Monday, February 25, 2013

Varieties of Pleasure

One of the most important functions of art is to give pleasure. Indeed, if something that formerly had a mundane role is re-imagined primarily to give pleasure, we start calling it an art. A lot of very pleasurable things started out as very ordinary. Take cheese, for example. Cheese was invented simply to preserve the nutritional value of milk before there were refrigerators. Other food items like wine or preserved meats have a similar origin. In their altered form, they remain edible for considerable lengths of time, even in hot climates. But over time, the possibility of improving these foods to become more pleasurable, became evident. Even by the time of ancient Rome, gourmet varieties of cheese were being produced and imported.

Even the so-called fine arts have mundane origins. The arts of the ancient Greeks like pottery began as simple utilitarian objects and slowly became decorative objects of great beauty. This wine container depicting Herakles and Athena dates from about 540 BC:

The wine jug has been transformed into a work of art. I got started thinking about this after watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain about Ferran Adrià, the famous chef who created possibly the finest restaurant in the world while it was open, El Bulli. Here is part of the episode:

This is most obviously about the transformation of the simple act of eating into an art form. Looking at coverage in the mass media, this is a widespread phenomenon. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal that have less and less coverage of things like classical music, have more and more coverage of food and drink. The one art form is in decline while the other is in ascendance. The arts of personal adornment also seem to be rising in importance. The French franchise Sephora sells beauty products and there are something like 100,000 videos on YouTube celebrating shopping there! Yes, really.

So, classical music down, while food, drink and make-up are up. What else is down? I suspect a big one is poetry. Poetry was perhaps the first fine art. It was already in a state of high development by the time of Homer, about 800 BC, when the other art forms were still in a crude form. Indeed, one could argue quite cogently that the art of poetry has seen nothing superior to the Iliad and the Odyssey since. And where is poetry today? Name the most important living poet in English. Everyone I can think of offhand is dead like T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin or Wallace Stevens. A few minutes with Google and I come up with the name John Ashbery, but I confess that I am not familiar with his work. It seems as if poetry is one art form that has been rather thoroughly erased from public view.

I think I am seeing a pattern here: what seems to be driving popularity is two things: first, the ability of something to directly deliver pleasure to individuals in the form of food, drink, make-up and so on (clothing and accessories also come to mind--think how the fashion industry is making serious attempts to become a fine art); and second, the ability to monetize this delivery commercially. I suspect we are not fully conscious of how much the commercial has squeezed the non-commercial in the last several decades. Poetry is experiencing such a severe decline probably because no-one has figured out how to monetize it. Classical music is experiencing a decline because it is becoming only marginally commercially viable. The commercial success of classical music was in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Before then it was not commercial in the modern sense of the word because it was supported by the aristocracy. In the 19th century the art form of music had a tremendous expansion because it was the ideal art form for Romanticism and had a ready made audience in the shape of the newly emergent middle class. This commercial success was extended by the development of the recording industry, the very archetype of how to monetize something ephemeral by turning a concert of music, something as evanescent as can be, into a piece of vinyl that can be purchased. Alas, with the Internet, revenues from recordings are fading fast so the business model for classical music is fading away.

One fine art that seems to be doing very well is the visual arts: painting, sculpture, installations, etc. These provide an easily marketable object that you can purchase and take home. This seems to appeal to the new aristocracy of the hyper-wealthy. A lot of classical music is still supported by the wealthy in the form of patronage of concert series, orchestras and opera. But I have the feeling that fewer and fewer of the wealthy really understand what they are supporting. This is a consequence of the more or less successful erasure of classical music from having a public presence. That sounds as if there is a kind of conspiracy and there probably is not--though I do sense a kind of malicious pleasure among some people who are fans of popular music at disparaging classical music for being too elitist.

Back to pleasure: to me, there is no more intense or full pleasure than classical music. No more powerful aesthetic force. Music, not just classical, but music of different kinds, can create an entire universe of being in just a few moments. It can take you on journeys impossible to describe in words. It can elevate and transcend, warm and terrify in a way no other art form can. So I am just a bit disconcerted to see it superseded by lesser art forms like cuisine, beverage, make-up and fashion. Perhaps the burden that weighs down classical music is the need to understand it a bit, to be prepared to listen a few times. Perhaps in our time most people prefer the immediate pleasures.

But is there anything that can compare to this:

Or this:

UPDATE: This is an interesting take on the same phenomenon.


Rickard Dahl said...

Very good points in this post. None of these new "art forms" interest me. Food for me is simply something that gives nutrition and hopefully tastes good. But the growth of food as "art" can easily be observed in the growing number of cooking shows (including more serious competition shows). Drink, same thing, gives nutrition and hopefully tastes good (alcohol is of no interest to me, in fact I have never drunk alcohol). Fashion is just silly, as long as the clothes don't look bad and aren't worn I don't really care about clothes, it's a waste of money in many cases. Make-up, eh, no need to even bring it up (I'm a male after all) but in general I think make-up is simply fake. I wish everyone would stay true to the way they actually look (ofc, for movies and such it makes sense with make-up).

Although I'm not particularly interested (or involved in) in art forms such as sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry, writing etc. I do feel a sense of respect to those thing. Ultimately it is music that is the greatest art form. Those two pieces you included show how music can have greater depth than all other art forms. A painting is great and all but it doesn't have the same sense of depth as music (at least the non-popular music type). Music is a time art after all. I think in a sense music is more similar to theatre or movies which too are time arts. A picture/painting can ofc add to music sometimes such as in the javanese gamelan piece (the piece was great, the picture added to the sense of mystery and exoticness).

Bryan Townsend said...

I think what caused me to write this post was noticing the contrast between how most people these days regard food and music. For example, ask someone what food they like and they might enthusiastically talk about Japanese food or this great little taco stand they just discovered or a nice bottle of wine they recently enjoyed. But ask people what music they like and they often just get vague and say, "oh, I like all kinds of music". I haven't actually done a survey, this is just anecdotal, but wouldn't it be interesting to collect some statistics? People are enthusiastic about things they care about. Right now, people seem to care more about food than music.