George Saunders and I share the belief that how people engage with art can serve as a template for how to engage with life.
(Comparing my writing to Saunders’ masterstroke of artistic criticism A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a gigantic self-own on my part).
Understanding art and understanding life are predicated on interpreting what we observe to figure out what we think and feel about what’s being observed, and the bases for our response. Diagnosing how we respond to art can be a ramifications-free dress rehearsal for how to approach life outside of art.
While a knee-jerk reaction might echo the general sentiments of a more considered response, the consideration itself is where the magic of art and life reside. A lack of such contemplation can result in stasis; if we never wrestle with the relationship between our perception and our conception, then how can we ever hope to change along with an ever-changing world?
Who wants to respond to life and art in the same way from sperm to worm? When we encounter a piece of art or a fellow human’s behavior that at first leaves us cold, do we cling to this response, or do we try to understand what we’re observing from their perspective? Our patterned preferences can act like blinders; bias inhibits the broadest appreciation — and, thus, understanding — for the full range of artistic worth and the worth of others. The bounds of our preferences cannot be comprehensive; unwarranted blind spots will always exist.
Which is why a paradigm rooted in “Here’s what I prefer, how much does what I’m observing conform to my preferences?” proves faulty for both life and art. So why not let art question and challenge those preferences? Trying to understand a piece of art on its own terms, and not according to our limited terms, can breed a deeper understanding of both sets of terms. This interplay between our pre-existing perspective and how it clashes and harmonizes with the perspective of another is art’s potent alchemy for life.
I try applying this framework to my own beliefs, to check if my preferences might be built on flimsy foundations. An example:
Write All Nite consistently sermonizes about the theatrical experience. Personally, I engage with movies on a deeper level with improved sound and image. Simply put: bigger is better, even if a home set-up can be good enough. I legitimately enjoy more movies more in a theater.
But what if I’m just an evolutionary dinosaur??
If the art is what matters — theaters exist to showcase movies, not the other way around — then maybe I’m being naturally selected out of the future? The vast majority of viewers in my life claim they have the same experience at home as they do in a theater. Isn’t that preferable? Equalized responses irregardless of the format watched expands the scope of our preferences.
So maybe my theatrical preference is, tragically, a blind spot in my own viewing habits.