Since moving to Europe, I have spent more time looking at art than probably my entire life before. The continent is simply stuffed with art—in cathedrals, churches, palaces, castles, or sometimes just sitting in the street. And of course I cannot neglect to mention Europe’s many art museums, many of them the best in the world.

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Perhaps my favorite of these (the only competition is the Prado) is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It is spectacular. Rarely can you find so many masterpieces in one place, arranged with such exquisite taste. In the middle runs a corridor, filled with statues—of human forms, mostly. They run, reach, dance, strain, twist, lounge, smile, laugh, gasp, grimace. Near the entrance is a bust of Goethe, his hair swept back, his enormous forehead exposed; and nearby is a model of the Statue of Liberty, standing serene and majestic on her pedestal.

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But for me, the real treat was the paintings. Every gallery was a feast for the eyes. There were naturalistic paintings, with a vanishing perspective, careful shadowing, precise brushstrokes, scientifically accurate anatomy, symmetrical compositions. There were the impressionists, a blur of color and light, creamy clouds of paint, glances of everyday life. There was Cézanne, whose simplifications of shape and shade lend his painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire a calm, detached beauty. Then there were the pointillists, Seurat and Signac, who attempted to break the world into pieces and then to build it back up using only dabs of color, arranged with a mixture of science and art.

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Greatest of all was van Gogh, whose violent, wavy lines, his bright, simple colors, his oil paint smeared in thick daubs onto the canvas, make his paintings slither and dance. It is simply amazing to me that something as static as a painting can be made be so energetic. Van Gogh’s paintings don’t stand still under your gaze, but move, vibrate, even breathe. It is uncanny.

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Pointilism

His self portrait is the most emotionally affecting painting I have ever seen. Wearing a blue suit, he sits in a neutral blue space; the air itself seems to be curling around him, as if in a torrent. The only colors that break the blur of blue are his flaming red beard and his piercing green eyes. He looks directly at the viewer, with an expression impossible to define. At first glance he appears anxious, perhaps shy; but the more you look, the more he appears calm and confident. You get absolutely lost in his eyes, falling into them, as you are absorbed into ever more complicated subtleties of emotion concealed therein. Suddenly you realize that curling waves of air around him are not mere background, but represent his inner turmoil. Yet is it a turmoil? Perhaps it is a serenity too complicated for us to understand?

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I looked and looked, and soon the experience became overwhelming. I felt as if he was looking right through me, while I pathetically tried to understand the depths of his mind. But the more I probed, the more lost I felt, the more I felt myself being subsumed into his world. The experience was so overpowering that my knees began to shake.

I left and sat down on a bench nearby. I was exhausted. By this time, I’d been walking for six hours; my feet were blistering, my legs were sore. Yet even though I was ragged, I felt magnificently alive. My every sense was on edge. My skin tingled, my ears twitched, my eyes took in every subtlety of line, color, and texture. I felt acutely sensitive to all my surroundings. And although my body was worn out, a kind of spiritual craving drove me onward. I had to see more.

I pushed myself to my feet, and then looked around. The museum was full with every kind of person. A man went by, pushing a stroller with a sleeping child, as a guide spoke to him in English; his wife strayed behind, snapping photo after photo with an old camera. To my right, two German girls were on their phones; to my left, an elderly French couple was having a rest on the bench. Everyone spoke in a hushed, respectful tone. They crowded around paintings, elbowing one another for space; they bent over to get a closer look, stroking chins. And the thought dawned on me that museums are really bizarre places.

Often I wonder what an alien visitor would think if she (or it?) observed us looking at art in a museum. I think the alien would find it totally incomprehensible. We pay good money in order to gain entrance to a big building, so we can spend time crowding around brightly colored squares that are not obviously more interesting than any other object. Indeed, I suspect the alien would find almost anything on earth—our plant and animal life, our minerals, our technology—more interesting than a painting. Perhaps the alien would conclude that this was a kind of religious ritual; considering how much respect we give to these objects, he might suspect that they represent gods. Or perhaps the alien would conclude that it is simply a form of mass psychosis?

I think the alien would be confused because human art caters to a human need—specifically, an adult human need. This is the need to cure ennui.

§

Boredom hangs over modern life like a specter, so pernicious because it cannot be grasped or seen. I often think of something Dostoyevsky said: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” This same sentiment was expressed, years later, by the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss, in his book Tristes Tropiques. He used to enjoy mountain scenes, because “instead of submitting passively to my gaze” the mountains “invited me into a conversation, as it were, in which we both had to give our best.” But as he got older, his pleasure in mountain scenery left him.

And yet I have to admit that, although I do not feel that I myself have changed, my love for the mountains is draining away from me like a wave running backward down the sand. My thoughts are unchanged, but the mountains have taken leave of me. Their unchanging joys mean less and less to me, so long and so intently have I sought them out. Surprise itself has become familiar to me as I follow my oft-trodden routes. When I climb, it is not among bracken and rock-face, but among the phantoms of my memories.

