Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.
This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.
This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?
I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.
To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.
The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.
Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.
But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.
What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.
Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.
With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.
This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.
Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.
But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.
On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.
In my judgment, the characteristic feature of new art “from the sociological point of view” is that it divides the public into two categories: those that understand it, and those that don’t.
The more I read of José Ortega y Gasset, the more I discover that he was one of the most complete intellectuals of the previous century. During his prolific career he made contributions to political theory, to philosophy, to literary criticism, and now I see to art criticism.
In the title essay of this collection, Ortega sets out to explain and defend the “new art.” He was writing at the high point of modernism, when the artists of the Generation of ’27 in Spain—a cadre that included Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca—were embarking on new stylistic experiments. Somewhat older and rather conservative by temper, Ortega shows a surprising (to me) affinity for the new art. He sees cubism and surrealism as inevitable products of art history, and thinks it imperative to attempt to understand the young artists.
One reason why Ortega is attracted to this art is precisely because of its inaccessibility. An elitist to the bone, he firmly believed that humankind could be neatly divided into two sorts, the masses and the innovatives, and had nothing but scorn for the former. Thus new art’s intentional difficulty is, for Ortega, a way of pushing back against the artistic tyranny of the vulgar crowd. This shift was made, says Ortega, as a reaction against the trend of the preceding century, when art became more and more accessible.
The titular “dehumanization” consists of the new art’s content becoming increasingly remote from human life. The art of the nineteenth century was, on the whole, confessional and sympathetic, relying on its audience’s ability to identify with characters or the artist himself. But the new art is not based on fellow-feeling. It is an art for artists, and appeals only to our pure aesthetic sense.
As usual, Ortega is bursting with intriguing ideas that are not fully developed. He notes the new art’s use of irony, oneiric symbolism, its rejection of transcendence, its insistence on artistic purity, and its heavy use of metaphor. But he does not delve deeply into any of these topics, and he does not carefully investigate any particular work or movement. Ortega’s mind is like a simmering ember that sheds sparks but never properly ignites. He has a seemingly limitless store of pithy observations and intriguing theories, but never builds these into a complete system. He is like a child on a beach, picking up rocks, examining them, and then moving on. He wasn’t one for sand castles.
One reason for this is that he normally wrote in a short format—essays, articles, and speeches—and only later wove these into books. It is a journalistic philosophy, assembled on the fly. Personally I find this manner of philosophizing intriguing and valuable. His books are short, punchy, and rich; and even if I am seldom convinced by his views, I also never put down one of his books without a store of ideas to ponder. He is even worth reading just for his style; like Bertrand Russell in English, Ortega manages to combine clarity, sophistication, and personality. I look forward to the next book.
f“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”
She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.
Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca beforehand. We had booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.
The long, early-morning hours between our arrival and our flight passed slowly and uneventfully, except for the loud, angry outburst of a passenger who was told that he bag was too big to carry-on, and he would have to pay to check it. Ryanair’s flight are cheap; but their fines and extra charges can be murderous.
Finally it was time for us to board. The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.
The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible.
The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” we said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and frightening
Now, far from foreign, the city and the landscape felt comfortingly familiar. It is amazing how fast we get used to things. Only a few months had sufficed to transform a mysterious place into a second home.
I could not get enough of the view. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles of countryside totally empty, except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is so picturesque: for a modern, industrialized country, it has retained much of its rural charm.
Another source of Spain’s natural beauty are its mountains. In minutes the plane was passing over the Madrid Sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies. I tried to read my book—James Michener’s excellent travelogue of Spain, Iberia—but the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the ride glued to the glass.
The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements, for food, perfume, and lottery tickets, clumsily delivered from a script through the low-quality intercom system. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English. I tried to block it out, but it was very distracting. Just when I began to feel very annoyed, however, we left the mainland and were flying over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. A few minutes later we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.
Mallorca (or Majorca, in English) is the largest of the four main Balearic Islands, along with Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “larger island” (Menorca is the smaller one). With a population of 401,270, Palma is both the largest city on the islands and the capital of the whole autonomous region. As its Latin name suggests, these islands were long ago the stomping ground of Romans; and the city of Palma owes its origin to that ancient civilization.
By a lucky coincidence our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at the airport at almost the same time as us, so he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport—one of the biggest in Spain—to sit on the benches in the sun outside.
As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.
Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of North America had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But in Europe the languages stretch back centuries and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana, people from Catalonia call it Catalan, and people from Mallorca call it Mallorquín, even though they differe only by few words and an accent.
Another advertisement caught my attention. It said something like: “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping native Spaniards sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Legions of northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—sick of their cold climates, move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years.
Palma de Mallorca is simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays for the infrastructure, and we get to live there.”)
Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there.
It was a marvelously sunny day. The great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat swayed in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German cyclists would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. I could well understand why the Germans moved here.
We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral. This one of the classic views of Mallorca. As you walk in from the shore you pass through the Parc de la Mar, a lovely park with large pools of crystalline water and fountains spraying aquamarine jets into the air. The sandy-shaded surface of the cathedral seems to rise out of the water, more like a tropical cliff than a medieval church.
An audioguide was included in our visit to the cathedral, and it was one of the best I’ve used. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.
The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space.” These appellations are well-deserved. Unusually, there are rose windows on both sides of the building; and the bigger of these is the largest gothic rose window in the world (13 meters in diameter, and thus about 100 square meters in area). The result is a lot of light.
The cathedral is also voluminous. Among the tallest gothic cathedrals ever built (with the eighth tallest nave in the world, at 44 meters), it stands taller than the massive Cathedral of Seville, and contains 160,000 cubic meters within its walls. And because the cathedral has no central choir (Antoni Gaudí decided to remove it while he was working on the cathedral), the interior feels far more expansive than most gothic cathedrals.
Gaudí was also responsible for the baldachin, which bears the stamp of his originality. A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling; on top are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know how they were made), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Gaudí may have been planning something more elaborate, but he quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).
To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and other episodes from the Gospels. The style is both gruesome and abstract. It is hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, since the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was an excellent work, if a bit excessive.
Our next stop was far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). The castle sitting on a big hill overlooking the whole city, about a mile from the center. In this respect the castle is like the Gibralfaro Castle in Málaga.
After some mucking about (a friendly British resident of the island helped us out), we arrived in the park that led up to the castle. We were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.
The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. It is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. Apparently, the castle successfully withstood two sieges, in 1343 and 1391, but was captured in 1521.
When we arrived the place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up the hill to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?
The castle itself was lovely—though, like all defensive structures, it was not especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.
The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases. This is the Museum of the City of Palma. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand anything. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient.
The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. From here you can see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind, you can see the green mountains of Tramontana. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.
We left and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. After eating in a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep.
We only had one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a small tourist town on the other side of the island.
The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself. The history of the railway goes back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride allows you to see some of Mallorca’s natural beauty.
We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. Once there we found out that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets. As you will see, this was a big mistake.
Soon we were on board and the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks underneath made that satisfying double clacking as we slowly accelerated.
We passed buildings covered in graffiti, overgrown fields and broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.
Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the city and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. The squat, twisted forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged.
We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. On other other side we saw a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the gaping space. This was Sóller.
By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.
This is what the famous tram is for. The tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. We watched it go by as we ate, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tram tickets.
But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar if it was possible to walk to the coast, and he said yes, it isn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk to the port was one hour. This meant we would have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the heck?
Soon we were outside Sóller walking along a highway. Though it was February, the hot Mediterranean sun made it warm enough for t-shirts. Behind us we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Every color was intensified in the intense sunlight.
We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived.
The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a natural port: two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow opening to the ocean. On either side of the port’s mouth stood a white lighthouse. The place was a German tourist’s dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. It reminded me of Robert Hughe’s comment on Mediterranean tourism, that it has been reduced to “endless kitsch, infinitely prolonged.” Though, to be fair, it was exceedingly delightful kitsch.
With the time we had, there wasn’t anything to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular.
My mind wandered until I chanced to see a small white cat. It was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. As I got closer the cat tensed its body and began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it coiled its body and sprang five feet through the air to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws it gripped the canvas covering, steadied itself, it carefully climbed underneath into the boat. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.
Shaking myself from this reverie, I checked the time. We had to go. Actually we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began.
We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?
After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. We still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside.
