Culture Rover

# 21 - Thinking About Not Thinking About Art

"Remember that dance, like music and painting, is not an essentially intellectual art form. Of course it can exert an intellectual appeal (especially on intellectuals), and the more you know about it, the more you'll appreciate it, but enjoyment of the immediate experience doesn't require the participation of the higher brain centers. As the saying goes, dance hits you where you live -- and some people, oddly enough, don't like to be hit there. Perhaps the prospect of surrendering control of their feelings makes them anxious. Me, I eat it up and yell for more. As Arlene Croce once said, 'I never saw a good ballet that made me think.' Afterwards, yes: I do plenty of thinking, not infrequently followed by writing. But not in the theater, not in the moment, not when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. That's when I want to be blown away -- and that's what a good dance does." -- Terry Teachout, in the wonderfully-named blog About Last Night.

How do we parse out the aesthetic experience exactly? Teachout is on to something in his blog when he urges a correspondent not to always think of art ideologically, as reducible to intellectual meaning. Art does not have to be boiled down to the intentions of the artist either, or to some sort of message. Art can be feelings, non-discursive moods, inarticulated sensations that we grasp but cannot quite put into words.

I wonder, though, if Teachout too radically distinguishes body from mind, idea from feeling, the lower from the "higher brain centers." What we continue to strive for in grappling with the significance, the power, the essence, the fullness, of aesthetic experience is how it can, at its best, obliterate these dichotomies, how this can be dangerous, but also transformative in positive ways.

What we need -- once we start the process of getting outside of dichotomies and into the whole shebang of artistic experience in its full glory -- is an ethics of aesthetic experience. A way to think about art that functions like a pair of glasses, a electromagnetic sensor, a microscope and telescope all in one, a sonargram and auralspectrogram, a Geiger counter and Richter's scale, a tool for exploration, one that doesn't limit the way that dance or music or art or film or the migrating bird on the tree branch outside my window can turn my perspective on the world utterly upside down. Instead, we need an ethics of aesthetics that helps us momentarily disorient and then reorient our selves, lose our senses and gain them back anew.

19 October 2004

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