These two literary snippets have stuck with me because they encapsulate the same thing, the ceaseless struggle against the deadening weight of routine. Nothing is new twice. Walk through a park you found charming at first, the second time around it will be simply nice, and the third time just normal.

The problem is human adaptability. Unlike most animals, we humans are generalists, able to adapt our behavior to many different environments. Instead of possessing instincts, we form habits. By habits I do not only refer to things like biting your nails or eating pancakes for breakfast; rather, I mean all of the routine actions performed by every person in a society. Culture itself can, at least in part, be thought of as a collection of shared habits. These routines and customs are what allow us to live in harmony with our environments and one another. Our habits form a second nature, a learned instinct, that allows us to focus our attention on more pressing matters. If, for whatever reason, we were incapable of forming habits, we would be in a sorry state indeed, as William James pointed out in his book on psychology:

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volutional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

But there is a danger in this. Making the same commute, passing the same streets and alleys, spending time with the same friends, watching the same shows, doing the same work, living in the same house, day after day after day, can ingrain a routine in us so deeply that we become listless, even depressed. A habit is supposed to free our mind for more interesting matters; but we can also form habits of seeing, feeling, tasting, even of thinking, that are stultifying rather than freeing. The creeping power of routine, pervading our lives, can be difficult to detect, precisely because its essence is familiarity.

One of the most pernicious effects of routine is to dissociate us from our senses. Let me give a concrete example. A walk through New York City will inevitably present you with a chaos of sensory data. You can overhear conversations, many of them fantastically strange; you can see an entire zoo of people, from every corner of the globe, dressed in every fashion; you can look at the ways that the sunlight moves across the skyscrapers, the play of light and shadow; you can hear dog barks, car horns, construction, alarms, sirens, kids crying, adults arguing; you can smell bread baking, chicken frying, hot garbage, stale urine, and other scents too that are more safely left uninvestigated. This list only scratches the surface.

And yet, after working in NYC for a few months, making the same commute every day, I was able to block it out completely. I walked through the city without noticing or savoring anything. And any stray sound, sight, or smell that did float into my awareness was soon enough banished. I had stopped really looking at the city, and was only glancing at it. I was paying attention to my senses only insofar as they provided me with useful information: the location of a pedestrian, an oncoming car, an unsanitary area. My lunch went unappreciated; and my coffee was not enjoyed. The changing seasons went unremarked; the fashion choices of my fellow commuters went unnoticed. It isn’t that I stopped seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, but that my attitude to this information had changed.

This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as you experience when waiting in line at the DMV; it is boredom as a spiritual malady. It is when we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. It is caused by a certain attitude toward our senses. When afflicted by ennui, we stop treating our sensations are things in themselves, worthy of attention and appreciation, but merely as signs and symbols of other things.

To a certain extent, we all do this, often for good reason. When you are reading this, for example, you are probably not paying attention to the details of the font, but are simply glancing at the words to understand their meaning. Theoretically, I could use any font or formatting, and it wouldn’t really affect my message, since you are treating the words as signs and not as things in themselves.

This is our normal, day to day attitude towards language, but it can also blind us to what is right in front of us. For example, an English teacher I knew once expressed surprise when I pointed out that ‘deodorant’ consists of the word ‘odor’ with the prefix ‘de-’. She had never even thought of it. And just recently I finally had the realization that the word ‘freelance’ must come from mercenary soldiers (a free lance). These examples are trivial enough, but I think they well illustrate how estranged we can be from our day to day realities, and how treating things as symbols prevents us from giving them their proper scrutiny.

I think this attitude of ennui can extend even to our senses. We see the subtle shades of green and red on an apple’s surface, and only think “I’m seeing an apple.” We feel the waxy skin, and only think “I’m touching an apple.” We take a bite, munching on the crunchy fruit, tasting the tart juices, and only think “I’m eating an apple.” In short, the whole quality of the experience is ignored or at least underappreciated. The apple has become part of our routine and has thus been moved to the background of our consciousness.

Now, imagine treating everything this way; imagine if all the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells were treated as routine. This is an adequate description of my mentality when I was working in New York, and perhaps of many people all over the world. The final effect is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. Nothing fulfills or satisfies because nothing is really being experienced.

This is where art comes in. Good art has the power to, quite literally, bring us back to our senses. It encourages us not only to glance, but to see; not only to hear, but to listen. It reconnects us with what is right in front of us, but is so often ignored. To quote the art critic Robert Hughes, the purpose of art is “to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.” (As I’ll explain later, I don’t quite agree that art doesn’t use argument.)

