“Often, stepping into another artists’ home is like a reassuring brush with the truth that we’re not the crazy ones; that it’s the rest of the aesthetically bankrupt world that’s got it wrong. I love that.” – Scott Cooper reflecting on his visit to Michael Kline’s
In a recent post I examined how the things we don’t like often get that treatment as a result of our own inexperience. If ‘Try it, you’ll like it’ sometimes makes the difference then our unfamiliarity is just as often a source of suspicion and dislike. Everything from a new type of food to music we’ve never listened to before has a prejudiced hurdle it needs to climb before we can uncover what there is to like. We simply gravitate toward the things we already know (and like). That’s just human nature. And we steer clear of the things we don’t like, but often we don’t like them because we don’t trust them. We don’t yet know what they are offering, so we rush to the judgment that some test has been failed. We make the lazy leap from unknown to unloved.
It is interesting that over time we can change our opinions. Things we didn’t like can eventually become the standards of what we now do like. But what has changed? One answer is that we now know more about what that thing is and the magic of its beauty has been revealed to us. We have unlocked its potential. The closer you pay attention the more you get to see the value of what we are looking at. Its as if there were a tipping point in our exposure that transmutes the disliked into the liked. And it can seem like a magic transformation if we are observing closely. Like pulling rabbits from a hat, “Where did that come from?”
Which makes sense to me. I’ve always wanted to believe that if we simply knew more we would uncover the hidden beauty that surrounds us. We would learn to see the world with new eyes by peering closer and attending to the nuance. I’ve always wanted to believe that seeing beauty was a cumulative experience. That seeing these beautiful insights was a quantitative step taken with the right sort of understanding. If we but learned to see the world as containing these surprising instances of beauty our world would be forever transformed. Its like getting the keys to a car we can now drive.
But its also true that we can change in the opposite direction as well. We can now dislike what we formerly adored. But what has changed? This is not the scenario where we dislike things because we don’t yet understand them. In fact it seems that we occasionally now dislike these things because we have learned even more about them. Its as if we were wrong to love them the way we did, and only now understand the error of our ways. “What was I thinking?” We had a partial glimpse and were deceived into liking what we had no business liking. “If only we had known the truth we would have been spared the indignity of our misspent fondness.”
But doesn’t that sound strange? We can’t usually help the way we feel, and if we like something, that is often the end of the story. If we truly dislike it are we not entitled to have that feeling too? What does knowing more really have to do with it? Liking and disliking are hard facts of our emotional life, and they are true feelings regardless of the contingency of our understanding. ‘Love is blind’ and sometimes we’d rather have that love than know all the gory details. The love itself was real whether the thing loved was truly represented to us…..
But then sometimes knowing too much makes it impossible to continue loving. When I found out my Air Jordans had been made with child labor I no longer felt the same way about them. When I learned that Bill Cosby is a sexual predator he went from my favorite Philadelphian, a hero, to a zero. Some facts are simply hard to swallow without changing us, and understanding some truths is a straight jacket for our feelings. In other words, with the lens of the right facts we are inescapably seeing the world as something specific.
Take, for instance, the duck/rabbit:
Or the young lady/old lady:
When we see things as something specific its often true that we can only see it in that one way at a time. One way of understanding it contradicts the other: If its a rabbit its not a duck, and vice versa: if its a young woman its not an old lady, and vice versa. It can be both things but not all at once. There can be a mutual exclusivity to how we appreciate things.
And so when we see beauty we get that the world has this beauty because we see it in a particular way. But then the difference isn’t always an accumulation of insight but the particular quality of the insight itself. We don’t see the beauty by simply seeing more about these things, we see the beauty because this is how we see it. And seeing things differently isn’t just the addition or subtraction of knowledge but adopting an independent framework for making our judgment. Understanding isn’t necessarily additive when the things known are incompatible or cancel one another out.
The truth is that many understood things hang together for us, and that given how much we already see through the lens of a particular kind of framework we are simply incapable of coming to see other particular things with the same kindness. Not at the same time, at least. You can’t be a member of the Sharks and also love the Jets. You can’t be a progressive Democrat and listen to Fox News….. Sometimes those things are so incompatible that bringing them together in one mind at the same time would be like joining matter to anti-matter: We would annihilate ourselves in the collision.
But I have higher hopes for beauty. Perhaps we don’t need to hold inconsistent and contradictory things in our minds at the same time, but can see the value of each on its own in its own time. F Scott Fitzgerald said “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” but maybe its not necessary for everyone to have this particular creative capacity. Maybe we can just be inconsistent serially? Aren’t we that way already? Its like we were an instrument. You can’t play more than one tune at a time, but you can lay down some Led Zeppelin before heading off to a Bach Cantata. It depends on how the instrument is tuned, and being tuned in a particular way gives us access to particular sorts of things we can play. But what is interesting is that we can also retune or recalibrate ourselves to see different things in different ways. Just like in the case of the duck/rabbit.
So what I’d like to propose is that we take our lesson from these two images, the duck/rabbit and young lady/old woman. So what if I like Classical Music? Does that mean I can’t also learn to see the value of Hip Hop? So what if I like salty foods? Can’t I also find something to like in sweet and sour, or tart? So what if Green is the color that moves me the most? Can I not find the hidden joys of yellow and purple? So what if I really get impressionist painting? Can I not also see the potency of abstract expressionism?
Which is not to say that some things are still not worth disliking, only that we rarely cross that line without the prejudice of some other bias hanging over us. We can come to know our dislikes better. We can explore them, mull them over, roll them around on our tongue, fix them with our gaze, wrinkle our nose up and take a big whiff…. We don’t have to be so ignorant about our dislikes. And maybe just then we can also open a few doors that we thought were closed. Perhaps we will stumble into some things we had overlooked and be suddenly struck with the wonder that is now revealed. Isn’t that worth aiming for? And the truth is that the world holds many such surprises for us. Just ask anyone who sees things differently than you. Isn’t the potential for our amazement just… amazing?
Make beauty real!