Monday, June 18, 2012

The purpose of art.

We are weird.

You can’t blame us. We grew up in the Universe—a physical place with nearly nothing physical in it, and no physical boundaries to contain what little there is. It’s a sanctuary for life and love, whose doors are also open to death and suffering. It is interwoven with equal amounts of meaning and futility.

In short, the Universe is no place for small children. Unfortunately, it’s our home, and although we’ve tried our best, it was only a matter of time before we started acting out.

In a Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson observes some of the mixed messages we’ve learned from our upbringing.

“We don’t know which arrived first, a world that contained [Sir Isaac Newton’s] Principia or one that had no dodos, but we do know that they happened at more or less the same time. You would be hard pressed, I would submit, to find a better pairing of occurrences to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being—a species of organism that is capable of unpicking the deepest secrets of the heavens while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purpose at all, a creature that never did any of us any harm and wasn’t even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it as we did it.”

Like I said, we’re weird. And we're narcissistic. And that is why we have art.

Art is the study of how we react to everything.

A piece of art is actually an experience that's been cut from the Universe, and pickled for our convenience. With it, we can visit any place without a teleporter, any reality without a wizard, and any time without a Delorean.

Resultantly, we can return to childhood, and savor its selfish joys—and this time, without hassling our mothers! We don’t need a Fountain of Youth, just a copy of Peter Pan.

(Probably) painted by Mary Blair.

Or we can listen to “Morgenstimmung” and wonder why the sound of musicians in an air-conditioned auditorium reminds us of sunrise.

"Morgenstimmung," composed by Edvard Grieg

Furthermore, we can wonder why we all agree that that’s what sunrise sounds like. And we can try to imagine what sunset sounds like.

Or we can look at No. 5 and get frustrated because, hell, we could’ve painted that.

No. 5, 1948, painted by Jackson Pollock

We might also see constellations and fluidity and interconnectedness, and feel insignificant in comparison. Or we can infer that the paint was flung onto the canvas, and feel intimidated by such aggression, and the mood that may have inspired it.

Every response is valid. Even if you’re riveted by Transformers III Colon the Dark of the Moon, it's okay. I mean, I’ll lose respect for you, but it’s okay. You’re the sort of person who’s riveted by Transformers III Colon the Dark of the Moon.

The important thing is asking why. We mustn’t settle for responses like “good” and “bad” and “best” and “worst.” What’s the point of exploring the Universe if we don’t explore our reactions to it, as well?

Hello, Humankind. I have arranged myself into a coherent experience for you. Now that I’m here, we can learn anything—from mundane factoids to your own daily habits to the Meaning of Life, itself. What shall we discuss first?

Wow! You’re easily in my Top Ten Experiences of the Universe of 2012! I’d better go try to remember nine more so I can update my blog. Later!

I read Terry Pratchett’s book, the Light Fantastic, ten years ago. By now, I’ve forgotten most of it, but one passage, wherein the narrator describes the smell of a city, stuck with me.

“There is only really one way to describe the effect the smell of Ankh-Morpork has on the visiting nose, and that is by analogy.

“Take a tartan. Sprinkle it with confetti. Light it with strobe lights.

“Now take a chameleon.

“Put the chameleon on the tartan.

“Watch it closely.


Why have I carried this passage with me since high school? It would be easy to say, “Because it’s funny,” but that’s not the only reason. I’ve heard—and then forgotten—funnier jokes. (At least, I think I have.)

The most obvious place to start analyzing the passage is the passage, itself. Pratchett’s trying to convey a confusing smell, so he describes a confusing sight, and none of its components have distinct smells.

We receive a lot of information, and all of it’s confusing, but none of it’s nasal, which makes it more confusing. We’re both farther and closer to understanding what he’s talking about.

Scratch 'n sniff your monitor!

That’s funny, and now we understand the structure well enough to tell our own version of the joke, if we want to—but it still doesn’t explain why the passage is important to me.

Every time I read it, I register that it’s nonsense which admits it’s nonsense, and I laugh, but I can’t let the matter rest there. It haunts me, because I spend a lot of time failing to imagine scents.

You see, my nose is a dud. Anything weaker than a rotting possum goes in one nostril and out the other. You Respirating Types keep raving about new cars and old books and fresh laundry, and frankly, I feel left out.

I'm looking at you, Traitor.

It’s possible that everyone in the world knows exactly what the chameleon smells like, and to them, the passage is funny because some anosmic guy named Ian is laughing for the wrong reason.

It’s also possible that everyone in the world is just as anosmic as me, and the entire olfactory sense—from new cars to old books to chameleons on tartan—has been a ruse that started on the day I was born, and will end on the day I die.

And y’know what? To Hell with you all! This just strengthens my resolve to visit Ankh-Morpork and sniff the place, myself! If Terry Pratchett bothered to describe it, then maybe it’s strong enough for me to notice! That’ll show ya!! Ahahaha!

Only then do I remember that Ankh-Morpork doesn’t exist. And that I don’t yet have enough evidence about the International Olfactory Conspiracy to write essays about them. And that, in fact, I’m only reading a book, and I really ought to calm down.

Can you blame me for taking this seriously?
Illustrated by Josh Kirby.

A single throwaway joke reveals a deep insecurity of mine, and reminds me that I’m afraid of being ostracized for my differences. I’ve spared myself a few minutes of therapy, using only art and introspection. I dunno how much my therapist charges per minute, but still, how empowering!

Imagine how much we’d grow if everyone always did this! We can solve our own problems, appreciate our prosperities, and make our subconscious thoughts conscious. All we need to do is engage the art that we already spend our free time experiencing.

There may be dire consequences if we don’t, but I’ll let Kurt Vonnegut bear the bad news, with a quote from “Address to the American Physical Society.”

“I was perplexed as to what the usefulness of any of the arts might be, with the possible exception of interior decoration. The most positive notion I could come up with was what I call the canary-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. This theory argues that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are supersensitive. They keel over like canaries in coal mines filled with poison gas, long before more robust types realize that any danger is there.

“The most useful thing I could do before this meeting today is to keel over. On the other hand, artists are keeling over by the thousands every day and nobody seems to pay the least attention.”

So please, pay attention. Humankind is co-starring in a drama with the Universe. It’s important, and accessible, and far too interesting for any of us to remain ignorant.

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