Last summer, while I was still working at my job in NYC, I experienced the power of art during a visit to the Metropolitan. By then, I had already visited the Met dozens of times in my life. My dad used to take me there as a kid, to see the medieval arms and armor; and ever since I have visited at least once a year. The samurai swords, the Egyptian sarcophagi, the Greek statues—it has tantalized my imagination for decades.

In my most recent visits, however, the museum had lost much of its power. It had become routine for me. I had seen everything so many times that, like Levi-Strauss, I was visiting my memories rather than the museum itself. But this changed during my last visit.

It was the summer right before I came to Spain. I had just completed my visa application and was about to leave my job. This would be my last visit to the Met for at least a year, possibly longer. In short, I felt emotional. I was saying goodbye to something intimately familiar in order to embrace the unknown. This heightened emotional state made me experience the museum in an entirely new way.

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Statue of Marcus Aurelius from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Somehow, the patina of familiarity had been peeled away, leaving every artwork fresh and exciting. No longer did the exhibitions on the ancient world represent merely archaeological artifacts; the objects were now powerful works of art. I began noticing things I hadn’t before: I observed the grains in the stone used in Egyptian statues. I tried to imagine the amount of skill, patience, and time it would have taken to sculpt the folds on a Roman toga. I mentally compared the styles used in Greek and Hindu sculptures of gods, wondering what it said about their cultures. In short, I stopped treating the artwork as icons—as mere symbols of a lost age—but as genuine works of art.

This experience was so intense that for several days I felt rejuvenated. I stopped feeling so deeply dissociated from my world at work, and began to take pleasure again in little things. While waiting for the elevator, for example, I looked at a nearby wall; and I realized, to my astonishment, that it wasn’t merely a flat plain surface, as I had thought, but was covered in little bumps and shapes. It was stucco. I grew entranced by the shifting patterns of forms on the surface. I leaned closer, and began to see tiny cracks and little places where the paint had chipped off. The slight variations on the surface, a stain here, a splotch there, the way the shapes seemed to melt into one another, made it seem as though I were looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock or the surface of the moon.

I had glanced at this wall a hundred times before, but it took a visit to an art museum to let me really see it. Routine had severed me from the world, and art had brought me back to it.

§

Reality is always experienced through a medium—the medium of senses, concepts, language, and thought. Sensory information is detected, broken down, analyzed, and then reconfigured in the brain. While a microphone might simply detect tones, rhythms, and volume, we hear cars, birds, and speech; and while a camera might detect shapes, colors, and movement, we see houses and street signs. The difference between these machines and us is not the information we take in, but what we do with it.

In order to deal efficiently with the large amount of information we encounter every day, we develop habits of perceiving and thinking. These habits are partly expectations of the kinds of things we will meet (people, cars, language), as well as the ways we have learned to analyze and respond to these things. These habits thus lay at the crossroads between the external world of our senses and the internal world of our experience, forming another medium through which we experience (or don’t experience) reality.

Good art forces us to break these habits, at least temporarily. It does so by breaking down reality and then reconstructing it with a different principle—or perhaps I should say a different taste—than the one we habitually use.

The material of art—what artists deconstruct and re-imagine—can be taken from either the natural or the cultural world. By ‘natural world’ I mean the world as we experience it through our senses; and by ‘cultural world’ I mean the world of ideas, customs, values, religion, language, tradition. No art is wholly emancipated from tradition, just as no tradition is wholly unmoored from the reality of our senses. But very often one is greatly emphasized at the expense of the other.

A good example of an artform concerned with the natural world is landscape painting. A landscape artist is quite clearly breaking down what she sees into shapes and colors, and putting it together on her canvass, making whatever tasteful alteration she sees fit. Of course, no landscape painter lives in isolation. Inevitably our painter is familiar with a tradition of landscape paintings, and is thus simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with contemporary and former artists. She is, therefore, simultaneously breaking down the landscape and her tradition of landscape painting, deciding what to change, discard, or keep. The final product emerges as the an artifact of an exchange between the artist, the landscape, and the tradition.

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From the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid

The fact remains, however, that the final product can be effectively judged by its fidelity to its subject—the landscape itself. Thus I would say that landscape paintings are primarily oriented towards the natural world. By contrast, many religious paintings are much more oriented towards a tradition. It is clear, even from a glance, that the artists of the Middle Ages were not concerned with the accurate portrayal of individual humans, but with the evoking of religious figures through idealizations. The paintings thus cannot be evaluated by their fidelity to the sensory reality, but by their fidelity to a religious aesthetic.

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From the Museo de Bellas Artes in Valencia

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that artworks oriented towards the natural world tend to be individualistic, while artworks oriented towards the cultural world tend to be communal. The reason is clear: art oriented towards the natural world reconnect us with our senses, and our senses are necessarily personal. By contrast, culture is necessarily impersonal and shared. The rise of perspective, realistic anatomy, individualized portraits, and landscape painting at the time of the Italian Renaissance can I think persuasively be interpreted as a break from the communalism of the medieval period and an embrace of individualism.

