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April 21, 2004

Better? Or Just Older?

Dear Friedrich --

I don't know about you, but my tastes have changed over the years. Or maybe not my tastes so much as the the ways in which my curiosity about culture and the arts express themselves. As an arty kid, what interested me was excitement and daring; I loved what turned me on, basically. I loved plunging into the thick of art-things there to discover my reactions, which in turn spurred me into exploring the art world (and occasionally even learning a bit about it).

These days, I seem to operate in a different way. I'm more interested in reflective, even anthropological questions: the role of art, for instance, and how we see art, and how we experience and use it. My own reactions to actual artworks are what they are, but they seldom fascinate me much. So far as individual works go, I'm more curious about questions of form and genre than I am about questions of expressiveness, let alone excitement. Comfort, respect, pleasure, limitations, modesty -- all these things mean a lot to me these days. I see potential in them that I didn't used to. I don't crave the kinds of bustin'-out experiences I once did -- been there, done that, if always grateful for a thrill. I've awakened into a philosophical mode -- however amateurish -- and into a phase when my tastes are veering more Classical than Romantic.

Happy to admit that much of this change has to do with age. Happy to admit, in fact, that in this as in so much else I'm a walking cliche.

Still, what gets me scratching my chin is this: I can't help feeling that I've earned this way of going about things, and of experiencing things. I know consciously that the change in my p-o-v is 99% due to biochemistry and aging. But I feel that my current p-o-v is superior, and that it's hard-won; I feel that it represents an achievement, not an inevitability. And I wonder why this should be so.

As a kid, I thought there was something unique, special, and remarkable about my experience. I'd get annoyed that older people had this ... equanimity, or something. They were failing to engage with the excitement that was so important a factor to me -- what was their problem? What were they fighting? Why weren't they knocked out by what knocked me out? Why didn't they understand how important these matters were? In a word: my own experiences, thoughts and reactions hit me with the force of revelation. This was it! Wowee!

(Talk about young and dumb ... To my shame, I also remember being unable to avoid the feeling that the real cause of my Dad's problems during the years when his health was failing was that he wasn't trying hard enough. I knew perfectly well that this feeling of mine was absurd. But I also couldn't deny that I had the feeling.)

These days, when I have an art-reaction, an art-thought, or an art-observation, I tend to feel relief. I feel like I've found what I was looking for all along, like I'm finally getting my head screwed on straight. Finally, after all those years of delusion, I can relax. I've arrived, and it feels indisputably right. Yet is there any reason to think that my current settling-with-gratitude-into-the-truth feeling is any more accurate than was my youthful wow-kapow-look-at-me feeling? Or are both ... simply experiences of no significance, mere functions of being a certain age?

How to explain the fact that what we believe about the significance of our tastes, reactions and interests changes? As youngsters: "Wow, holy shit, the whole world oughta stop and take note." As crusty middle-agers: "Ah, finally, now I truly understand, what was I thinking of before?" Hmm, an image: it's like the whole art-experience thing is its own thing, but then there's another thing too, which is a penumbra of feeling around the art-experience thing. And the penumbra has its own qualities. As a kid, that penumbra of feeling had a giddy and revelatory flavor; as a broken-down middle-age sadsack, its flavor is more like good scotch.

I've got a couple of provisional speculations about this:

* You and I found our way to the arts in the '60s and '70s, which was an unfortunate time in some ways but an intoxicating one in others. '60s art-and-culture often played the same role drugs did: they were a way of getting high. Perhaps if we'd found our way to the arts during some other period, we'd have had no need to get over youthful foolishness.

* Perhaps -- and I shudder at the thought, but there it is -- I really have learned better.

I tend to think the change in the flavor of the penumbra is a matter of my biochemical composition simply returning different results and responses than it did in times past. I've shed one skin and grown another, but it's just another skin. Or is it?

Anyway: are my thoughts and responses about art any more "right" now than they were then? And if not, why in the world would I have such a strong feeling that they are? Is this just the aging brain at work, heightening experience even when it's a broken-down middle-age kind of experience? Given that we're all meltingly, inextricably a-swim in the midst of this soup of objective/subjective sensation and bewilderment, can answers to questions like this ever be nailed down?

Hey, how have your art tastes and art interests evolved over the years?



posted by Michael at April 21, 2004



First, I don't think it is 99% biochemistry. I think it reflects accumulated experience. When you were young, you frequently had experiences that took you by surprise--that had no place on your mental map of the world. Naturally they were exciting--there was a whole new region to map out that you'd never even heard of before.

Nowadays, when you're, ahem, less young, your mental map is much larger and more sophisticated. You're not likely to run across anything that's wholly new. You'll still encounter new things and new ideas, but you'll be able to see much more quickly how they fit in with everything else--and isn't it satisfying when they just snap into place, and make an unsuspected connection between a couple of things you already knew but hadn't previously put together?

