Taste

You can’t dispute it, people say. Everyone is entitled not only to his or her opinion (which is debatable) but to his or her own taste as well. You may like Norman Rockwell or Pop music, but I prefer Rembrandt and Beethoven. So it goes.

But is it true? Just because we hear these platitudes on every side doesn’t make them true. People cling desperately to all sorts of nonsense — especially these days. Let’s just ask whether there is such a thing as “good taste.” What would it amount to? Knowing that then perhaps we can talk intelligently about “bad taste.”

To begin with, good taste is a function of that thing I am always going on about: restraint. In art, for example, when the artist exhibits not only imagination and skill but also restraint, when a decorator doesn’t fall into the trap of “more is better,” but shows restraint in the arrangement of colors and shapes, one might contend this reflects good taste. Flaubert once said “discipline makes art of impulse.” That’s about it. But we could argue about this until the proverbial cows come home. You like what you like and I what I like. And we all know I am an intellectual snob, an elitist who thinks that everyone should be liberally educated. So there! Ignore what I say.

But take the following example where ESPN — in this case — shows a singular lack of restraint and, I would say, exhibits very bad taste.

One of the features of the ESPN sports broadcasts is the segment called “Not Top Ten.” These are supposed to be sports gaffs that occur during the week, things that just sort of happen and we find them funny. They are designed to make us laugh at human foibles. And they are, in fact, usually quite funny.

But recently ESPN chose to include in their list of “Not Top Ten” the crash of the “Sooner Schooner,” a smaller version of the covered wagons that took our ancestors West. It is the symbol, the mascot, if you will, of the Oklahoma football team and it races on the field before every game with the crowd cheering madly. In this case the schooner took too sharp a turn and the entire rig came off its base and threw the occupants, including a young woman, to the ground. Several people were hurt, though none seriously. In any case it was not funny. Humor stops when someone gets hurt. If there is a rock in the pie thrown in the face of the clown and he gets cut we do not laugh; if the person under whom the chair is removed as they try to sit hurts his spine, we do not laugh. In a word, we laugh until sympathy enters in. Humor demands distance and is an entirely intellectual response; emotions do not enter in — especially sympathy for another human being.

When the schooner fell over the crowd was aghast — as well it should be. But ESPN, in its wisdom, decided it was funny and they included it in their list of “Not Top Ten” for the week which they put forward as simply another humorous incident in a sporting event. But it was not.

Thus, I submit, we have here a clear case of bad taste on the part of ESPN. They showed a singular lack of restrain and tried to pass off the hurling to the ground of at least two people and the trashing of the schooner itself as a humorous event. It was not. And anyone who thought it was should make an appointment to have his or her head examined. As so should the producers at ESPN.

Show some restraint. Separate out those things that are genuinely funny (and which therefore do not involves the harm of humans or animals) and skip the events that show people being thrown to the ground while the crowd (which exhibited much greater restraint and good taste) looked on aghast.

Taste can be good or bad and we can quibble about art and music. But when people are hurt, it is not funny and it is in bad taste to include such an event in a list of seemingly funny events, designed to make people laugh, on this or any sports show.

The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.

Mother Earth

I recently commented on a blog by my pal Emily who had reported on the novel The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Emily wondered aloud if perhaps humans have lost their contact with the earth, and I cited the example of the modern farmer sitting high atop his twelve-wheel tractor, air-conditioned and navigated by computers in which the farmer sits listening to country/western music. I exaggerate for effect — he may listen to Beethoven or Vivaldi for all I know. But you get the picture — the farmer is probably hired by a corporation, and that is not an exaggeration.

In any event, one does wonder what has been lost when humans ride in huge machines and never touch the earth from which we draw sustenance and from whence we all came and to which we will all eventually return. The great writer Joseph Conrad wondered aloud about the same sort of thing — except that he was reflecting on the replacement of the sailing ships he worked on for so many years by the steamships that rudely shoved them aside.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

In his reflections on his life at sea, titled The Mirror of the Sea, Conrad mentions “affectionate regret which clings to the past.” Indeed. He himself served briefly — the last time as captain — on steam ships, but he hated them and left the British merchant marine, which he served for twenty years, primarily because he could no longer find a sailing vessel to command. They were declared redundant, as the English would say. Conrad’s loss is our gain as he then became one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever set pen to paper (and he a Pole who never spoke English until he went to sea with the merchant service as a 17 year-old boy!).  Conrad, who waxes poetic in several chapters about the wind, reflects on the changes he saw:

“Here speaks the man of the masts and sails, to whom the sea is not a navigable element, but an intimate companion. The length of passages, the growing sense of solitude, the close dependence upon the very forces that, friendly today, without changing their nature, by the mere putting forth of their might, become dangerous tomorrow, make for that sense of fellowship which modern seamen, good men as they are, cannot hope to know. And, besides, your modern ship, which is a steamship, makes her passages on other principles than yielding to the weather and humoring the sea. She receives smashing blows, but she advances; it is a slogging fight, and not a scientific campaign. The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieve your end.”