And where does literature fit into all this? To answer that question, let us stand in front of the portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche, which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. Proust stands before a black background, dressed in an equally black tuxedo. Amid this darkness, his pale face seems to shine like the moon. He has round and soft features, and appears somewhat delicate and frail, perhaps sickly. He looks rather like a boy impersonating a man, with a small, thin mustache feebly clinging to his upper lip. In truth, he isn’t much to look at. His face is neither handsome nor compelling. But once you have read some of his fiction, you will realize that beneath this unremarkable exterior is an extraordinary mind.

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Proust’s great novel, In Search of Lost Time, exemplifies everything literature is supposed to be. First, it reconnects us with our own language. Proust’s long, twisting, and exquisite sentences require patience to unravel. They can often be frustrating, since by the time you’ve reached the end you have entirely forgotten the beginning. More than that, they are just strange. Nobody but Proust ever wrote like Proust: 

Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.

Proust’s strangeness extends beyond the realm of language, of course. He was an astonishingly sensitive and delicate person. He spent hours analyzing his emotions, noting all the tiny, fleeting feelings we normally ignore. He investigated the role memory places in perception, and how the flow of time is experienced. Added to that, Proust spent much time studying the manners and customs of his milieu. The interplay of personalities at soirees, the complex social cues, the jockeying for power among members of high society—all this formed the material for his great novel. In the course of this, he described for us many memorable characters. One of my favorites is the Baron de Charlus, a whimsical dandy prone to fits of rage. This character was, apparently, modeled on Robert de Montesquiou, whose portrait fittingly hangs next to Proust’s own.

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So literature not only reconnects us with language, but with human life. For example, many have said that people wouldn’t fall in love if it weren’t for love stories. Not that writers invented love, but that without writers love might be simply ignored. Good love stories get us to pay special attention to romantic feelings, to attach to them a heightened importance, and to savor the exhilaration of a love affair. Love is a good example, because it is both a psychological and a social phenomenon; it is the experience of a feeling, but also the exchange of personalities, with all the difficulties and subtleties involved therein.

Of course literature does not confine itself to romantic love, but deals with every human feeling. Good novels bring us back to the basic stuff of human relationships, to envy, resentment, tension, desire, and all the other emotions to complex to name. My favorite novels explore the fraught relationship between these feelings and our social environments, how the inner world pushes against the outer and vice versa.

But what about music? In visual art and fiction, wherein real things are depicted, the relationship between a work of art and the real world seems clear, at least relatively. In music, however, the artwork can seem totally disconnected from the reality of our senses. Sonatas and ballads don’t rearrange or represent our soundscape in any obvious way. A symphony is not normally made in a dialogue with the sounds of cars sputtering and people shouting. You cannot play a portrait on the saxophone.

Musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from the cultural rather than the natural world, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses. This is because sound is just too abstract. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object; but without rigorous training—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping.

To deal with this problem, rigorous and formal ways of creating and classifying sounds were invented. A tradition develops with its own laws and rules; and it is these laws and rules that the composer manipulates. Just as you’ve seen many trees and human faces, and thus can appreciate how painters re-imagine their appearances, so have you heard hours and hours of music in your life, most of it following the same or similar conventions. Thus you can tell (unconsciously, perhaps) when a tune does something unusual. Not many people, for example, can define a plagal cadence (a cadence from the IV to the I chord), but almost everyone responds to it in Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

If music is primarily oriented towards tradition and not nature, does listening to music help us to reconnect us with our senses? I think so. Although the main variables under a composer’s control are cultural products like melody, harmony, and rhythm—qualities that are not so apparent in non-musical noise—good musicians must also pay attention to pitch and intensity, qualities that can be found in any sound. Speaking from my own experience, after I became very interested in music in high school, I did become more acutely sensitive to everyday sounds around me, since listening intensely to music trained me to focus my attention on my ears.

Nevertheless, it may well be true that music helps more to connect us with the social than the natural world. After all, music is an inherently social art form. We seldom experience music in solitary contemplation, like we do with paintings or books, but more often with friends and family, or with perfects strangers at a concert. Groups of musicians are much more common than solo acts, and music is still quite oriented around live performances. Added to that, music is an integral part of many social rituals—political, religious, or otherwise. Whether we are graduating from high school, winning an Oscar, or swearing in a president, music will certainly be heard. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that energetic music is necessary for any good party; as much as alcohol, music can lower inhibitions by creating a sense of shared community. Music thus plays a different role than visual art, connecting us to our social environment rather than to the often neglected sights and sounds of everyday life.