So the answer is "better," definitely, not just older--provided you keep learning and updating your mental map.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 21, 2004 2:13 PM

Lord have mercy. You got me started. Been staring for 15 minutes at this, trying to collect my thoughts. I think what you are describing is controllable, if you want to work at it.
In the 70's, I read a lot of good books. :) Did not watch any TV, saw no movies, went out very little, libraries and bookstores. 6-12 hours a day, every day I read the hardest, most avant-garde literature I could get my hands on.
JR---D'Arconville's Cat---Purgatorio---Blood Oranges...there is a week.
How does one read the tough stuff? Well, the academics read critically, and what they extract can be seen in how they write. Yeccch. The writers write the stuff in an emotional frame, however intellectual it looks, they are having fun. That is where you want to get. Emotional communication through internal adjustments.
Boredom is anger. Confusion is fear. Too much excitement will cause a let down. Too much detachment and you will lose focus and contact, or become bored. Gotta suspend the critical faculty(analyze later). Stay alert or you won't remember what you are reading. Stay relaxed, but concentrate. Don't take any emotions into the art, except need. Depend on the text to give you emotion.
Yeah, it is kinda Zen. And it worked, to the point Finnegans's Wake was a joy to read. And I learned that if I am not getting ____(whatever) from a work of acclaimed art, it is my fault.
And then in 1983 I stopped reading literature and haven't read any since. :) Oh, and from 1985 to 2000 I listened to zero music. Zero. Save accidental, of course, I am now enjoying it again.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 21, 2004 2:23 PM

Yeah sure, Knowledge and experience. You meet a new woman, you compare her to all the other women you've known? Nope, you deliberately forget them all.

This stuff is controllable.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 21, 2004 2:29 PM

Like me, you're a boomer and therefore (for good or ill), our generation has been afforded the luxury of being able to set a dominant tone in a lot of things. Therefore, I expect our personal tastes have been synchronized pretty well with changes in available cultural material. So as we tend with age to move from the romantic to the classical, we get to drag a lot of stuff with us on the journey--we have cultural company in our personal journeys by virtue of our generational clout.

I'd think other (recessive rather than dominant) generations might have a more jarring experience--maturing into an era of strum und drang right when they're ready for Mozart.

In terms of how I personally experience the shift with age: used to be the process of discovery was one of exploration of something new and external. Now it's more likely that discovery is a process of recognition of what's already there. Uncovering rather than a voyaging. You know the old saying: by the time a man is forty he pretty much has the face he deserves?

In that regard as well, it's nice to compare two Alan Rudolph films: Choose Me from the early 80s and Afterglow from the late 90s. The former is wonderfully romantic, all those lovers discovering other lovers right around the corner, every encounter with someone new setting up new possibilities. The latter is in an abstract kind of way the same story, almost 20 years later, wherein actions have had consequences and craggy old Nick Nolte truly has the face he deserves.

Posted by: fenster moop on April 21, 2004 3:45 PM

"Yeah sure, Knowledge and experience. You meet a new woman, you compare her to all the other women you've known? Nope, you deliberately forget them all."

I'm not sure what you're driving at. Are you saying that I could retain that "Wowee!" excitement by deliberately forgetting my past experience? Why would I want to do that? Applied generally (as to women, per your example) and it sounds like a great way to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 21, 2004 4:16 PM

This will date me, but in my youth my great art experience was a movie: On The Waterfront. It's not only that I went back to see it 5 or 6 times. My reaction to it was, how shall I say this....orgasmic.
I saw it again recently. A good strong film. But what was that all about back then?
I'd be willing to bet that everyone posting here, to a greater or lesser degree, had a similar relation to a movie, a piece of music, a singer, a particular writer, in youth.
I leave what it means to the psychologically astute.

Posted by: ricpic on April 21, 2004 5:08 PM

For arty types, strong art experiences in youth are a sort burst of self-recognition, a look in a mirror that you hadn't seen before. I think they seem overwhelming because of anxieties you have about where you're going and what you're trying to do with your life. I suspect that once you're a bit more established, you are capable of a more distanced, objective viewing, that doesn't have that 'explosive' and 'disorienting' sense that occurs when you are, or want to be, what you are looking at. Hence, from the knowledge standpoint, you have made objective progress. From the standpoint of emotional transport, pure and simple, you're over the hill, down into the valley and maybe even over the next hill...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 21, 2004 5:29 PM

"Are you saying that I could retain that "Wowee!" excitement by deliberately forgetting my past experience? Why would I want to do that? Applied generally (as to women, per your example) and it sounds like a great way to keep making the same mistakes over and over again."

Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. We hang on our knowledge and experience like prized possessions, and it keeps us from experiencing art like new. We don't grow old, we grow critical.

The original post was great, and I am only repeating some things here. What do we want from art, reassurance or challenge? What is more important, the art or me?

I am listening to music again. It is 90% stuff I never listened to before in my life.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 21, 2004 7:32 PM

I'm about 15 years older than you Blowhards, so my early exposure to arts was different. That and maybe the fact that I lived in then-provincial Seattle.

Anyway, I got much of my exposure to art and how it was supposed to be appreciated from Museum of Modern Art books on painting, design, and architecture. The rest was from art classes at the Seattle Art Museum while in high school plus 4 years of art & architecture at the University of Washington. All this was in the second half of the Fifties when "modern" was riding high, it was beyond criticism, and they failed to teach us how to paint for fear of ruining our apparently innate creativity. This can turn into a serious rant about the then educational system, so I'll get to my main point.

Now, after having had a nice career and having become a semi-expert in a professional field (population forecasting), I have a lot more confidence in my abilities and judgment than I did at age 17 or 20. I can easily think for myself about the arts now.

So, rather than chalking a significant part of it up to biology, as you do Michael, I credit my mature views on the arts to, well, maturity and self-confidence from a professional career of at least average achievement.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 21, 2004 7:50 PM

Gosh...I still have the "wowee" experience. Discovering something new and fun is still new and fun. RE-discovering something can even be better! What does that say about me? No...a happier question (wowee!) is what does that say about you? I actually kinda feel for you, that you don't feel that way! However, it might be different things that bring the "wowee" than they were---I guess that's where the accumulated experience comes in.

Posted by: annette on April 21, 2004 9:02 PM

Many thanks for nifty thoughts and reflections. Does anyone else feel, as I do sometimes, that your involvement with the arts is a little like a marriage? And like you've moved from the youthful-infatuation stage to a deeper/better/more-mature but maybe less dramatic stage? I do. I clung to the infatuation thing for much longer than I probably should have, forever searching out transporting experiences. And then I had a few scary years when that oomph just left me. It went right out of me. It was scary because of the state it threw me into. Did this mean I was losing my interest in the arts generally? And if so, had my whole life been a mistake? (Given how much of it I'd arranged so I could spend a lot of time with the arts, that is.) Luckily, I slowly woke up not to having fallen out of love with the arts but to a new kind of relationship with them -- calmer, deeper, more satisfying, more humorous. Like a happy, contended middle-age marriage rather than a youthful whirlwind, and not without its own kinds of thrills. I'm just not actively chasing down thrills any longer. Open to 'em when they happen, but not about to force 'em, and not about to complain when they aren't there. There's so much else to enjoy.

And then I wonder: gee, maybe this is just a function of decrepitude. Glad to hear y'all think experience and perspective have a few nice things going for them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 21, 2004 11:25 PM

The well worn marriage analogy works well. There is room for long, comfortable silences interspersed with moments of, um, strenuous activity and discovery.

With books, I am finding now that I've hit the hot flash years what I thought was so amazing in my 20's is just flash and glitter and what baffled me as unbelievably dense and dry then now makes much more sense. I put it down to experience. A teacher in high school once told me he never taught Lear to teenagers because they hadn't lived long enough to understand Lear and why he did what he did. That's beginning to make sense now, after having kids and lost loved ones.

Posted by: Deb on April 22, 2004 8:40 AM

This is a fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking interchange. I agree with Michael that a reflective approach to living in general has grown stronger in recent years. I think it has to do with biology, but I think it also has to do with accumulation of knowledge and therefore a better understanding of complexity in most things.

I am surprised that my new reflectiveness does not extend to politics - or perhaps I mean, more specifically, injustice. I had expected to mellow about such things by now (age 63) but I'm more ready to march than when I was doing it in the sixties.

I've added a little note about this exchange of ideas and linked to it from my new Weblog:

Posted by: Ronni on April 22, 2004 9:06 AM

I remember a case study done on people with brain damage to a certain area of their brain. They suffered from some type of dementia, one of the side effects being that they enjoyed novel experiences. IIRC, it was first noticed when a doctor observed that patients of his with a certain type of dementia enjoyed popular music, video games etc.

I don't know if that actually means anything though :)

Posted by: b313 on April 22, 2004 9:06 AM

You mean I'm demented for feeling "wowee"? (Most definitely not about video games, though). Well, go figure. :)

Posted by: annette on April 22, 2004 9:33 AM

dementia is what happens after the middle aged, placid phase. Something to look forward to!

Perhaps you're just young at heart?

Posted by: Deb on April 22, 2004 9:40 AM

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