual and aesthetic pleasure.

So in the best tradition of Bruce R. McConkie (“Job is for people who like Job”), I submit that Henry James is for people who like Henry James.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing.

13 Responses to “Art is a Vitamin”

  1. 1.

    Ahh, rambling is something with which I’m both intimately familiar and thoroughly appreciate! ;) Ramble away! (Music therapy sounds like such a fascinating career!)

    What you say about music makes a lot of sense to me–I think an important part of appreciation involves recognizing patterns. Whenever I’ve encountered a new style of music (when I first started listening to baroque music, or first heard Ray Lynch, or Thomas Tallis), I think I couldn’t understand the sorts of underlying patterns to which it subscribes but also subverts; so it sounded fairly random, which is to say, like noise. I think you have to understand something, which sometimes involves time and effort, to appreciate it; but of course understanding doesn’t necessarily result in appreciation.

  2. 2.

    I’m convinced that familiarity is a necessary element in appreciation,

    This statement took me back to my undergrad music therapy courses. We discussed this topic quite a bit. The most accepted idea, if I recall correctly, was that there must be an element of familiarity but also an element of surprise to maintain a listener’s interest. The familiarity aspect is why our western ears are more likely to appreciate Mozart or even a three-chord pop song over, say, an Indian raga. Most of us are not familiar enough with the latter to understand and appreciate it.

    I like the idea that Henry James is for people who like Henry James. I’m not one of those people- I havent’ been able to get through any James novels.

    I trace part of my love for art back to an elementary school art class. The teacher had prints covering the walls from floor to ceiling and we had to memorize the titles and artists. Now as I encounter these works I have some familiarity and feel more drawn to them. It’s been a great pleasure to see the originals of many of those prints I memorized so many years ago.

    I really enjoyed your thoughts, Kiskilili. Thanks for bearing with my random ramblings.

  3. 3.

    Now as I encounter these works I have some familiarity and feel more drawn to them.

    I hate doctor’s visits. But last week, in the sterile examiniation room of my new doctor, I stared at a Van Gogh print — the same that hung in our dining room as a child. I don’t think I’ve seen it since. The colors, the broad strokes were amazingly comforting — and I decided quite irrationally that I liked this doc before she walked in the door.

    K: You are making a similar argument (albeit much more eloquently) to that of a high schooler I tutor who is fed up with the “important books” foisted upon him in high school English class. This year, most of my 8th graders loved “To Kill A Mockingbird” but at least one boy hated it — and this was his reason, “Everyone tells me how *wonderful* it is, how much I’ll *love* it. How could I like it after all those comments?” But this is one of the reasons why I have taught Shakespeare to all my students — Macbeth to fourth grade, Romeo and Juliet to seventh — I want them to learn to love it before they know they are “supposed” to read it (and therefore hate it). I’m amazed by their passion for the Bard, for speaking in iamb, for sword fighting. I’ll pass on Henry James, but there something to introducing children to “classics” at a young age, before they decide to dislike what they never had a chance to love.

  4. 4.

    Deborah, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me. I can relate to the kids who stubbornly refuse to like things simply because they’re told they should (does this indicate a personality defect? probably). My high school English teacher told us there was no girl who wouldn’t love Jane Eyre. With a rousing recommendation of that nature, I steered absolutely clear of it, determined to hate it. (I read it several years later in college and loved it, in spite of myself). On another occasion while the class was delivering oral reports on optional reading in which we were asked to rate books, I was informed that anyone who gave a classic a low rating had a low IQ. Even with this warning, I gave my book a 1 out of 10, because I genuinely found it boring. (I may be overly concerned with individuality and authenticity.)

    Of course, I like quite a lot of “classic” literature and “classical” music both. But I do think canonization can backfire–most of us dislike what we’re instructed we should like. I think I grew up with the idea that “literature” referred to holy tomes written for other people–smart, sophisticated, special people–not for grubby people like me.

    But I do think the value of literature, for example, lies in its very particularity rather than its alleged universality, and for that reason I doubt there’s any work of art that’s going to appeal to every single person. And I think that’s okay.

    (What the implications of all this are for scripture would be fascinating to explore.)