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Monument to Beethoven in the Tiergarten in Berlin

While I’m at it, I want to make the case for philosophy as a kind of art. Philosophy is art when it uses argument to undermine our everyday assumptions, forcing us, often against our will, to confront the thin foundations of our mental worlds. Good philosophy forces us to pay attention to arguments, logic, inferences, deductions and inductions, premises, conclusions, explanations, assumptions. Philosophy is art when it makes us stop taking ideas for granted. Instead of a reconnection to our senses, we get a reconnection to our concepts. I am, of course, not suggesting that this is the only or even the primary function of philosophy. But this artistic function of philosophy is nowadays, especially in analytic circles, often overlooked.

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The above descriptions are offered only as illustrations of my more general point: art occupies the same space as our habits, the gap between the external and the internal world. Painters, composers, and writers begin by breaking down something familiar from our daily reality. The material can be shapes, colors, ceramic vases, window panes, the play of shadow across a crumpled robe; it can be melodies, harmonies, timbre, volume, chord progressions, stylistic tropes; it can be adjectives, verbs, nouns, situations, gestures, personality traits.

Whatever the starting material, it is the artist’s job to recombine it into something different, something that thwarts our habits. Van Gogh’s thick daubs of paint thwart our expectation of neat brushstrokes; McCartney’s plagal cadence thwarts our expectation of a perfect cadence; and Proust’s long, gnarly sentences and philosophic ideas thwart our expectations of how a novelist will write. And once we stop seeing, listening, feeling, sensing, thinking, expecting, reacting, behaving out of habit, and once more turn our fill attention to the world, naked of any preconceptions, we are in the right mood to appreciate art.

§

But it is not enough to be simply challenging. If this were true, art would be anything that was simply strange, confusing, or difficult. Good art can, of course, be all of those things, but need not be. Many artists nowadays, however, seem to disagree about this. I have listened to several works by contemporary composers which simply made no sense for my ears, and have seen many works of modern art that were completely uninteresting to look at. I even have trouble appreciating many parts Joyce’s of Ulysses, but doubtless this will mark me out as a philistine to many.

To a large extent, to be sure, this is just a matter of taste. But this does not mean that any and all statements about aesthetics are valueless. Deciding who to be friends with is also a matter of taste; but whether somebody is kind or cruel, polite or rude, pleasant or unpleasant, can often be agreed on by most people. Certain qualities in people are almost universally admired: courage, intelligence, virtue, commitment, originality, sincerity. Aristotle made a list of these qualities about 2,500 years ago, and they remain largely unchanged today. Similarly, I think that the qualities of good art can be roughly described. These qualities will not be formal. I think it is folly to say that all good paintings must look like such and such, and all well written sentences must be written like so and so. What formal qualities are embraced or shunned is largely a matter of fashion. But the measure of success or failure is, I think, far more general.

The experience of good art can be compared with a deep conversation with a friend—a friend perhaps older and wiser, but a friend nonetheless. You empathize with the friend, and they empathize with you. You see one another’s point of views, and disagree without malice when your views don’t coincide. You teach each other and learn from each other. You hold each other to a high standard. Just as a friend is not silent when you do something wrong, an artist is not silent when he sees something wrong with his society. You are honest, but not blunt. You are, in short, equal partners.

Pretentious art, art that merely wants to challenge, confuse, or frustrate you, is quite a different story. It can be most accurately compared to the relationship between an arrogant schoolmaster and a pupil. The artist is talking down to you from a position of heightened knowledge. The implication is that your perspective, your assumptions, your way of looking at the world are flawed and wrong, and the artist must help you to get out of your lowly state. Multiple perspectives are discouraged; only the artist’s is valid. Or perhaps some art can be better compared to a kind of know-it-all at a party, who flaunts his knowledge rather than shares it, who talks for himself rather than for others.

And then we come to simple entertainment. Entertainment, such as blockbusters, most pop music, and in general the majority of what’s on the internet, can be compared to the class clown. He does nothing but tell jokes and play pranks; he is quick witted and clever; he can get the entire room crying with laughter. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with this clown—indeed, he can be extremely pleasant—but he doesn’t add anything permanent to your life. You laugh in his presence, and forget him in his absence. You cannot learn from him, since is not concerned with knowledge but only in hilarity. You cannot empathize with him, since you don’t know much about him and he knows nothing about you. By the way, I don’t mean to imply that all comedy is lowly or that art can’t be funny; to the contrary, one of my favorite living artists is Louis C.K. I only mean that pure entertainment is quite different from genuine art.

Perhaps the most emblematic form of pure entertainment is advertizing. However well made an advertisement can be, it can never be art; for its goal is not to reconnect with the world, but to seduce us with fantasy. Advertisements tell us we are incomplete. Instead of showing us how we can be happy now, they tell what we still need. When you see an ad in a magazine, for example, you are not meant to scan it carefully, paying attention to the purely visual qualities. Rather, you are forced to view it as an image. By ‘image’ I mean a picture that serves to represent something else. Images are not meant to be looked at, but glanced at; images are not meant to be analyzed, but understood. Ads use images because they are not trying to bring you back to your senses, but lure you into a fantasy.

