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January 30, 2006

Ignorance and Bliss

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

From time to time the subject of the sheer emotional impact of a work of art gets mentioned here at 2Blowhards.

It doesn't matter which field of art we're discussing -- painting, music, drama, cinema, writing -- the idea is that the person experiencing the art is "blown away" in one way or another.

A toned-town, oblique version of this popped up in my recent post about Russian painter Valentin Serov and Michael's comment on it. But it more often comes up in everyday life when you rave about a play or maybe someone says to you "Oh, so you've actually seen Picasso's Guernica! How wonderful was it?" -- you get the idea.

This sort of thing happens often enough that it got me to introspecting. And my introspection came up with the following:

For me, the less I know about the nuts-'n'-bolts of an art field, the more likely I am to have a strong emotional reaction. And the more I know, the more likely I am to focus on how well technical aspects were accomplished.

The fields where I have the greatest technical knowledge are painting, design (both graphic and industrial) and architecture. When I was young and (almost by definition) ignorant, I was able to react emotionally to seeing such objects as, say, Cord automobiles for the first time.

This isn't to say I cannot have an emotional reaction to a painting or a new car design. Rather, if I have a reaction, and I do have them, it's likely to be a quick one: "Ooo, what a neat Serov portrait!! And look at the way he handled the shading under the chin."

The field I know least about from a technical standpoint is music. So of course I'm more likely react stronger and longer to hearing an appealing work than I am when I spy a new painting. Plus, music being a time-dependent art, I'm compelled to have more time to experience a work and discover things to react to: paintings and objects can be quickly scanned.

Maybe music isn't such a good example. After all, music is the most sense-specific of the arts, dealing exclusively with hearing if singing and words aren't involved. This might heighten any emotional reactions. Abstract painting comes close in the sense-exclusivity ranking, but I suspect people are more inclined to "read in" more meaning to an abstract painting than to a concerto.

One more example. I know little about the craft of fiction, so I can get sucked into a novel while not paying a whit of attention to how the writer contrived to suck me into it. I think that if I had good knowledge of fiction-writing, I'd be likely to pause to mull over the mechanics of what I was reading and lose a lot of the impact of the story.

It's possible that my introspecting can't be generalized to other folks: it might just be a personality thing. Except when I'm in fight-or-fright mode, I tend to be a pretty cool character. I maintain an even strain. Clichés like these tell my tale.

What about you?



posted by Donald at January 30, 2006


I love that WOW response that takes one by surprise in, as you say, any manner of art. I've been a student of close reading, and as a writer, am ever watchful for the how of the craft, but usually in retrospect so that it doesn't affect the reading. Marquez in particular, as well as McCarthy can elicit an immediate recognition and respect based on the writing without disturbing the reading of the story. The best example I could give would be poetry reading, and in fiction in particular, you will find those same poetics that take your breath away.

Posted by: susan on January 30, 2006 10:28 PM

Yup! I recently saw the Cirque Du Soleil show _O_. I loved most of the show but was underwhelmed by the firespinning because...I've /done/ firespinning. I found myself analyzing rather than appreciating. "Okay, that's a behind-the-back weave...decent split pattern there..." I noticed he wasn't as good as my instructor GlitterGirl, and I could imagine getting to be as good as he was. I was waiting for the part that would really impress even me, and didn't find it.

I had a completely different experience watching the rest of the show. Watching high-divers and other acrobats I knew there wasn't a prayer of me really understanding what it was like to do what they were doing, so I was able to simply sit back and appreciate it.

BTW, there's a nice short clip of a variety of fire artists here:

Posted by: Glen Raphael on January 30, 2006 10:28 PM

hello donald! and thank you! your post comes as a salvation of sorts.

you see, i have been struggling with the idea of "ineffable grace" one sees occasionally in really good classical dance; trying to understand it has led me down some really bad paths, including some serious detour by way of wittgenstein and his idea of unutterable truths ( and several related posts). i am very grateful for this post of yours and its most interesting insight about understanding of technique affecting our emotional responses to art, because it seems to offer a way out of the mystical mumbo-jumbo i got myself into.

