Friday, March 27, 2009

This entry isn't REALLY about Stephen Fry

You may already be familiar with Stephen Fry.

He's not known in the U.S.A. nearly as well as he is in his native Britain, but we've still managed to pick up some of his pieces here and there. He's acted in some movies we might have seen, done some voice work in video games we may have played, written some books that we might have read...

One of the best ways I know to describe him is an English epicurean. This is not to say that he's an epicurean from England (thought that is probably true), but more that he takes Epicurean delight in the language of English. He is well know for having a day-to-day vocabulary that sends many people fumbling for dictionaries. One doesn't just point a word like "quotidian" at someone else unless one plans to use it! His prepared works cavort from the highest of peaks of perspicacity to the lowest gullies of rampant indelicacies.

He's on my short list of people to have dinner with, in part because he always seems to be doing damn interesting things! For example, as I write this, he's in Indonesia doing a documentary about the last chance to see certain species before they go extinct. Or maybe that's what he's doing next month... He's continually sending back pictures from his iPhone of the berries he's eating and the strange birds that end up on his balcony. Who wouldn't like to hear about that?

Mr. Fry (it's that "Mr. Burton" problem all over again!) has an abiding interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde. In one of the episode's of his podcast, he relates a brief story of Oscar Wilde being asked his opinion on why America had such a history of violence. As Fry relates it, Wilde's answer was "America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly."

The point Fry is making in his essay is about the essential nature of aesthetics. His interpretation of Wilde's remark is that, by virtue of surrounding ones self with ugly and un-beautiful things, one lacks the ability to appreciate them. Those who have at least a basic attempt at understanding art, music, and literature are much less likely to "think ugly thoughts".

It's an interesting thing to think about. Could we tamp down our societal problems by putting some Monet on the walls? What do we do about beauty being in the eye of the beholder?

Is it enough to just sit and THINK about stuff that's beautiful? Or is there truly some line in the sand where "beautiful" things begin?

Let's take Jackson Pollack. I'm not a fan of his works. They're certainly not something I'd pay to have on my walls. I don't consider them beautiful. There are many who do, however. Many people are willing to pay a lot of money to posses these works because they like them. Do I gain ground on the aesthetic "way of life" by simply sitting and thinking about the parts I like and the parts I don't?

Or what about Shakespeare? I find the plays to be a finely crafted production of the highest artistic merit. But I have many friends whose eyes widen whenever I bring my annotated edition of "Big Bill" on band bus trips. They wouldn't read it for a class (opting instead for the Cliff's Notes), let alone reading it multiple times FOR FUN. Do they receive an aesthetic benefit from simply thinking about how they don't like it?

It's easy to go to a museum and see the famous works and say you love them. The Mona Lisa is possibly the most famous painting in the world and is generally regarded as a masterpiece of art and beauty, if anything is likely to be called that. However, the average Louvre patron who stands in front of the Mona Lisa does so for about 15 seconds. 15 seconds, to appreciate one of the masterpieces in all of humanity's art history?

I'd love to see it in a group of 10 random people, while having about 5 minutes to spend talking and listening about the painting. But such an idea is hardly practical. Something like the order of six million people visit the Mona Lisa each year. Good thing there are good digital pictures!

I know that looking at things I consider beautiful has a positive effect on my mood and interactions. I've written before about the photograph on my wall of Kylemore Abbey in Ireland. It's a harmonious picture that balances water, life, and stones. Just looking at the picture calms me and reminds me of my travels in Ireland. I saw such natural and constructed beauty there as to keep me misty-eyed to this day, just thinking about it.

Are we sending our future down a dark and dirty road by cutting out music and art classes as non-essential while we push for sports and military service? Not that aesthetics is the solution to world peace, by any means: there are plenty of people who like to blow up works of art for various reasons.

I'm certainly of the opinion that the more exposure we have, the better. In my view, it doesn't matter whether people like or dislike things, as long as they take the trouble to explain why. As my friends with young kids always end up saying, "Use your words!" Forcing us to describe our feelings helps us learn how better to communicate what we think. It also helps us connect with other people, who need to be taught how better to listen and share their own stories.

I've spent a lot of time over the past few years in the company of a particular woman, and in all that time I've never heard her once access sincere and deep positive feelings and descriptions about anything. She's filled to the brim with sarcasm (as many seem to be nowadays) and is quick to describe things in negative terms or (more often) with a simple non-descriptive shrug. "How was your trip to Arizona? Ehh.... [shrug]" It frustrates me that she never talks about the things she likes. She never volunteers to talk about what a beautiful sunset was occurring outside.

Is she so narcotized from a lifetime supply of speeding past the non-essential parts of life? Has she never had the opportunity to connect to someone in a positive way, a way that yields actual conversation and exchange?

I'd pay money to be in the Mona Lisa group with her and get a real thought from her about it that didn't start and end with "meh".

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