Don’t misunderstand me: There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasy; indeed, I think fantasy is almost indispensable to a healthy life. However, the fantasies of advertisements are somewhat nefarious, because ads are never pure escapism. Rather, the ad forces you to negatively compare your actual life with the fantasy, conclude that you are lacking something, and then of course seek to remedy the situation by buying their product.

Most entertainment is, however, quite innocent, or at least it seems to me. For example, I treat almost all blockbusters as pure entertainment. I will gladly go see the new Marvel movie, not in order to have an artistic experience, but because it’s fun. The movie provides two hours of relief from the normal laws of physics, of probability, from the dreary regularities of reality as I know it. Superhero movies are escapism at its most innocent. The movies make no pretenses of being realistic, and thus you can hardly feel the envy caused by advertisements. You are free to participate vicariously and then to come back to reality, refreshed from the diversion, but otherwise unchanged.

The prime indication of entertainment is that it is meant to be effortless. The viewer is not there to be challenged, but to be diverted. Thus most bestselling novels are written with short words, simple sentences, stereotypical plotlines stuffed full of clichés—because this is easy to understand. The books aren’t meant to be analyzed, but to be read quickly and then forgotten. Likewise, popular music uses common chord progressions and trite lyrics to make hits—music to dance to, to play in the background, to sing along to, but not to think about. This is entertainment: it does not reconnect us with our senses, our language, our ideas, but draw us into fantasy worlds, worlds with spies, pirates, vampires, worlds where everyone is attractive and cool, where you can be anything you want, for at least a few hours.

Some thinkers, most notably Theodor Adorno, have considered this quality of popular culture to be nefarious. They abhor the way that people lull their intellects the sleep, tranquilized with popular garbage that deactivates their minds rather than challenges them. And this point cannot be wholly dismissed. But I tend to see escapism in a more positive light; people are tired, people are stressed, people are bored—they need some release. As long as fantasy does not get out of hand, becoming an goal in itself instead of only a diversion, I see no problem with it.

This is the difference between art and entertainment. And what about craft? Craft is a dedication to the techniques of art, rather than its goals. Of course, there is hardly such a thing as a pure craft or a pure art; no artist completely lacks a technique, and no craftsman totally lacks aesthetic originality. But there are certainly cases of artists whose technique stands at a bare minimum (think punk rock), as well as craftsmen who are almost exclusively concerned with the perfection of technique.

Here I must clarify that, by technique, I do not mean simply manual things like brush strokes or breath control. I mean more generally the mastery of a convention. Artistic conventions consists of fossilized aesthetics. All living aesthetics represent the individual visions of artists—original, fresh, and personal. All artistic conventions are the visions of successful artists, usually dead, which have ceased to be refreshing and now have become charmingly familiar. Put another way, conventional aesthetics are the exceptions that have been made the rule. In the Renaissance, the use of perspective, the depiction of Greco-Roman figures (as opposed to Christian ones) and the use of realistic anatomy were wonderfully new. But by the mid-nineteenth century, these conventions had grown stale and tired.

This can be exemplified if we go and examine the paintings of William-Adolfe Bourgeureau in the Musée d’Orsay. Even from a glance, we can tell that he was a masterful painter. Every detail is perfect. The arrangement of the figures, the depiction of light and shadow, the musculature, the perspective—everything has been performed with exquisite mastery. My favorite painting of his is Dante and Virgil in Hell, a dramatic rendering of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Dante and his guide stand to one side, looking on in horror as one naked man attacks another one, biting him in his throat. In the distance, a flying demon smiles, while a mound of tormented bodies writhes behind. The sky is a fiery red and the landscape is bleak.

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It’s a wonderful painting, I think, but it seems to exist more as a demonstration than as art. For the main thing that makes painting art, and the main thing this painting lacks, is an original vision. The content has been adopted straightforwardly from Dante. The technique, although perfectly executed, shows no innovations of Bourgeureau’s own. All the tools he used had been used before; he merely learned them. Thus the painting, however impressive, ultimately seems like a technical exercise.

Bourgeureau represents the culmination of what is called the ‘academic style’—a style that many, even in Bourgeurea’s day, found to be totally exhausted. It was against this type of technical mastery and artistic sterility that the impressionists were rebelling. They sensed, correctly I think, that they could no longer create genuine art through refinements of the convention, but had to break more radically.