If you take the train to Sóller, do yourself a favor and buy the tram ticket, too.
We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.
The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, with GF asleep nearby. Once again, I was reading Michener’s travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.
To abolish aristocracy, in the sense of social privilege and sanctified authority, would be to cut off the source from which all culture has hitherto flowed.
Though I do not share Santayana’s sanguine attitude towards the aristocracy, I think this quote does bring up a vital point: the relationship between art and its patrons.
Nowadays we take it for granted that artists make their money the way that anyone else does, by trading their services on the open market. The buying public—concert-goers, music purchasers, companies that need songs for commercials, and so on—is the ultimate art patron. But this has not historically been the case. Wealthy institutions and affluent individuals have more commonly played this role. So what does this shift from artistic feudalism to capitalism signify?
This question is far more than merely financial. For the artist, however proud and independent, cannot help but be influenced by their audience and supporters.
It is easy to deprecate the vulgarity of popular art in the age of capitalism, but I am not sure aristocracy was much better. Goya’s most profound works are not his portraits of his aristocratic confreres, however excellent these may be; and the same goes—with some extremely notable exceptions—for Velazquez’s many portraits of the royal family. There is no logical reason why an aristocracy of power and wealth should also be an aristocracy of taste.
True, hereditary aristocrats, freed from laborious duty, do have more free time to devote to artistic appreciation. Without the necessity to make their way in the world, they may decide to compete in aesthetic refinement or in sponsoring living artists. This is possible, to be sure, and has happened many times in history. But this method of patronage—private, wealthy individuals—can easily lead to self-aggrandizement; the art it fosters, by being too allied to worldly wealth and earthly power, becomes yet another form of conspicuous consumption.
Perhaps the greatest art patron in western history has been, not royals or nobles, but the church. In music and the visual arts, at least, religious patronage has led to some of the greatest accomplishments in our history: the works of Palestrina, Bach, El Greco, Michelangelo. The advantages of church patronage are clear. An institution of enormous wealth, it can recruit the best artists and all the resources they need. More than that, though also prone to self-aggrandizement, the spiritual aims of religious art free it from the worldliness of the hereditary aristocracy.
Even more important, perhaps, is the continuity of tradition fostered by religions: establishing subjects, tropes, styles, and techniques, that are refined and passed down through the ages. How could Bach have written his Mass in B Minor, or Michelangelo conceived the Sistine Chapel, if they had not been the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of religious tradition?
Granting the church its honorable place in the history of art, we may, however, still admit that religious patronage can lead to a sterile conformity. There are only so many ways, and only so many emotions, that can be portrayed in a Madonna and Child; and, in any case, the church will not prove congenial to nonreligious artists—of which history is full. The Dantes of this world may find in the church all they need; but a Rabelais can never be so satisfied. Inevitably a religious organization will overlook or squelch some aspects of the human experience.
This became clear when a new patron emerged in history, far removed from the grandeur of nobility or the magnificence of the church: namely, the mercantile middle-class. The prime example of this are the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. All patrons, to an extent, like to see themselves represented in what they patronize; thus the newly powerful Dutch capitalists gravitated towards private portraits and intimate scenes of daily life.
The artistic advantages of this shift in patronage are obvious, opening up unexplored vistas for artists to explore. Neither an aristocrat nor a clergyman, for example, would think of buying a work like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid—a work that has nothing to do with aristocratic virtues or spiritual consolations. Of course there is a downside to this, since the qualities that help merchants succeed have nothing to do with artistic appreciation; and, even if guided by exquisite taste, bourgeois art pays for its wider scope with limited depth. It is an art of prose, not poetry, with a weaker tradition to guide it and quotidian values to embody.
The ideal situation may be a mixture of patronage, such as was the case with Shakespeare. Having every rung of society as his audience, from paupers to princes, he had to strive for universality—and obviously succeeded. But the bard was clearly an exceptional case. Striving to please everyone can easily turn into pleasing nobody in particular, creating something bland and unobjectionable. While the particular taste of patrons may be constraining for some artists, it may help many others to focus.
In recent years the university has become a major source of patronage, especially for musical composition. The advantage of this is clear in an age when the general public has little to no interest in art music. But the nature of the university, as an institution, can also have negative artistic repercussions. Unlike a church, guided by spiritual values, a university is above all a place of exploration; and thus academic music tends to be experimental. Experimentation is usually an artistic virtue; but when cut off from any common set of aesthetic ideals, art degenerates into intellectual exercise.
The economy of the visual arts has diverged quite radically from either literature or music. In the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, the physical uniqueness of a painting has made it an ideal collectors item. Thus paintings are once more a form of conspicuous consumptions, with wealthy patrons spending millions on single works. And unlike in former times, when the aristocrats were the only ones able to afford art, the easy access to reams of high-quality art puts pressure on them to distinguish themselves through extreme taste as well as extreme expenditure. Given that the prize can be so huge, this is an irresistible incentive to inaccessibility—the competition to appreciate the unappreciatable.
The book and music industries are, by contrast, dominated by a relatively small number of giant publishing houses and record companies. Being companies, their fundamental motivation is profit. This makes them naturally risk-averse, since it is always safer to reproduce success than to bet on something different; and this encourages a conformity to commercially successful styles and topics. Acting as gatekeepers to fame, these companies can therefore exert a standardizing influence. And for obvious reasons these companies favor simple, popular styles in order to maximize their clientele.
But does an artist even need a patron? What about the Dickinsons, the van Goghs, and the Kafkas of the world, toiling away, unknown and unsuccessful, in some remote corner? It is true that many great artists never managed to make a living off their art during their lifetimes, relying on extraneous work or their families for support. And this arrangement does have the key advantage of allowing the artist to pursue her individual vision, without having to adapt her work to any foreign tastes, preserving her originality whole and entire.
Yet even this blessing is not unmixed. For patronage, if it subjects artists to sometimes undesirable pressure, can also give artists the direction and external challenge they need. Not every artist is self-sufficient enough to work in silent obscurity, following the bent of their own genius. The structure imposed by patronage can turn a vague or self-involved aesthetic impulse into a focused piece.
It may seem sordid to think of art in these monetary terms; but, as I hope I have shown, this is not a purely aesthetic question. Part of what gives any age is characteristic art is the way that artists make their living. The internet is now opening new possibilities for artistic entrepreneurs. The ultimate aesthetic effects of this new medium are only just beginning to appear.
Our long delicious winter vacation was coming to a close, but we still had one weekend left. Originally, we planned to stay home and relax; but traveling so much had gotten us addicted. After returning from Ávila, we hastily arranged and booked a trip to Valencia to savor the last gasp of our holiday.
Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. It is situated on the Eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula (a three hour drive from Madrid); and its port has long been, and remains, one of the busiest on the Mediterranean. The city has a deep history; Romans have been mucking around here since well before Christ. The city, as well as the surrounding province, even has its variant of the Catalan language: Valenciano. This language is not just spoken by the people, but it’s officially used; streets are called carrer and not calle here, which confused as we tried to look up the address of our Airbnb.
Our Blablacar driver was a native of that city, and spoke with their characteristic accent. Our fellow passenger was a gato, literally a “cat,” which is the slang term for people whose parents are both from Madrid. This is a lot less common than you might think; most people, if they didn’t themselves move into the city, have at least one parent who did.
Both of them were swell fellows. I tried keeping up with their conversation, but a question I asked inadvertently led them into a deep, energetic political discussion. This was just after the election in Spain, and obviously both of them had a lot to say on the subject. It’s interesting to me how much Spaniards enjoy talking about politics, even among people they hardly know. Americans usually avoid political discussions at all cost, even (or perhaps especially) among family. But these two guys, who had just met, seemed to be having a very deep conversation on the subject.
I wish I understood them. The political situation now in Spain (this was back in early 2016) strikes me as similar in certain respects to that in the States. Particularly, there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment, and this dissatisfaction expressed itself in the formation of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos—something that is unsual for Spain, which has been a two-state country since the establishment of democracy. In the States, this anti-establishment ethos is expressing itself as new candidates rather than new parties, which I think is a consequence of our political system, but I believe the dissatisfaction is the same.