As we grow older we do naturally tend to reflect on old times, though in his superb movie “Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen shows us the dangers that lie in thinking that everything was truly better “back then.” However, at the risk of falling into the trap Allen warns us about, I find myself drawn to the profound remark of one of my other favorite writers, George Eliot, when she wishes nostalgically for a time when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Not only have we lost touch with our Mother Earth, we have lost touch with the world itself in our hurried pursuit of material success in the conviction that faster and bigger are better when they are not and that all movement forward in time means progress when it assuredly is not. Perhaps we might all slow down a bit and look around to appreciate what a beautiful world we humans seem to have grown apart from.

My Friend Lloyd

I worked with Lloyd for 35 years and he is still one of my closest friends. We are both old retired farts and we get together from time to time for coffee to catch up and exchange witticisms. He thinks I am funny, so I love having him around. He is a gentle and interesting man and I cherish his insights into the workings of the human mind.

I used to listen to MPR in my office and Lloyd would stop by and listen with me. One day I had the radio on and was grading papers so I wasn’t really listening, though I did realize that I was listening to Beethoven’s violin concerto. Lloyd listened for a while and asked if it was Fritz Kreisler playing. I didn’t know, because I had turned the radio on part way through the piece, but when they identified the performer after the piece was finished it turned out it wasn’t Kreisler. But it was a student of his whom Lloyd recognized immediately. “You could hear the master’s touch,” Lloyd assured me. Kreisler had apparently broken the little finger on his left hand as a child and taught himself to switch to the next finger when playing the high notes. Lloyd assured me that Kreisler taught his pupils to do that and you could hear it when it happened. Well, he could hear it. I was lucky to recognize the violin!

Lloyd once appeared in court as a witness to an automobile accident that occurred a block away. His description of the accident was the most accurate one the police managed to get from several witnesses who were even closer to the accident. In the Summers he worked with a friend doing small carpentry jobs: replacing siding and shingling roofs, that sort of thing. He also taught himself to work with power tools, including a ban-saw, so he could manufacture clock parts. He repairs clocks in his spare time. He has fixed a cuckoo clock of mine a couple of times. It works beautifully.

People are often amused by the sight of Lloyd walking in Winter all over Marshall, a town of about 12,000, with his wool ski cap turned around backwards on cold days to protect his entire face. He says he doesn’t care about the back of his head: he has hair there. His face needs the warmth on below zero days in the Winter. He walked daily the three miles from his home to the University, and since his retirement he walks to the YMCA for his daily workout and then to the “Bagel and Brew” for his cup of coffee with his friends. It doesn’t matter how much snow is on the ground or how hard the wind blows. He is a familiar sight to all who drive past him, Lloyd and the latest of four dogs he has had since I first  knew him.

As you may have gathered by this time, my friend Lloyd is blind. He has been blind from birth and he is perhaps the most remarkable man I know. I have told him repeatedly that he is my hero. He shows more courage every day just doing “ordinary” things than anyone I know. He is gentle and caring, always upbeat and cheerful, his hearing is extraordinary (as is his memory), and he is well read. And he refuses to recognize anything as impossible. He is a remarkable man and I love him dearly.

Huxley Revisited

My friend Emily January wrote an excellent exposition and commentary on Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. In commenting on Emily’s blog, I made mention of the extended conversation toward the end of the novel between two of the main protagonists, John (the “savage”) and Mustapha Mond (“The Controller”). The former came lately to the Brave New World from wild and uncivilized America and brought with him the perspective of Shakespeare’s collected works to a world that had lost any desire it may ever have had to read anything. Mustapha Mond runs the show and has a most provocative discussion with the savage about the values and goals of Brave New World in which, the savage insists, “everything is too easy.”

Regarding this novel (which Aldous Huxley, Emily and I all admit is not great literature) I mentioned in two earlier blogs [and here] that a disturbing number of the students I had assigned to read the book in bygone days had no idea whatever what it had to do with them. I will now answer that question: everything.

Our part of the world is rapidly becoming the dystopia Huxley envisioned, though it may differ in certain particulars. But the central issue, as Mond explains to the savage, is that the sole meaning of human life in B.N.W. centers around experiencing pleasure, which we have also come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Mond’s world everything else today has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is free with no strings attached. We are not permitted to suffer. We have lost the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say), and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill….or two. Or we party hardy.

In one of the late chapters the savage asks Mustapha, “Art, science — you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” And the conversation proceeds from there. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. It’s all about reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our lives.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist and the “free” churches. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion — which requires sacrifice and self-denial — with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them no matter what (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our Brave New World. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will never produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations often came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage disagrees.

In a word, the Brave New World we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it) but not human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that they are sadly deluded: the prison bars that Huxley points to and which surround them are invisible to them. These people are amused and easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live — just as Huxley feared.