And how did the impressionists respond? By going back to their senses. They realized that the perspective, although created to add realism to paintings, now served to separate paintings from everyday life. For, to quote Robert Hughes again:

Essentially: perspective is a form of abstraction. It simplifies the relationship between eye, brain and object. It is an ideal view, imagined as being seen by a one-eyed, motionless person who is clearly detached from what he sees. It makes a God of the spectator, who becomes the person on whom the whole world converges, the Unmoved Onlooker.

The impressionists tried something new. They tried to represent, not what it feels to be an Unmoved Onlooker, but to be a part of a scene, your eyes adjusting to the light, blinking from the wind, turning your head this way and that. They stopped portraying imaginary, mythological figures, but pedestrians, city streets, train stations, country picnics. In the process, they not only developed a new way of painting, but of seeing.

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From the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid

§

I fear I have said more about what art isn’t than what it is. That’s because it is admittedly much easier to define art negatively than positively. Just as mystics convey the incomprehensibility of God by listing all the things He is not, maybe we can do the same with art?

Here is my list so far. Art is not entertainment, meant to distract with fantasy. Art is not craft, meant to display technique and obey rules. Art is not simply an intellectual challenge, meant to shock and frustrate your habitual ways of being. I should say art is not necessarily any of these things, though it can and often is all of them. Indeed, I would contend that the greatest art entertains, challenges, displays technical mastery, but cannot be reduced to any or all of these things.

Here I wish to take an idea from the literary critic Harold Bloom, and divide up artworks into period pieces and great works. Period pieces are works that are highly effective in their day, but quickly become dated. These works are too specifically targeted at one specific cultural atmosphere to last. In other words, they may be totally preoccupied with the habits prevalent at one place and time, and become irrelevant when time passes. To pick just one example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I sincerely loved, may be too engrossed in the foibles of 20th century American culture to be relevant to generations to come. Its power comes from its total evisceration of American ways, and luckily for Lewis that culture has changed surprisingly little in its essentials since his day. The book’s continuing appeal therefore depends largely on how much the culture does or doesn’t change.

Thus period pieces largely concern themselves with getting us to question certain habits or assumptions. The greatest works of art, by contrast, are great precisely because they reconnect us with the mystery of the world. They don’t just get us to question certain assumptions, but all assumptions. They bring us face to face with the incomprehensibility of life, the great and frightening chasm that we try to bridge over with habit and convention. No matter how many times we watch Hamlet, we can never totally understand Hamlet’s motives, the mysterious inner workings of his mind. No matter how long we stare into van Gogh’s eyes, we can never penetrate the machinations of that elusive mind. No matter how many times we listen to Bach’s Art of Fugue, we can never wrap our minds around the dancing, weaving melodies, the baffling mixture of mathematical elegance and artistic sensitivity.

Why are these works so continually fresh? Why do they never seem to grow old? I cannot say. It is as if they are infinitely subtle, allowing you to discover new shades of meaning every time they are experienced anew. You can fall into them, just as I felt myself falling into van Gogh’s eyes as he stared at me across space and time.

When I listen to Bach, read Shakespeare, and when I look into van Gogh’s eyes, I feel like I do when I stare into the starry sky: absolutely small in the presence of something immense and immensely beautiful. Listening to Bach is like listening to the universe itself, and reading Shakespeare is like reading the script of the human soul. These works do not only reconnect me to my senses, helping me to rid myself of boredom. They do not only remind me that the world is an interesting place. Rather, these works remind me that I myself am small and insignificant, and should be thankful for every second of life, for it is a privilege to be alive somewhere so beautiful and mysterious.

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6 thoughts on “The Musée D’Orsay and a Theory of Aesthetics

  1. Thanks very much for sharing your essay. I really, really enjoyed. Perhaps as you could guess, we could have a fruitful, lively discussion about each and every one of your paragraphs. So, in the spirit of sharing some of my initial thoughts, I have included the below. I’d be happy to continue our conversation on art and aesthetics. Perhaps a good first step would be for you to revisit your essay and ask me a few specific questions on the topic covered, topics you still might be fuzzy on or feel strongly about. Also, you might want exchange further reflections respecting my comments below. Look forward to hearing from you again! —— Glenn
    This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as you experience when waiting in line at the DMV; it is boredom as a spiritual malady. It is when we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. ——— Well stated. One of my Buddhist teachers said this general sense of boredom is the main issue in the modern world, particularly the modern West. This gets to the Buddhist concept of dukka, which is best illustrated as ‘a wheel out of round’ or, moving through life with a clunk, clunk, clunk instead of smoothly – so unsmooth that most people find it impossible to sit quietly in one spot for 5 minutes without reaching for their cell-phone or hankering after a smoke, drink, chatter, etc. etc. etc.
    One of the most pernicious effects of routine is to dissociate us from our senses. ——– That’s right. As a young man I worked in an insurance office. I could see those around me shut down emotionally and shut down sensually in order to adjust and adopt to the routine of 9 to 5.
    Musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from the cultural rather than the natural world, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses. This is because sound is just too abstract. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object; but without rigorous training—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping. —— Your ideas here could use a bit more elaboration. I assume you are contrasting how people can draw a bird (even if it is only body, head, beak, feet) but they couldn’t play a birdcall on a violin or oboe. However, drumming is the most basic of human arts -anybody can tap on a drum as part of a drum circle.
    The experience of good art can be compared with a deep conversation with a friend—a friend perhaps older and wiser, but a friend nonetheless. You empathize with the friend, and they empathize with you. ——- Bulls-eye. This is one of the key points I made in my review of ‘Essays in Art’ by Elliot Deutsch when I wrote: “According to Deutsch, to know art is to actively participate in it, to come to know it on its own terms. Thus, in a way, coming to know art is like coming to know another person in the sense that we have to open ourselves up, to become vulnerable, to be willing to be moved and possibly to be changed.”
    the ad forces you to negatively compare your actual life with the fantasy, conclude that you are lacking something, and then of course seek to remedy the situation by buying their product. ——- You didn’t use the word ‘manipulation’ but that’s what an ad is all about – manipulation to buy their product (and tacitly, manipulation to buy into their worldview).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thanks so much for the thoughtful response!