We got to Valencia at around dinner time (for Americans), checked in to our Airbnb—with another welcoming host and another comfortable apartment—and went out to eat. Although we’d only been in the car for three hours, it was about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer here. We went from winter jackets, scarves, and hats to light sweaters. It was even warm enough to eat outside, underneath a fruit tree laden with the famous Valencian oranges. Partially because of its mountainous terrain, Spain is a land of striking climatic contrasts. Still, it’s hard for me to get used to it. All these climatic zones seem jammed next to one another. In the States, we keep our hot and cold zones far apart.
We woke up the next day ready to experience Valencia. As per our usual routine, we visited the cathedral first. But on the walk there, we couldn’t help noticing the graffiti on the walls. Much of it was the usual stuff, but some of it was really excellent. There were abstract pictures of colored squares, detailed images of batman, and several grotesqueries I can’t adequately describe. Most interesting, though, was the image of a ninja that was painted all over the city, on walls, parking machines, in entrances to stores. I couldn’t help thinking that this ninja had some mysterious significance, that it had been drawn by some shadowy organization as a sign, or perhaps as a clue—but to what?
But perhaps the conspiratorial part of my brain was overactive from seeing the spray-painted slogans of anarchists all over the city. “No king, No God, No Owner. Revolution,” they said, under the symbol of anarchy: an “A” inscribed in a circle.
We got to the cathedral. I have to admit that my memories of this cathedral are pretty hazy; after a while, all cathedrals start blending into one another. The façade was the most pretty and distinctive part. At one entrance, the door is connected to a round wall with three levels; it looks like a section from a Roman amphitheater was just stuck on the side.
Outside the cathedral, in the surrounding plaza, high school boys were skateboarding, a fact that GF found particularly amusing.
“Can you imagine just skateboarding in front of something like this?” she said. “Europe is crazy, man.”
We went inside. Skipping the descriptions of the usual beautiful stuff—the altar, the stained glass windows, and so on—I’ll only mention that the Valencia Cathedral holds the best candidate for the true Holy Grail. Of course, there are many other chalices in Europe which are claimed to be this blessed object, but the opinion of most Christian thinkers and historians is apparently that this one in Valencia is most likely to be the real deal. It’s displayed in one of the cathedral’s chapels, somewhat external to the main area.
I sat in a pew for some minutes looking at it, without having any idea what it was supposed to be. All I saw was a shining gold object, nothing more. It was only after we left and GF looked up the cathedral on her phone that we found out. As often happens, admission came with audioguides; but lately, to practice Spanish, we have been asking for these to be set in Castellano. A consequence of this is that the majority of the time we have no idea what we’re looking at.
Next was the Torre de Serranos, an old fortified gate at the north end of town. Valencia used to be completely surrounded by walls (as were most major cities), but now only a few gates remain. What surprised me most was its height. Compared to the gates of Ávila, this one was absolutely massive. The visit was quick: Pay the fee, climb some stairs, and enjoy the view of Valencia. Perhaps since we’d just visited the castle walls in Ávila a few days before, standing on this tower wasn’t especially engaging. But the view is certainly nice. Valencia, like Madrid, is an interesting mixture of modernity and history. For the most part, it looks like any city in the twenty-first century, with concrete and glass buildings, except for the odd medieval tower popping up here and there.
We descended. It was lunch time now, and we knew what we had to eat: Valencian paella. That most famous of Spanish dishes, paella, originated in this city. Paella is often made with seafood—prawns and oysters and so forth—but, as I was informed by my Valencian Spanish teacher, “paella” with seafood is not true paella at all. To be traditional, it has to made with chicken, rabbit, and vegetables. So that’s what we would eat.
(The Spanish can be very finicky with their food; indeed, they are more puritanical than the Inquisition when it comes to paella. Thus the British chef, Jamie Oliver, got into trouble when he posted a photo of paella he made with chorizo. For whatever reason, this is blasphemous in Spain, and Oliver is dragged over the coals by Spaniards on social media. Ironically, however, according to this article, historically chorizo was used in paella. Personally I like it that way.)
Lucky for us, we usually get hungry for lunch a whole hour before most Spaniards, so we had no trouble getting a seat at a good restaurant. In fact, we were the only two people sitting outside. (As our Airbnb host explained to us, the Valencians have a different view of hot and cold; what was a beautiful day for us was a bit chilly for them.) The food was prompt, the waiter friendly, and the paella delicious.
Stomachs full, we went back towards the Torre de Serranos, and then to the Jardines del Real. The name (Royal Gardens) comes from the royal palace of the erstwhile kings of Valencia that used to occupy the area. The palace was demolished in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars in order to prevent the French from occupying it—a move that had no military justification whatsoever, and was partly motivated by bourgeois resentment of kingly privilege.
But I didn’t know that at the time. All I remembered from my conversation with our Airbnb host was that he said the word “palacio” when he recommended it, which led me to believe that there was still a palace to visit.
“Where’s this damn palace?” I said to GF.
“I thought there was supposed to be a palace here.”
We went from one end of the gardens to the other.
“Maybe it’s outside the gardens?” I said. “Think it’s that thing?” I pointed to a tall building.
We walked over to the building and looked up. It was a bank.
“Where is it?”
“Just forget it,” GF said. “Let’s go back to the gardens.”
At least the gardens were lovely. Most memorable was a big bird cage in the center, filled with a dozen or so different species of bird, including one lonely rooster. I thought it curious that all the birds congregated in their own corner with their own species.
We sat in a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the Valencian sun. The weather was perfect, though I was having some trouble appreciating it owing to my bitterness from failing to find that damned palace.
Next we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, also recommended by our Airbnb host. In turn, I’d like to recommend this museum to you, for it was excellent. It’s free to enter; and the collection, though small, is tasteful and impressive. The art is arranged chronologically, with the oldest works near the entrance on the first floor and the most recent by the exit on the second. I enjoyed the older paintings the most. There’ is something about Medieval art, a certain simple tenderness, almost naïveté, that I find especially moving. No attempt is made at realism. The often disproportionate figures, with heads and bodies turned at unnatural angles, stand in an flat space with a gold background.
What’s more, the scenes depicted are often bizarre. One typical example is a portrait of Luke the Evangelist seated before the Virgin, writing his Gospel. The only reason you can tell it’s Luke (the faces are hardly individualized) is because there is a little, tiny bull, the symbol of Luke, pointing with his hoof at the page; the bull even has a halo. Apparently, to the Medieval mind this was not at all strange.
Upstairs there was some masterful Renaissance paintings, including one by El Greco and Velazquez. The difference between the gothic and the Renaissance era paintings is stark. Faces are individualized, bodies are solid, shadow is used to create a sense of space, and perspective transforms the two-dimensional flatland into a three-dimensional world. Medieval paintings are symbols, whereas these are representations. What happened to the European mind to create this huge shift?
We had seen nearly everything in an hour or so, and decided to leave. On our walk out, I noticed a painting of Jesus pouring blood out of the wound into a golden bowl, from which two lambs were drinking. Now, I’ve seen morbid Catholic art before, but this gives me goosebumps.
By the time we walked outside, the sun was setting. We decided that we’d walk down the Jardín del Turia. This is a long park that runs through the center of Valencia. It sits built in a riverbed of the river Turia. Like many major cities, such as Zaragoza and Seville, Valencia grew up along the banks of a river. But unlike those cities, Valencia’s river no longer exists. It was diverted from its course after it flooded in 1957, causing major damage to Valencia. Now the riverbed is home to a park, and quite a pretty one.
It winds its riverine way through town, below street-level, filled with trees, gardens, and ponds. Bridges transport cars and pedestrians overhead. The park was beautiful, but quite long—or at least we thought so, having by now been walking all day. We walked and walked, our feet sore, hoping to get to the end of the park so we could see the sunset on the beach. But we didn’t have enough time, or else underestimated the distance, and the sun had almost totally set before we reached the end.
This didn’t matter so much, for the park was nice enough. Garden after garden went by; palm trees swayed gently above. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalk; kids were skateboarding; adults were bicycling. Eventually we walked through a gate and into a gigantic playground. It must be the biggest playground I’ve ever seen. Instead of a jungle-gym, swings, a slide, or any of that, there was a massive plastic statue of Gulliver, tied down to the ground by the Lilliputians. His body was the playground; kids slid down his stomach, climbed up his cheeks, jumped on his belly button.
There’s something almost sacred about playgrounds. It’s a space that the community devotes purely to enjoyment. Kids from all backgrounds, rich and poor, natives or immigrants, are equal (or nearly so) in this plastic wonderland. They are happy just to run around and feel their legs, to shout and hear their voice. Only the severest misanthrope could remain cold at the sight.