i happen to know a great deal about music from the technical point of view. my experience with that has been like yours with design: that as i learned about music's technical aspects, the quality of my emotional response to music gradually changed. (and so, for example, i am unable to enjoy any pop music these days at all because the performers are uniformly so poor technically). and in classical music i am rarely wowed by technique these days (it really has to be something spectacular to wow me).

however, as good as this theory is, it cannot be all true. i am still wowed by other things in classical music -- new structural devices, for example; or new, unexpected moods; or surprisingly successful melodies; or unexpected orchestration. it is not all about novelty though. some things, like Beethoven's string quartet opus 95 as played by Quartetto Italiano; or Shostak's piano quintet as played by the Richter/Borodin combo; or the chromatic fantasia as played by Argerich continue to wow me out of my boots. perhaps not all wows are related to familiarity with technique?

best regards!

Posted by: gawain on January 30, 2006 11:07 PM

I guess I've never grown up or maybe I've never really mastered any particular art or maybe I can just suspend disbelief now and then. Even when I'm sceptical and rather braced against something, I sometimes find myself drawn in and lifted up unexpectedly. Maybe just a high school play or another landscape at auction or a movie I've already seen several times -- for heaven's sake! -- but the magic works. In fact, with something like a complex poem, it works better after some study than it did at first.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 30, 2006 11:26 PM

"fight-or-fright" mode? can a neologism be a cliche?

Posted by: playrink on January 31, 2006 2:45 AM

Knowing how it's done can be so deflating.

I have no art or music background, but after 40 years of reading, I've learned to recognize auctorial tricks. A lot of books that I was once impressed by now seem phony, and I find it hard to enjoy many books now. The same, to a degree, with film/video. I do appreciate cleverness sometimes.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 31, 2006 6:10 AM

I'm the same way.

I have purposely eschewed learning any music theory because music is such a strong emotional drug for me.

Even though I do know a lot of the nuts and bolts of fiction (well, prose in general), often I can suspend my critique and just read the story. But when I read someone really creaky, say Philip K. Dick, I can break into a sweat trying to stay with the story and not throw the book shouting, "OH COME ON!"

I don't want to have that happen with music. I have a buddy who studied music who kind of lost all interest in listening to it (he still performs) because music theory taught him where every song would go, how all the pieces fit together, so music doesn't excite him.

Another music major has retreated to novelty songs and esoteric jazz just for the unpredictability to it.

About the only art that doesn't get ruined for me by my knowing a lot of the technical aspects to it is movies. Though it can make me assume something that's not true, like when I thought the stinker "Cave" was all CGI when in fact the cave shots are real.

So, lit is kinda ruined for me, but not so much that it sucks. I'm still a virgin when it comes to music. And I have the benefit of being able to drop out of a movie and just observe the technical aspects of it if the movie itself doesn't do much for me.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 31, 2006 11:37 AM

But isn't it what happens to all fields of knowledge - and trades, too? Once you acquire professional (or say, in-depth hobbyish) understanding of the technical side of it, it's hard to regain the magic. Once you've seen the layers of roughly painted forest and the lake, you no longer believe the illusion of the frontal view of the Swan Lake stage set, isn't it? You appreciate other sides of it, not previously familiar to you, but that virginal impact is gone, gone forever...
I think this thread is relevant to the current one.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 31, 2006 12:02 PM

If you know a lot about something, certain sorts of gimmicks which were highly effective when you first heard them become ho-hum. On the other hand, every once in awhile you ask yourself "How did he DO that?", because some people just can do things others can't. (I'm thinking of music).

Jimi Hendrix has this reputation as a primitive, and he has had tons of imitators, but I've heard other guitar players say that they still don't know how he did some of the things he did. My feeling is that he was only really happy when he was playing guitar, but that he put more into the guitar than almost anyone else.

Franz Liszt, who revolutionized classical pianoi, also didn't know how he did what he did. He had a student who figured out how he did it by watching him, and the student became a great piano teacher.

So basically, if you know more about something, you'll be impressed by different things, and they'll be things that only a few people can do.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 31, 2006 2:01 PM

I find that learning about an art makes me enjoy the good stuff more while tolerating the bad stuff less.

