Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Culture, Chaos, Control (and Canine Companionship)

Recently, I watched a young couple on the sidewalk playing with their dog. The woman ran down the street, away from the man and dog, then stopped and turned around. She called for the pet at which point the man released the little dog and It ran down the street to the crouched, waiting woman. They were, in essence, playing catch with their dog.

It was then that I realized the attraction of dogs as pets. They are an excellent balance of controlled predictability and random chaos.

Dogs aren't playthings but the interaction doesn't constitute a real "relationship" either. Relationships with humans have a far greater capacity for surprise, disappointment, compassion and betrayal. Relationships are described as unhealthy if one dominates another but the give and take of the balance of power is what gives them their charge. The ever present possibility of disaster is always there. The unpredictable and uncontrollable make life lush.

One of the fundamental characteristics of any "aesthetic experience" is the surrender of control and the handing oneself over to a disorienting experience. You give permission for some level of chaos, submitting yourself to an experience that requires or will provide reorientation or "resolution".

In narrative examples this takes the form of the conflict/resolution structure. Some dilema is introduced and resolved. over the course of the plot. Procedural dramas like CSI are very tidy examples of this. The crime plunges viewers and protagonists into a mystery and a world out of order. The case is worked and by the end the mystery is solved and order is restored. It's Scooby-Doo for adults.

When I was a child I would spin around in circles, stop, watch the room spin. If I had done a really good job of spinning I would bounce off a piece of furniture and hit the ground. Its was self-induced sensory chaos. This is actually quite universal. You need only look as far as the merry-go-rounds and slides on children's playgrounds or Hasbro's Sit and Spin. The all serve that very same purpose as do roller coasters, parachuting, drugs, movies, music and art. In youth, the experiences tend to be more sensory and physical. As we age and grow in sophistication they become increasingly intellectual and metaphorical. Viewing an abstract painting challenges us to reorient how we see and begs questions of what is seeing and what is a painting.

A painting by Hans Hofmann.

Currently there is an installation of huge, beautifully designed slides at London's Tate Museum by artist Carsten Holler. Given the point of view I've outlined in this post, this installation fits neatly into my framework of what art is and the "function" of aesthetic experiences.

In a story on NPR, they asked visitors to the Tate whether the slides were art. The responses weren't surprising. Some were dismissive of the installation and refuse to recognize it as art. For others the presentation of a work by an artist or its placement within an art context is good enough.

What is astounding to me is that we send so much of our lives engaging in play, entertainment, culture and art –all of which I see as related phenomenon– and yet we seem to have so much trouble talking about it, about what it means and what it does for us. The common debates about validity clearly indicators of a lack of clarity and cultural self-awareness .

It's ironic that at the highest levels of culture the intellectualizing produces some of our most esteemed achievements but also gets us further and further away from understanding why we do these things and what they do for us. Then again, when I was six I couldn't tell you why I liked bouncing off the living room furniture either, but that really doesn't matter does it?

Spinning into an early grave.

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