Now it was dark; the day was over. Completely exhausted by now, we walked back to our apartment, had dinner at a burger place, and slept. We still had another half-day in Valencia.
Our first and only stop for Sunday was the Oceanographic, the largest aquarium in Europe. (TripAdvisor ranks it as the fourth best aquarium in the world; the best is in Lisbon.) It sits at the end of the Jardín del Turia, one of the buildings in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of museums, galleries, and other high-minded institutions.
This complex is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Valencia, and for good reason. Here, the Spaniards’ flair for modern architecture is on full display. Every building is given a futuristic design, looking like sea shells, tulip bulbs, shark fins, and other shapes too difficult to describe. The buildings are sleek and shiny, covered in reflective glass and girded with bands of metal. There is a planetarium, a science museum, a theater, and of course the oceanographic—which was designed to have the layout of a water lily.
The only bad part of our visit was paying the entrance fee, which was surprisingly steep. I suppose it costs a lot to maintain all these animals. It hurt to fork over the money, but in retrospect it was well worth it.
Our tickets came with a dolphin show; and the next one was starting almost immediately. We headed to the dolphin theater and found seats, high up so we didn’t get splashed. The show began, and immediately became very cheesy. Dance music started playing, and the announcer’s tone and manner were so exaggerated it felt like a WWE commercial.
The show began. It was exactly what I expected. Dolphins flipped, jumped, did backflips, swam backwards, and then towed around their trainers in the water like little speed boats. Simply for their physical ability, dolphins are impressive animals. Imagine how much force it takes to accelerate a dolphin fast enough to shoot straight out of the water to snatch a fish dangling from a fifteen foot ladder. Their whole body must be one giant muscle.
Two things bothered me as I watched the show. First, I had just re-watched the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a pretty mediocre adaptation, but which does start with a musical version of “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish,” and now I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then, I remembered this quote from the book:
For instance, on the planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars, and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was to muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.
Second, I kept thinking that there was something morally questionable about the whole affair. As evinced by the show, dolphins are smart—very smart. Consider this: A dolphin can watch a human spin around on land, and then translate that movement to its own quite different body in the water. Monkey see, monkey do is not a sign of stupidity, but of intelligence. Imitation is a sophisticated cognitive task. And dolphins are not only smart, but highly social; like dogs and humans, they live in groups with their own hierarchies.
What’s the morality of keeping a creature like this in an aquarium? Do they get bored swimming around their pools? Do they get listless and depressed being isolated from the ocean? Does the loud music and the applause of the show bother them? I don’t know. The strongest argument I know in favor of keeping intelligent mammals in zoos is utilitarian: Yes, maybe they’re less happy here, but they’re safe; and besides, the publicity and good-feeling generated from zoos and aquariums makes people more likely to donate to charities and to set up nature reserves. So maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And perhaps the dolphins enjoy the exercise of performing and the bonds with their trainers? Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this show was questionable.
This led me to a deeper question: What is intelligence, anyway? How do you define it? Is it a measure of the complexity of tasks the brain can perform? Yet spider webs are enormously complex, yet we don’t think of spiders as intelligent. A spider does not need to be a chemical genius to synthesize silk. Perhaps intelligence is the ability to learn? This seems like a better definition. Humans, the smartest of animals (we think), are also the most adaptable; we can learn to make new technology, and then use this technology to live in new environments. Chimps can learn to use tools and even to use sign language; dolphins can be trained to perform like this.
The show ended, and we left to see the rest. The aquarium is divided into ten sections, each one a different natural habitat. Here are some of the highlights
One of the tanks was for the seals. They are lovely creatures, so dog-like that you can imagine keeping one in your backyard pool. As I looked at the seals, though, the same pang of unease shot through me as when I saw the dolphin show. They must be bored swimming around that cage all day and all night long. And having people point and gawk can’t be pleasant. Case in point, a little girl next to me began throwing a yellow toy—one of those minions from that Pixar movie—up and down, and a curious seal on the other side of the glass began following it. The seal even tried to snap at the toy, like it was a fish; though of course his teeth just bounced off the glass. The kid’s parents thought this was cute and neat, and I admit it was kind of cute. But it also seemed a bit cruel, adding insult to injury.
Of course, there were lots of fish. I like looking at fish, but not especially. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a fish? Nothing seems to look back at you. The same goes for birds, for the most part. In one section, under a big netted area which I believe was the wetland habitat, were lots of birds standing about. They were very pretty; but if I spend too much time looking at one I get unsettled. I try imagining what’s going on in their brain, and get nothing.
Also in abundance were lots of strange sea creatures. There were sea horses, those surreal beauties that look like fantasy intruding upon reality. Jellyfish also give me this impression, floating in their tank like plastic wrap, lit up like neon signs against the black background. How bizarre is it that something like this—something I can literally see through—can be alive?
In one cage were two spider crabs. I could hardly believe my eyes, they were so big. And according to the audioguide, they weren’t even fully grown. The two crabs leisurely made their way across the bottom, their thin, spindly legs—perhaps three feet long—supporting their armored body. Their shell must be tough; it seems such a slow-moving, easily visible animal would make easy prey. Less mobile animals also occupied the tanks, star fish and anemones. I find anemones particularly fascinating, since they as immobile as plants but are just as animal as you and me.
More impressive than the individual tanks were the tunnels. The Valencia Oceanographic boasts not one but two display tunnels, through which visitors can walk, surrounded on all sides by ocean creatures. The first tunnel was the more modest, consisting mostly of fish. There was, however, a beautiful bright green monstrous eel, swimming about in one corner. It opened and closed its mouth repeatedly, giving me a close up glimpse of its impressive row of teeth. The audioguide explained that the eel did this to breath better, not as a threat; but I still felt intimidated.
The second tunnel was many times more impressive. This was the deep ocean. It was filled with sharks of all kinds, with long, saw-like snouts, with flattened bodies, and of course the classical, recognizable form, an aquatic death machine swimming above your head. I don’t know anything about sharks except that they are terrifying and strangely beautiful. Also present were sting rays, looking angelic as they glided through the water, flapping their wings.
This brings me to a question: Why don’t the sharks in these tanks eat the fish? Why don’t the big fish eat the little ones? Are aquarium keepers just good at grouping animals in the right way? Or do they keep them well-fed, thus suppressing their instinct to hunt? There must be some art or science to it, since I’ve not once seen a shark even attempt a nibble. And I find this impressive, because if I was a big, mean shark floating around a tank all day with a slow, juicy fish, eventually my self-control would fail me.
As great as this shark-tunnel was, the most impressive section of the aquarium was the arctic region. It was there I saw the first living walrus I’ve ever seen—two of them. For such fat, fleshy creatures, they’re astonishingly graceful in the water, like mustachioed ballerinas. Even more astonishing were the belugas. These white whales are midway in size between dolphins and orcas—which means they’re quite large, dwarfing even the walruses. They’re cute, too, seeming to have a constantly inquisitive smile on their faces.
The chubbiness of both animals, walrus and beluga, is visible evidence of the harsh, freezing environment they’ve adapted to. It boggles my mind that these two huge creatures, which doubtless require enormous amounts of food to survive, have managed to arise in such an apparently barren environment. Natural selection works wonders.
Now, we were done. We had a Blablacar to catch. We ate some overpriced food from one of the aquarium cafes, and scrammed.
I can’t end this post without a description of our ride back to Madrid. We traveled with three others—the driver and two of his friends. All of them were Spaniards. The driver spoke excellent English. He had learned English from serving in Eurocorps, where he used English to communicate with his fellow soldiers from Poland. As a consequence, he spoke with an absurd and hilarious Polish accent, even using Eastern European mannerisms.
“Yes, yes, you speak English, very good!” he yelled back at us, as we spoke with one of his friends. “You make friends! A’right!”
This friend of his, who sat in the back with us for the ride, was a professional bodybuilder. The poor guy had to constantly be on a special diet, which I think gave him a food obsession. He couldn’t stop talking about how he wanted to go to Chicago to try the deep dish pizza.
“Oh my God!” he said, showing us a picture of the pizza on his phone. “Can you believe this? We have to go!”
“Oh, you like pizza?”
“Like pizza? I love it!”