The notion of the innocent eye may be quite romantic, but there's plenty of works that I simply didn't appreciate when I didn't know anything about the theory behind them. I didn't appreciate Hitchcock until I learned to pay attention to editing and camera movement. I didn't like the Hammerklavier of Beethoven until I knew about sonata form and how a fugue works. I didn't get anything out of D.W. Griffith until I read Pudokin's book and learned how to watch silent movies. I now enjoy all these things - and on a purely emotional level, but guided by intellect.

And that's what theory ought to be; a guide, like having a connoisseur at your side saying "Now look at this". Without it you don't know what to pay attention to, and the work might pass you right by.

"I don't like this Bergman flick; it's boring. He sucks!" Look at those close-ups though, and that composition over there, and listen to the sound in this scene. "Oh yeah, I hadn't noticed that!"

Frex: When I first listened to the last movement of the Eroica symphony, I didn't realize it was a theme and variations and I thought old Ludwig had flipped his lid. It was only when I paid attention to the structure of the piece that I recognized the level of musical exuberance behind it. He's so eager to get the thing started that he's given us three variations on the bass line of the theme before he's even gotten around to playing the theme itself. Then he returns to the bass line and turns it into a fugue. Then, badass that he is, he goes and flips the goddamn thing upside down and turns it into yet another fugue. Ludwig, you crazy mofo! When I hear it now I can't help but laugh at the sheer ballsiness of it.

Posted by: Brian on January 31, 2006 2:02 PM

Italics off, I hope. Got a bit carried away there...

Posted by: Brian on January 31, 2006 2:04 PM

(long-time reader; first-time commenter)

What Brian said.

The only art form I know a lot about, in the technical sense, is music. And it's the one that gives me the deepest and most wonderful WOWs. With the other arts, I suspect I miss opportunities for WOW all the time, simply because I don't *see* some of the potentially WOW-inducing things.

I'm currently learning more about film, and I'm finding that I'm getting bowled over more often by cinematic magic these days (of course, some of that has to do with being steered toward better films, but I think it's also that I've learned to see more when I watch).

Posted by: camillofan on February 1, 2006 6:50 AM

It's almost a rule of thumb: the better the artist the fewer the tricks (great technique is not a trick). It follows that you're more likely to be WOWed by a first rate artist, whatever your technical knowledge, than you are by a mediocre one. What the really great ones do is not a trick, it's as much beyond them as it is beyond you.

Posted by: ricpic on February 1, 2006 11:28 AM

You may not be able to help it. Here is an article explaining how musicians' brains process music differently than do those of untrained listeners. I suspect the same thing occurs in the other arts as well.

Being an accountant, I am completely untroubled by these findings.

Posted by: Mitch on February 1, 2006 12:13 PM

I agree with this. One of the interesting things about connoisseurship is getting past the technical aspects at times and recognizing that great art can be made through ways that I'd criticize normally.

I know a lot about music. But for me a reminder of the limits of technical knowledhge is Liz Phair's album "Exile in Guyville." Liz can't sing well, she can't play the guitar beyond the basics and she certainly can't play the piano. Yet her self-recorded album rises to the level of poetry anyway, which I can instinctively feel. It communicates the evolution of a young woman (I am male, BTW) in an original, powerful way and nothing I can say about Phair's technical shortcomings obscures that. A great lesson.

Nice post, Donald. A worthy follow-up would be about similar experiences -- art that is technically bad but nevertheless achieves a stirring, immediate emotional effect.

For example, "The Da Vinci Code" is a ludicrously bad thriller technically. Yet it has caused a huge fan base to devour Dan Brown's other works. Are those of us who are more cognizant of thriller's technical aspects missing something?

Posted by: jult52 on February 2, 2006 9:02 AM

John Emerson: "Franz Liszt, who revolutionized classical pianoi, also didn't know how he did what he did. He had a student who figured out how he did it by watching him, and the student became a great piano teacher."

I don't even know what this means.

Posted by: jult52 on February 2, 2006 9:05 AM

Liszt could do things on piano no one else could, but he couldn't explain how. His student watched him play and figured out the mechanics of it, and he was eble to teach it. Liszt wasn't the greatest composer or musician, necessarily, but he pushed the envelope on piano.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 4:09 PM

The phenomenon you are referring to has a name: designeritis.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on February 3, 2006 8:18 PM

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