      By chance, I sent you this right before a trip I’m making in the north of Spain. I’m spending a week on the Camino de Santiago, which is an ancient pilgrimage route. Consequently, I probably won’t have much internet access next week, unfortunately.

      I’m curious to learn more about Buddhism. At present, I know close to nothing. Are there any books you’d recommend?

      Apropos to music. Yes, probably my section on music needs work. My main point was only that music is not representational. Even when you’re doing something like tapping a beat on your knees, it isn’t a representation of an everyday sound. Rather, in music the sound is organized according to abstract principles, such as the tonal intervals between notes, the temporal intervals between sounds, etc. I am basically getting this from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, both of whom held music in high esteem because it was non-representational (i.e. purely abstract).

      One thing I was interested in asking you is whether what I have written even qualifies as an aesthetic theory. Perhaps my idea is just a truism spruced up in fancy language (which is unfortunately a large segment of intellectual writing) or perhaps someone notable has thought along similar lines. Honestly, I have almost no experience in aesthetics, and my essay was motivated more by my visit to museums than by any intellectual considerations.

      Thanks for reading!

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      1. One great book for Westerners making their first acquaintance with Buddhism — Openness Mind by Tarthang Tulku. I wrote a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/772649296

        Yes, yes, that’s absolutely correct about music being nonrepresentational as per Schopenhauer and Fritz. These two thinkers are key in my own study of art, music and aesthetics.

        To my mind, your essay is more in the tradition of David Hume, that is, not academic philosophy but a gentleman-philosopher.philosophizing. Actually, I much prefer this type to academic theory. So, there certainly is a lot of theory but your theory is informal as contrasted with formal theory. ..

        If you do audible.com and listen to books, you are in luck. There is Aesthetics by Charles Taliaferro, which I listened to multiple times. I also wrote a review of this book: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/786120147

        If you don’t do audible, one of the clearest, most enjoyable books on aesthetics is a little case study book called Puzzles About Art. I wrote a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/784711330

        Have a good trip! We can pick up the conversation any time you would like, including when you return in a week or so. Thanks again for your essay and questions! When it comes to art and aesthetics, I’m always up for discussion.

        Glenn

        Like

      2. One great book for Westerners making their first acquaintance with Buddhism — Openness Mind by Tarthang Tulku. I wrote a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/772649296

        Yes, yes, that’s absolutely correct about music being nonrepresentational as per Schopenhauer and Fritz. These two thinkers are key in my own study of art, music and aesthetics.

        To my mind, your essay is more in the tradition of David Hume, that is, not academic philosophy but a gentleman-philosopher.philosophizing. Actually, I much prefer this type to academic theory. So, there certainly is a lot of theory but your theory is informal as contrasted with formal theory. ..

        If you do audible.com and listen to books, you are in luck. There is Aesthetics by Charles Taliaferro, which I listened to multiple times. I also wrote a review of this book: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/786120147

        If you don’t do audible, one of the clearest, most enjoyable books on aesthetics is a little case study book called Puzzles About Art. I wrote a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/784711330

        Have a good trip! We can pick up the conversation any time you would like, including when you return in a week or so. Thanks again for your essay and questions! When it comes to art and aesthetics, I’m always up for discussion.

        Glenn

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks so much for your recommendations, Glenn! I have added both the books on meditation and aesthetics to my to-read list. One day I hope to go on a Buddhist/meditation binge as well as an aesthetic theory binge, but presently I’m still stuck on Spanish history and Western religion, so I’m not sure exactly when I’ll get to read these. Hopefully pretty soon!

        Like

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