“Have you ever been to New York?”
“Yes, it was magical. And there I had the best pizza of my life. It was from Dominoes. Amazing!”
The poor man.
Now our vacation really was over. Next morning, we would have to drag ourselves back to work, after not working for three whole weeks. It was an awful shock. But in the meantime, we had visited nine fantastic Spanish cities. I’ve never had a better break.
It is still a mystery to me how so many Spaniards can function on so little sleep.
Late one night in Madrid, as my friend and I finished eating our dinner on Spanish time—which means we get home around midnight—we were walking back to our apartment when it suddenly began to rain. First, it sprinkled; then, it drizzled; and soon it was pouring. Without an umbrella (here amusingly named paraguas, “for water”) we were forced to take cover in a bar.
As we stood there, looking out at the rain washing down the tiled streets, I heard somebody behind me say, in accented English, “It’s finally raining in Madrid.” I turned around and saw that it was the Spanish waitress, looking pensively out at the rain. Beside her was a bald patron, with the same thoughtful look on his face. “Oh, Madri’,” he said, in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s a beau’i’ful ci’y. Jus’ beau’i’ful.”
To me, this moment summarized my reaction to this city so far. It’s lovely here in Madrid. I had never planned on moving to Spain; I wasn’t even particularly interested in visiting Spain on vacation. It was a mixture of chance and opportunity that prompted me to pick up and fly over here; and consequently, I had no idea what to expect. The most pleasant surprise, for me, is how easy it has been for a New Yorker to feel at home here. Madrid has many of the positive qualities one finds in New York City: bustle, inclusiveness, diversity, variety, nightlife. Added to this, Madrid is safer, cleaner, cheaper, and, most conspicuously, much more relaxed.
The besuited man (or woman) walking quickly down the street holding a disposable cup of coffee is an omnipresent figure on the streets of NYC. Meals are quick there; people swallow their food and keep moving, often simply eating on the go. The $1 pizza, which you can get by throwing a dollar at the cashier, who then throws you the slice in return so you can eat it without breaking your stride, is perhaps the quintessential New York meal. You can do anything in NYC—anything except slow down.
In this respect, Madrid is quite the opposite. Rarely do you see people running for the trains, for the busses, elbowing their way through crowds. Virtually nobody eats while walking; and disposable coffee cups are a rarity, as coffee is normally drunk sitting down. When Madrileños eat, they like to take their time. They sit and chat, for perhaps hours, sipping their drinks and occasionally snacking on tapas and raciones. Here, the waiters don’t bother you; they serve you your food and disappear. Often, I have to chase them inside in order to get the check; but this is probably because I am an impatient American.
As a consequence of this generally relaxed attitude, I’ve found adapting to life here to be extremely pleasant (despite my ignorance of the language, which is a constant impediment). And I’m glad that, to help me through my own transición, I have Giles Tremlett as a guide, a British journalist who has been living in Madrid for decades.
This book is about the historical imagination in modern Spain. Through thirteen chapters, Tremlett examines some of the political fault-lines that run through the country. He begins with an examination of Franco’s regime and its aftermath. There is, apparently, no safe way to talk about the past in Spain—not even something which, to me, should be as uncontroversial as Franco’s fascism. But different political parties propose competing interpretations of the past, which of course reflect their different interpretations of the present. Hard as it is to believe, but the horrible bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were also the occasion of political squabbling, as the right-wingers insisted that ETA (the Basque terrorist group) had something to do with it.
To tell the story of modern Spain, Tremlett takes the reader across the country: from Madrid, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Galicia, and even to Spanish jails and slums. He examines flamenco, Basque and Catalan separatism, Spanish art and cinema, political corruption, gender relations, prostitution, tourism, and much more, as he attempts to pin down the quickly changing country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, his method is journalistic. He focuses on the sorts of things that would make the news; and his writing-style bears the hallmarks of his profession—impersonal rather than personal, intended to convey information rather than emotion or analysis.
Like every book, this one isn’t perfect. Although Tremlett packs an impressive amount of information into the book, his analyses are often superficial, or just nonexistent. He has the journalistic habit of letting others do his thinking for him, merely reporting their opinions. Thus, while informative, I didn’t find Tremlett to be a penetrating guide. What’s more, though I generally found his writing quite strong, I sometimes felt that his style, which he obviously honed while writing shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines, did not have enough forward impetus to carry me through a whole chapter. In a longer format such as a book, more organization, more interconnection, more integration is needed than Tremlett is accustomed to; and thus his chapters sometimes seem scatterbrained, disconnected—too much like a list of facts and quotes.
(I’d also like to note, in passing, that Tremlett’s comma-use is the exact opposite of mine, which I found continually irksome. He typically omits commas where I would include them, and includes commas where I would omit them. For example, he writes “He or, normally, she is joined…” whereas I would write “He, or normally she, is joined…” Admittedly, this is surpassingly trivial.)
These are fairly minor complaints, however. Really, all things considered, it is hard for this anglosajón to imagine a better book to read as an introduction to this fantastic country. I still have a great deal to learn—not least Castellano—but at least now I have had a grand tour of the place. And perhaps one of these days, as I wander back from another late dinner, I’ll bump into Tremlett himself, and gratefully shake his hand.
Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twisting the truth but of inventing it.
Ostensibly the book is about Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain—from 711 to 1492—and specifically about the culture of tolerance that flourished during this period. Menocal takes her title from a remark of Hroswitha, the German canoness, who called Córdoba the “Ornament of the World” after meeting with an ambassador. Menocal does not, however, write a conventional, chronological history, but instead a series of vignettes from the time-period. Indeed, her approach is much closer to that of a journalist than a historian, picking out the most captivating personalities and focusing exclusively on them. And even though these vignettes often contain lots of interesting information, their primary aim is not to inform, but to evoke.
Menocal writes in a dreamy, wistful tone, a style that is often seductive enough to deactivate the reader’s critical facility. The land and the people she describes sound so fantastic that you want to believe her. And this, as well as the lack of almost any scholarly apparatus, makes me very suspicious.
It is hard to believe the book was written by a professor at Yale, for it is quite explicitly propagandistic, trying to counter the conventional view of the Middle Ages as backward and intolerant with a vivid portrait of an advanced, integrated civilization. Personally, I agree with both her ideals of tolerance and her desire to acknowledge the accomplishments of Muslim Spain; but this does not excuse a professor from the commitment to scholarship. All the repression and barbarism that existed during the time period is waved away by Menocal’s insistence that it was the work of foreigners, either Berbers from the south or Christians from the north; and everything positive is credited to Andalusian culture. It would be hard to be more partisan.
In short, I have many reservations about recommending this book, because I believe it wasn’t written in good faith, with scrupulous attention to facts, but rather in the effort to influence the public’s perception of Al-Andalus through storytelling. True, all scholarship is somewhat biased; but to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, using this fact to excuse extreme bias is like saying that, since a perfectly antiseptic operating room is impossible, we should just perform surgeries in the sewer.
Keeping the bias in mind, however, this book can be profitably read. There is a lot of fascinating information in these pages. Indeed, I recently revisited Toledo to see some of the things Menocal mentioned, such as Santa Maria la Blanca, a beautiful synagogue built in a Moorish style. And I do think that the story of syncretism, tolerance, and collaboration in Muslim Spain should be told, especially during this era of Islamophobia. It is too easy to forget how crucial the history of Islam is to the history of the “West,” if the two histories can indeed be separated at all. Menocal’s emphasis on the architecture, the poetry, and especially the translations of the Greek philosophers by Muslim and Jewish scholars, counters the common stereotypes of the Muslims as intolerant destroyers. What’s more, I fully understand how Menocal could be swept away in nostalgic awe after seeing the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada; that the people who made those amazing structures could disappear is hard to fathom.
Still, even though I agree with Menocal’s goals, I don’t agree with her means. The bright, rosy structure is built on too flimsy a foundation. Propaganda is a bad long-term strategy, because when people realize they are being manipulated they grow resentful. Much better would have been a balanced, sourced, and footnoted book, acknowledging both the good and the bad. The society Menocal so effusively praised was undeniably great; the best way to praise is simply to describe it. The worst aspect of Menocal’s approach is that it didn’t allow her to say anything insightful about how tolerance arose. And this is important to know, since creating a tolerant society is one of the omnipresent challenges of the modern world.
