A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).
To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it? “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190. I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt: serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.
Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft). But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer. Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller! (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).
Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else: pleasure. For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object. Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?
This is the crucial point of this post.
I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:
1) Yes, they like it. It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic.
2) They don’t care either way. They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort. They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno. They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.
3) Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort: the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps? Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it? It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure: enjoying oneself through the eyes of others? (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)
Whether you accept the former or the latter theory, you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place: they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.
The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain
Forgive the poor quality of the photo – I’m not posting it for appreciation, but — as a document. What you see are gulls flying at night between the minarets of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul. They do this for hours. They are clearly not hunting or courting, but — enjoying themselves. They find the scene as beautiful as the men down below do, and, like some of the men down below, they, too, just can’t stop admiring it.
In a related phenomenon, the deer of Cape Cod are known to come out on the beach at dawn and at sunset and “nobody knows why”. In fact, why they come out is very clear to anyone who observes them and suspends for the moment the Judeo-Christian belief that animals are “just soul-less machines”: like everyone else, deer come out to the beach to see the colors of the sky.
The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain, one we share with many lower species – some of them (birds) much more ancient than we.
Some nice interiors, though.
(Of course, an Italian director who fails to show you a good interior must be mentally retarded).
The usual story is Orhan Pamuk: one reads two of his books (Red, Snow), gets excited (wow!), goes out and buys everything the man has ever written only to discover that… nothing beyond the first two (or three — White was OK, too) – books are worth reading. Marco Bellocchio recently delivered the same bait-and-switch: hooked me with Buon Giorno, Notte, and L’Ora di Religione, only to let me seriously down with Il Regista di Matrimoni. Why does this happen?
Partly, the problem is the production system: a novelist is expected to produce a novel a year; a film-maker, a film a year – because “the market expects it: if you do not, you drop out from public view, become forgotten and have to start from scratch”. This is actually not true, but this is the official industry party-line pushed heavily by agents and promoters who live on the stream of new works and artists come to believe it. But this annual procreation adds up to something like 40 works over a lifetime. And no one – not even Michelangelo – can possibly have in him enough material for 40 masterpieces, especially if his life becomes reduced to turning out novels (or films). (To write a novel, just like making a film, takes a lot of time). To make an interesting novel (or film) one has to live, experience, and reflect, i.e. get away from his desk/camera; and there is just no time for any of it if you are “successful”. Truly great film directors (e.g. Kubrick) and great novelists (e.g. di Lampedusa) know it and go slow – that is, they shuddup when they have nothing to say.
I would be prepared to pay serious money to know the truth behind works like Bellocchio’s Il Regista or Pamuk’s Black. Did they get published/released because the author has come to believe in his own infallibility (“yes, it does seem weak when I look at it, but perhaps my eyesight has gone weak, how can I possibly turn out a bad work, surely, if it is by me, it must be great, and perhaps one day I will see it”) or did they get published because the author/director decided that the public was stupid (“not a great film, I know, but they can’t tell anyway, why worry about it too much”).
Why worry about it? A Chinese proverb explains why: a tiger dies and leaves its skin, a man dies and leaves his reputation.
Writes Rebecca Willis:
Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—”what a hideous lamp”, for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: “I love that lamp, I wonder where it’s from?” It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department.
Rebecca Willis is no dummy. It takes well demonstrated brains even to write for The Economist; presumably more better brains to reach the associate editorship of The More Intelligent Life (as the title clearly states). Yet, for what is probably the most important decision in her life – the choice of life partner – she was prepared to compromise her tastes: she went ahead and… married him.
It’s not clear from the article how she makes that work. Is her husband allowed to express his tastes at home, forcing Rebecca to live with wall colors she hates, night-lights and bathroom towels which make her go YUCK? Or have the two decided for the functional neutrality in the house, living permanently in some sort of hotel-lcum-trainstation-like off-white/stainless steel dullity which does nothing for the eye? Since neither decision means living in a home which does not provide the comfort of pleasure, can either decision truly be said to be intelligent life, let alone more intelligent?
As Rebecca observes, plenty of people make the same decision – opt for a life with a person whose tastes they do not share, with, presumably the same consequence: in other words, they do violence to their own tastes for the sake of a relationship. Personally, I could never ever do this: I feel too strongly about my tastes; their violation offends me too much and their satisfaction is too rewarding to countenance giving them up. I could never have my living room wall-papered in a way I did not care for: I spend too much time there. The wallpaper I do have gives me a sense of pleasure and contentment, it turns my living room into an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise pretty ugly world.
Yet, it would appear, other people do not think that way: they are perfectly willing to compromise their wallpaper (and aesthetic pleasure in general) for other values (Sex? Companionship? The increased purchasing power of double income?). Perhaps their tastes aren’t especially strong i.e. aesthetic appreciation does not actually give them any meaningful/detectable pleasure. This would explain why they can go on writing the sort of garbage they write about art – because if not entirely aesthetically blind they are, at a minimum, aesthetically dim-sighted. If so, here is the central reason why one cannot discuss art with some/most people. If they do not possess a strong aesthetic sense themselves, I can never explain to them what I mean anymore than a bat could explain to them echolocation.
Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft
Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it. Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting? (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter: the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can). Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth? (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?) Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).
All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.). GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well: starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too: what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?
Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking. In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original: much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:
Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.
But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect. (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel). That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.