    Anyway, it sounds like you’re a fabulous teacher–and heaven knows, our junior high schools can use more of those. :)

  5. 5.

    (It occurs to me that this same dynamic sometimes applies to what I’m inclined to call “low-brow canonization” as well. For example, I believe I am the single non-Harry Potter fan in my family. Some of my friends have helpfully tried to teach me how to love HP, which, I confess, has only calcified my dislike. I have a truce with my sisters (I hope!): my dislike of HP is in no way to be construed as a judgment on their interest. No accounting for taste and all that.)

  6. 6.

    (What the implications of all this are for scripture would be fascinating to explore.)

    Don’t you think this, in some ways is the genius of the Hebrew Bible — love stories, war stories, poetry, exposition, geneology, riddles, sermons, sex, death. Much more troubling and yet personalizable (not a word, I know) than the New Testament or Book of Mormon. I get to love Deborah’s song and Ecclesiastes while someone else analyzes obscure laws and someone else makes a sling shot to take out their older brother.

  7. 7.

    make that *her* older brother :)

  8. 8.

    Oh, I’m not a Harry Potter fan either, Kiskilili, so you’re not alone. Although my wife does frequently prod me to give the books a try. I believe her exact words are something like “Every day you live without having read them is less happy than it otherwise would have been.”

    And I wonder if you might not like The Way of All Flesh if you just read the right version. Really, the one subtitled “A Celebration of Decay” is surprisingly fascinating.

  9. 9.

    Kiskilili – Do you think there might also be some sort of cultural “hazing” involved – forcing people to read unpleasant books merely because you were forced to read them yourself, and pretending that doing so makes one culturally and intellectually superior so you don’t have to admit to the pointlessness of it?

  10. 10.

    Kiskilili and Ziff, I will steer the HP truce through committee if it can be reverse-engineered to include a Star Wars clause. (My merely mild interest in the movies has, as I recall, been made grounds for my expulsion from the family by, ahemAmalthea, the seriously devoted)

    Ziff, it’s interesting to me that you, like my husband, seem to prefer nonfiction. I’ve been begging my husband for years to just give a novel a try. No can do, he says. No hard, cold facts–no time. Is this trait more prevelant on the Y chromosome? But you’re breaking my heart, recommending fun reading just as school starts.

    Deborah, LOL! (You can be my Biblical interpreter anytime–tricky to figure out what moral lessons to draw from some of those stories.) Also, I so wish you had been my junior high English teacher.

    Katya, I think that may be the case of at least some English teachers I’ve endured (a minority, but a loud and overbearing one). I got the distinct impression from one or two that they themselves had never derived an iota of pleasure from the grim and distastefully classical novels they poured down our throats like so much castor oil, and about which we had to fill out worksheet after worksheet.

  11. 11.

    It occurs to me that the impulse to reject or accept cultural canonization might have as much to do with our relationship to the canonizer as anything else. I, for instance, have been guilty of the following things: 1)Being convinced that I would hate basketball because it was embraced by the Neanderthals of my junior high; 2)Summarily refusing to read any book Oprah recommends (and feeling transgressed against when she embraced Cry, the Beloved Country); 3)Preferring the Biblical interpretations of people like Raymond Brown to those of our untrained General Authorities; 4)Refusing to read Harry Potter because everybody else liked them.

    Even though I now play ball every couple of weeks (and read Harry Potter, horrors!), there’s definitely an elitist cast to the other two things. On the other side of the coin is what I might call populist elitism, which is as common as people dismissing the opinion of movie critics.

  12. 12.

    I have few regrets. But I have a few. One big one is that I didn’t expose my children to classical music when they were growing up.
    I love, LOVE, L-O-V-E, rock music. That’s what I played. That’s what I still play. LOUD.
    Guess what all six of my adult children love, LOVE, L-O-V-E? Yep, rock music. I hope I haven’t ruined them for all eternity.
    Oh yea, by the way: CCR rules, as does Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

  13. 13.

    Okay, that’s it. Kiskilili and Ziff, you’re kicked out of the family for failing to appreciate Harry Potter. Eve, you’re kicked out for failing to appreciate Star Wars. The doctrine must be kept pure.

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