We read nature as the English used to read Latin, pronouncing it like English, but understanding it very well.
This simile about relation between human knowledge and material fact expresses a deep truth: to understand nature we must, so to speak, translate it into human terms.
All knowledge of the world must begin with sensations. All empirical knowledge derives, ultimately, from events we perceive with our five senses. But I think it is a mistake to confuse, as the phenomenalists do, these sensations for reality itself. To the contrary, I think that human experience is of a fundamentally different sort as material reality.
The relationship between my moving finger and the movement of the string I pluck is direct: cause-and effect. The relationship that holds between the vibrations in air caused by the guitar string, and the sound we perceive of the guitar, is, however, not so direct. For conscious sensations are not physical events. You cannot, even in principle, describe the subjective sensation of guitar music using physical terms, like acceleration, mass, charge, etc.
The brain represents the physical stimulus it receives, transforming it into a sensation, much like a composer represents human emotions using notes, harmonies, and rhythms—that is, arbitrarily. There is no essential relationship between sadness and a minor melody; they are only associated through culture and habit. Likewise, the conscious perception of guitar strings is only associated with the vibrations in the air through consistent representation: every time the brain hears a guitar, it creates the same subjective sensation. But the fact remains that the vibrations and the sensation, if they could be compared, would have nothing in common, just as sadness and minor melodies have nothing in common.
I must pause here to note a partial exception. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notoriously makes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The latter are things like color, taste, smell, and sound, which are wholly subjective; the former are things like size, position, number, and shape: qualities that are inherent in the object and independent of the perceiving mind. Berkeley criticized this distinction; he thought that all reality was sensation, and thus there was no basis in distinguishing primary and secondary—both only exist in human experience. Kant, on the other hand, thought that reality in-itself could not, in principle, be described using any terms from human experience; and thus primary and secondary qualities were both wholly subjective.
Yet I persist in thinking that Locke was rather close to the truth. But the point must be qualified. As Einstein showed, our intuitive notions of speed, position, time, and size are only approximately correct at the human scale, and break down in situations of extreme speed or gravity. And we have had the same experience with regard to quantum physics, discovering that even our notion of location and number can be wholly inaccurate on the smallest of scales. Besides these physical consideration, any anthropologist will be full of anecdotes of cultures that conceive of space and time differently; and psychologists will note that our perception of position and shape differs markedly from that of a rat or a bat, for example.
All this being granted, I think that Locke was right in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. Indeed, this is simply the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable qualities. By this I mean that a person could give an abstract representation of the various sizes and locations of objects in a room; but no such abstract representation could be given of a scent. The very fact that our notions of these primary qualities could be proven wrongby physicists proves that they are categorically distinct. A person may occasionally make a mistake in identifying a color or a scent, but all of humanity could never be wrong in that way. Scientists cannot, in other words, show us what red “really looks like,” in the same way that scientists can and have shown us how space really behaves.
Nevertheless, we have discovered, through rigorous experiment and hypothesis, that even these apparently “primary qualities”—supposedly independent of the perceiving mind—are really crude notions that are only approximately correct on the scale of human life. This is no surprise. We evolved these capacities of perception to navigate the world, not to imagine black holes or understand electrons. Thus even our most accurate perceptions of the world are only quasi-correct; and there is no reason why another being, adapted to different circumstances, might represent and understand the same facts quite differently.
It seems clear from this description that our sensations have only an indicative truth, not a literal one. We can rely on our sensations to navigate the world, but that does not mean they show us the direct truth. The senses are poets, as Santayana said, and show us reality guised in allegory. We humans must use our senses, since that is all we have, but in the grand scheme of reality what can be seen, heard, or touched may be only a miniscule portion of what really exists—and, as scientists have discovered, that is actually the case.
To put these discoveries to one side for a moment, there are other compelling reasons to suspect that sensations are not open windows to reality. One obvious reason is that any sensation, if too intense, becomes simply pain. Pressure, light, sound, or heat, while all separate feelings at normal intensities, all become pain when intensified beyond the tolerance of our bodies. But does anybody suspect that all reality becomes literal pain when too severe? When intensified still further, sensation ceases altogether with death. Yet are we to suppose that the stimulus of the fatal blow ceases, too, when it becomes unperceivable?
Of course, nobody makes these mistakes except phenomenologists. And when combined with other everyday experiences—such as our ability to increase our range of sight using microscopes and telescopes, the ability of dogs to hear and smells things that humans cannot—then it becomes very clear that our sensations, far from having any cosmic privilege, represent only a limited portion of the reality, and do not represent the truth literally.
What we have discovered about the world, since the scientific revolution, only confirms this notion. Our senses were shaped by evolution to allow us to navigate in a certain environment. Thus, we can see only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—a portion that strongly penetrates our atmosphere. Likewise with every other sense: it is calibrated to the sorts of intensities and stimuli that would aid us in our struggle to survive on the struggle of the earth.
There is nothing superstition, therefore, or even remarkable in believing that the building blocks of reality are invisible to human sensation. Molecules, atoms, protons, quarks—all of these are essential components of our best physical theories, and thus have as much warrant to be believed as the sun and stars. From a human scale, of course, there is a strong epistemological difference: they form components of physical theories; and these theories help us to make sense of experience, rather than constitute experience itself.
But that does not make them any less real. Indeed, our notion of an atom may be closer to nature than our visible image of an apple, since we know for sure that the actual apple is not, fundamentally, as it appears to human sight, while our idea of atoms may indeed give a literally accurate view of nature. Indeed, the view of sensations that I have put forward virtually demands that the truth of nature, whatever it is, be remote from human experience, since human experience is not a literal representation of reality.
This leads to some awkwardness. For if scientific truth is to be abstract—a theorem or an equation remote from daily reality—then what makes it any better than a religious belief? Isn’t what separates scientific knowledge from superstitious fancy the fact that the first is empirical while the latter is not?
But this difficulty is only apparent. Santayana aptly summarized the difference thus: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.” That is to say that, though religious ideas may take their building blocks from daily life, the final product—the religious dogma—is not fundamentally about daily life; it is a more like a poem that inspires our imaginations and may influence our lives, but is not literally borne out in lived experience.
A scientific theory, on the other hand, is borne out in this way: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Though a physical theory, for example, is itself something that is never itself perceived—we never “see” Einstein’s relativity in itself—using it leads to perceivable predictions, such as the deviation of a planet’s orbit. This is the basis of experiment and the essence of science itself. Indeed, I think that this is an essential quality of all valid human knowledge, scientific or not: that it is borne out in experience.
Like quantum physics, superstitious notions and supernatural doctrines all concern things that are, in principle, unperceivable; but the different is that, in quantum physics, the unperceivable elements predict perceivable events with rigid certainty. Superstitious notions, though in principle they have empirical results, are usually whimsical in their operation. The devil may appear or he may not, and the theory of demonic interference does not tell us when, how, or why—which gives it no explanatory value. Supernatural notions, such as about God or angels or heaven, are either reserved for another world, or their operation on this world are too entirely vague to be confirmed or falsified.
So long as the theory touches experience at both ends, so to speak, it is valid. The theory itself is not and cannot be tangible. The fact that our most accurate knowledge involves belief in unperceivable things, in other words, does not make it either metaphysical or supernatural. As Santayana said, “if belief in the existence of hidden parts and movements in nature be metaphysics, then the kitchen-maid is a metaphysician whenever she peels a potato.”
Richard Feynman made almost the same point when he observed that our notion of “inside” is really just a way of making sense of a succession of perceptions. We never actually perceive the “inside” of an apple, for example, since by slicing it all we do is create a new surface. This surface may, for all we know, pop into existence in that moment. But by imagining that there is an “inside” to the apple, unperceived by equally real, we make sense of an otherwise confusing sequence of perceptions. Scientific theories—and all valid knowledge in general—does essentially the same thing: it organizes our experience by positing an unperceived, and unperceivable, structure to reality.
Thus humanity’s attempt to understand nature is very accurately compared to an Englishman reading Latin with a London accent. Though we muddle the form of nature through our perception and our conception, by paying attention to the regularities of experience we may learn to understand nature quite well.
In 1974 a woman called Connie Converse got into her car, drove away, and was never heard from again. This was not noticed by the press. She was fifty and a failed musician, an eccentric and hermit-like woman who never caught her big break. But she left behind recordings of her songs—songs which, belatedly, have finally led to her getting a modicum of the recognition she deserved.
This is another of those stories of the misunderstood genius. Completely obscure during her career, she is nowadays recognized as a musician ahead of her time, one of the first practitioners of the so-called singer-songwriter genre. Her recordings remained unavailable to the public until 2004 when she was featured on WYNC’s “Spinning on Air.” Five years later, in 2009, an album of her homemade recordings was released—How Sad, How Lovely—which secured her place in the hearts of hipsters across Brooklyn.
In this essay I am, however, not primarily interested in analyzing her music. This is not because there isn’t much to discuss. Converse blends American popular styles—blues, folk, jazz, country—into a sophisticated personal style. Her songs are masterful on many levels: with piquant lyrics, sophisticated harmonies, and creative guitar arrangements. Deep originality, keen intelligence, and a fine literary sensibility make her posthumous album an excellent listen.
All this is beside the point. I want to use Converse’s music as the jumping-off point to discuss an essential question of aesthetics: Are there such things as aesthetic emotions?
In a previous essay on aesthetics, I tried to analyze the way that art alters our relation with the natural and cultural world. But I left unexamined the way that art changes our relationship with ourselves. For art does not only affect our stance towards our assumptions, habits, sensations, perceptions, and social conventions. Art also changes our relationship with our emotions.
The very title of Converse’s album invites us to consider aesthetic emotions: How Sad, How Lovely. She herself did not choose this title for the album; but it is well-chosen, since this feeling—the feeling of delightful melancholy—always comes over me when I listen to her music.
But how can sadness be beautiful? When tragedy actually befalls us—a career failure, a break up, a death—we are little disposed to find it beautiful. And long-term, grinding depression is perhaps even less lovely. Yet we so often find ourselves watching sad movies, reading depressing books, enjoying tragedies on stage, and listening to tearful ballads. Converse’s songs are full of heartbreak, yet many people enjoy them. We do our best to avoid sadness in life, but often seek it out in art. Why?
This leads me to think that the melancholic emotion we experience in sad art is not the same as “real” sadness. That is, when a beloved character dies in a novel we feel an entirely different emotion than when a friend passes away. Can that be true?
Perhaps, instead, it is just a question of degree: sadness in art affects us less than sadness in life. But this explanation does not do. For we do not enjoy even small amounts of sadness in real life; so why would we in art? And besides, anyone artistically sensitive knows that one can have intense reactions from art—quite as intense as any experience in life—so that it is clearly not a question of degree.
The explanation must be, then, that aesthetic sadness is categorically different from actual sadness. Yet we recognize an immediate and obvious affinity between the two feelings: otherwise we would not call them both “sad.” So it seems as if they are alike in one sense and yet different in another.
To pinpoint the difference, we must see if we can isolate the feeling of beauty. In novels, paintings, and songs, aesthetic reactions are hopelessly mixed up with a riot of other considerations: artistic intentions, subject-matter, moral judgments, and so forth. But when contemplating nature—in my experience, at least—the feeling of beauty stands out cold and pure.
In the forest of New Brunswick my family owns a property on a lake, where we go every summer to relax. Out there, far away from the light pollution of cities, the Milky Way appears in all its remarkable brilliance. Except for the ghostly calls of loons echoing across the lake, the woods are deathly still. Gazing up at the stars in the silence of the night I come closest to experiencing pure beauty.
Looking at the starry night I feel neither sad, nor happy, nor frightened, nor angry. The word that comes closest the feeling is “awe”: gaping wonder at the splendor of existence. I become entirely absorbed in my senses; everything except the beautiful object drops away. I am solely aware of the sensory details of this object, and perpetually amazed that such a thing could exist.
An important facet of this experience, I think, is disinterestedness. I want nothing from the beautiful object. I have no stake in its fate. Indeed, my absorption in it is so great that the feeling of distinction—of subject and object—dissolves, and I achieve a feeling of oneness with what I contemplate. Thus this feeling of disinterest extends to myself: I no longer have a stake in my own life, and I can accept with equanimity come what may. Beauty is, for this reason, associated in my mind with a feeling of profound calmness.
Using this observation, I believe we can see why sad art can be pleasant. My hypothesis is that the feeling of beauty—which brings with it a calming sense of disinterest—denatures normally painful emotions, rendering them relatively inert.
Real sadness involves the painful feeling of loss. To feel loss, you must feel interested, in the sense that you have a stake in what is happening. But experiencing sadness in the context of a work of art, while our aesthetic sense is activated, numbs us to this pain. We see sadness, rather, as a kind of floating, neutral observer in the scene; and this allows us to savor the poignant and touching experience of the sentiment without the drawbacks of emotional trauma.
And herein lies the therapeutic potential of art. For art allows us to see the beauty in normally painful emotions. By putting us into a disinterested state of mind, great art allows us to savor the sublime melancholy of life. We see that sadness is not just painful, but lovely. In this, too, consists art’s ability to help us achieve wisdom: to look upon life, not as a person wrapped up in his own troubles, but as a cloud watching from above.
Here I think it is useful to examine the difference between art and entertainment. In my first essay, I held that the differences is that art reconnects us to the world while entertainment lures us into fantasy. But the emotional distinction between art and entertainment cannot be described thus.
Rather, I think herein lies the difference: that art allows us to contemplate emotions disinterestedly, while entertainment provokes us to react empathetically. That is to say that, with entertainment, the difference between aesthetic emotions and everyday emotions is blurred. We react to an entertaining tale the same way we react to, say, our friend telling us a story.
Some observations lead me to this conclusion. One is that Shakespeare’s tragedies have never once brought me anywhere close to tears, while rather mediocre movies have had me bawling. Another is that drinking alcohol, being stressed, feeling sentimental, or being otherwise emotionally raw tend to make me more sensitive to blockbuster movies and pop music, and less sensitive to far greater works. Clearly, provoking strong emotions requires neither great sophistication in the work nor great appreciation in the audience; indeed, it requires a childlike innocence from both.
I believe the explanation for this is very simple. Crude art—or “entertainment” in my parlance—does not strongly activate our aesthetic sense, and thus our emotions are unfiltered. We feel none of the disinterest that the contemplation of beauty engenders, and so react in an unmediated naturalness. This makes entertainment the opposite of calming—rather, it can be very animating and distressing.
This may be the root of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ancient dispute about the role of poetry in society. Plato famously banished poets from his ideal republic, fearing poetry’s ability to disrupt social order and discompose men’s minds. Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that poetry could be cathartic, curing us of strong emotions and thus conducive to calmness and stability. In my scheme, entertainment is destabilizing and true art therapeutic. In other words, Plato should only have banished the entertainers.
This also leads to an observation about singer-songwriters. Unlike in other genres of music—musicals, operas, jazz—there is a pretense among singer-songwriters to be communicating directly with their audience; that their songs are honest and related to their daily lives. It is this intentional blurring of art and life that leads many fans to get absorbed in tabloid stories of celebrity personal lives.
I think this is almost inevitably a sort of illusion, and the “honest” self on display to the public is a sort of persona. But in any case this pretense serves the purposes of entertainment: If we think the musicians are giving us honest sentiments, we will react empathetically and not disinterestedly.
Connie Converse, on the other hand, creates no illusion of direct honesty. Her lyrics are literary, picturesque, and impersonal. This is not to say that her songs have nothing to do with her personality. Her preferred themes—unrequited love, most notably—obviously have some bearing on her life. And the sadness in her music must be related with the sorrow in her life, feeling isolated and unrecognized. But in her songs, the stuff of her life is sublimated into art—turned into an impersonal product that can be contemplated and appreciated without knowing anything about its maker.
I believe all true art is, in this sense, impersonal: its value does not depend on knowing or thinking anything about its maker. Art is not an extension of the artist’s personality, but has its own life. This is why I am against “confessional” art: art that pretends to be, or actually is, an unfiltered look into somebody’s life and feelings. Much of John Lennon’s work after the Beatles broke up falls into this category. By my definition, “confessional” art is always inevitably entertainment.
This is not to say that art must always scorn its maker’s life. The essays of Montaigne, for example, are deeply introspective, while being among the glories of western literature. But those essays are not simply the pouring forth of feelings or the airing of grievances. They transform Montaigne’s own experiences into an exploration of the human condition, and thus become genuine works of art.
In my previous essay I described how art can help us break out of the deadening effects of routine, thus revivifying the world. But art can also pull us from the opposite direction: from frenetic emotionality to a detached calmness. While contemplating beauty, we see the world, and even ourselves, as calm and sensitive observers, with fascination and delight. We rediscover the childlike richness of experience, while shunning the childlike tyranny of emotion. We can achieve equanimity, at least temporarily, by being reminded that beauty and sadness are not opposed, but are intimately intertwined.
On the left back of the Seine, in an old Beaux-Arts train station, is one of Europe’s great museums: the Musée d’Orsay. Its collection mainly focuses on French art from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. This was a fertile time for Paris, as the museum amply demonstrates. Rarely can you find so many masterpieces collected in one place.
The museum is arranged with exquisite taste. In the middle runs a corridor, filled with statues—of human forms, mostly. They dash, reach, dance, strain, twist, lounge, smile, laugh, gasp, grimace.
On either side of this central corridor are the painting galleries, arranged by style and period. 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 precise 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.
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.
His self portrait is the most emotionally affecting painting I have ever seen. Wearing a blue suit, he sits in a neutral blue space. His presence warps the atmosphere: the air 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?
I looked and looked, and soon the experience became overwhelming. I felt as if he were 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.
Consider this reaction of mine. Now imagine if a curious extraterrestrial, studying human behavior, visited an art museum. What would he make of it?
On its face, the practice of visiting art museums is absurd. We pay good money 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 in the room. Indeed, I suspect an alien would find almost anything on earth—our plant and animal life, our minerals, our technology—more interesting than a painting.
In this essay I want to try to answer this question: Why do humans make and appreciate art? For this is the question that so irresistibly posed itself to me after I stared into van Gogh’s portrait. The rest of my time walking around the Musée d’Orsay, feeling lost among so many masterpieces, I pondered how a colorful canvas could so radically alter my mental state. By the end of my visit, the beginnings of an answer had occurred to me—an answer hardly original, being deeply indebted to Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, and Robert Hughes, among others—and it is this answer that I attempt to develop here.
My answer, in short, is that 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 human life like a specter, so pernicious because it cannot be grasped or seen.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss knew this very well. As a young man he ejoyed 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.
Dostoyevsky put the phenomenon more succintly: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
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 being guided by rigid 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.
Habits are, thus, necessary to human life. And up to a certain point, they are desirable and good. But there is also a danger in habitual response.
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 dehumanized.
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.
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. My lunch went unappreciated; my coffee was drunk unenjoyed; 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. 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. In other words, my attitude to my sensations had become purely instrumental: attending to their qualities only insofar as they were relevant to my immediate goals.
This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as when waiting on a long line. It is boredom as a spiritual malady. When beset by ennui we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. And this condition is caused, I think, 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, and it is necessary for us to read efficiently. But this 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 paused long enough to consider it, even though she had used the word thousands of times.
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 tasting 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. Art 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.”
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. I was saying goodbye to something intimately familiar in order to embrace the unknown. My visit became no longer routine, but unique and fleeting, and this made me experience the museum in an entirely new way.
Somehow, the patina of familiarity had been peeled away, leaving every artwork fresh and exciting. Whereas on previous visits I viewed the Greco-Roman and Egyptian statues are mere artifacts, revealing information about former civilizations, this time I began to become acutely sensitive to previously invisible subtleties: fine textures, subtle hues, elegant forms. In short, I had 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 workaday world 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.
We are not passive sensors. 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 data we collect is, thus, not experienced directly, but is analyzed into intelligible objects. And this is for the obvious reason that, unlike cameras and microphones, we need to use this information to survive.
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 breaks down what she sees into shapes and colors, and puts it together on her canvass, making whatever tasteful alteration she sees fit.
Her view of the landscape, and how she chooses to reconstruct it on her canvass, is of course not merely a matter between her and nature. Inevitably our painter is familiar with a tradition of landscape paintings; and thus while engaged with the natural landscape she is 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.
The fact remains, however, that the final product can be effectively judged by how it transforms 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.
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.
Music is an excellent demonstration of this tendency. To begin with, the medium of sound is naturally more social than that of sight or language, since sound pervades its environment. What is more, music is a wholly abstract art, and thus totally disconnected from the natural world.
This is because sound is just too difficult to record. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object. But without some kind of notational system—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping.
Thus, musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from culture rather than nature, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses.
(In an oral tradition, where music does not need to be transcribed, it is possible that music can strive to reproduce natural sounds; but this has not historically been the case in the west.)
To deal with the problem of transcribing sound, rigorous and formal ways of classifying sounds were developed. An organizational system developed, with its own laws and rules; and it is these laws and rules that the composer or songwriter manipulates.
And just as your knowledge of the natural world helps to make sense of visual art, so our cultural training helps us to make sense of music. 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 (most often unconsciously) when a tune does something unusual. Relatively few people, for example, can define a plagal cadence (an unusual final cadence from the IV to the I chord), but almost everyone responds to it in Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
As a result of its cultural grounding, music an inherently communal art form. This is true, not only aesthetically, but anthropologically. Music is an integral part of many social rituals—political, religious, or otherwise. Whether we are graduating from high school, winning an Oscar, or getting married, music will certainly be heard. As much as alcohol, music can lower inhibitions by creating a sense of shared community, which is why we play it at every party. Music thus plays a different social role than visual art, connecting us to our social environment rather than to the often neglected sights and sounds of everyday life.
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. This material can be shapes, colors, ceramic vases, window panes, the play of shadow across a crumpled robe in the case of painting. It can be melodies, harmonies, timbre, volume, chord progressions, stylistic tropes in the case of music. And it can be adjectives, verbs, nouns, situations, gestures, personality traits in the case of literature
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.
Yet it is not enough for art 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 it need not be.
Many artists nowadays, however, seem to disagree on this point. I have listened to works by contemporary composers which simply made no sense for my ears, and have seen many works of modern art which had no visual interest. We are living in the age of “challenging” art; and beauty is too often reduced to confusion.
But good art must not only challenge our everyday ways of seeing, listening, and being. It must reconstitute those habits along new lines. Art interrogates the space between the world and our habits of seeing the world. It breaks down the familiar—sights, harmonies, language—and then builds it back up again into the unfamiliar, using new principles and new taste. Yet for the product to be a work of art, and not mere strangeness, the unfamiliar must be rendered beautiful. That is the task of art.
Thus, Picasso does not only break down the perspectives and shapes of daily life, but builds them back up into new forms—fantastically strange, but sublime nonetheless. Debussy disintegrates the normal harmonic conventions—keys, cadences, chords—and then puts them all back together into a new form, uniquely his, and also unquestionably lovely. Great art not only shows you a different way of seeing and understanding the world, but makes this new vista attractive.
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.
And then we come to simple entertainment.
Entertainment is something that superficially resembles art, but it’s function is entirely different. For entertainment does not reconnect us with the world, but lures us into a fantasy.
Perhaps the most emblematic form of pure entertainment is advertizing. However well made an advertisement is, it can never be art; for its goal is not to reconnect with the world, but to seduce us. 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 instantly 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. The fantasies of advertisements are, however, somewhat nefarious, since 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. 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 destructive. 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, in my opinion, is the essential different between art and entertainment. There is also an essential different, I think, between art and 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, 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. This includes 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. Not only that, but conventions often fossilize only the most obvious and graspable elements of brilliant artists of the past, leaving behind much of its living fibre.
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.
I think it is a wonderful painting. Even so, Dante and Virgil 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. And this is the essence of craft.
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, and displays technical mastery, and yet 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 periodpieces 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 still relevant in 500 years. Its power comes from its total evisceration of American ways; and, luckily for Lewis, those ways have changed surprisingly little in its essentials since his day. The book’s continuing appeal therefore depends largely on how much the culture does or does not change. (That being said, that novel has a strong existentialist theme that may allow it to persist.)
Thus period pieces largely concern themselves with getting us to question particular habits or assumptions—in Lewis’s case, the vanities and superficialities of American life.
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 entirely 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 the greatest works of art, 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 merely reconnect me to my senses, helping me to rid myself of boredom. They do not merely remind me that the world is an interesting place. Rather, these works remind me that I myself am a small part of an enormous whole, and should be thankful for every second of life, for it is a privilege to be alive somewhere so lovely and mysterious.