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The Carletonian

Emotional education through art

< natural consequence of attending a liberal arts school. People have deep-rooted interests here, and they will fight to defend them. Since I’ve come to Carleton, I’ve had numerous discussions—some of which may better be called arguments—with different people about the merits of certain works of art. “That movie is terrible,” they say. “It has no plot.” “So-and-so is a terrible writer.” “They go on and on in descriptions but nothing ever happens.” “That same story has been done a million times before.” “Their music is so weird. It doesn’t sound right.” “It’s so depressing.” “It didn’t make me feel good.” “It didn’t make me feel anything.” And worst of all: “It’s boring.”

Before anything else, let me say that I respect all of these opinions. Everyone has their own taste, so it would be folly to judge people for disliking what I happen to like. But we can make a critical distinction here. There is a difference between enjoying a work of art and appreciating it. For instance: not every work of art is meant to make you feel good. This is why we have tragedies and slow music and dramas. If people didn’t find something gratifying in these modes of art, then we would have no need for them. They probably wouldn’t exist. But they do exist, because appreciating art is about more than feeling good—it’s about feeling in general.

I can already hear some people responding to me, as many already have in private conversations, telling me that if a work of art is boring, then it must have failed at this criterion. Or if nothing happens, or if it’s so strange that it’s alienating. But I believe art can still be powerful, and even profoundly enjoyable, even if you don’t enjoy it. The cliché goes that it’s not about the destination, but the journey, and despite the statement’s triteness, I believe it is true.

Take modes of storytelling, for instance. Only so many stories can exist; after a while they’re all variations on each other. (Incidentally, the apocryphal number of extant plots is a mere seven). Because of this, it would be hasty to assume that a work of art is “bad” simply because its story is derivative, or repetitive, or even boring. Story is the vehicle by which we experience a work, not the ultimate definition of the work. Many works that people call boring in their story are executed in ways that make them deeply interesting, compelling, or appreciable. This analogy breaks down somewhat for less chronological media, like music and visual art, but the more general point applies too. Since only so many ideas exist, the idea doesn’t determine how “good” the work is; the execution does.

Art relies on innovation, stylization, experimentation, dissemination of ideas, and most importantly of all, aesthetics. If something looks or sounds innovative or stylized or experimental or otherwise lush, then it’s probably artistically valuable. That doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it, because as I said, everyone has their own tastes. You might find something that is very beautiful or innovative or introspective to be profoundly boring or empty. But it’s still important to recognize the merit of good art when we see it, despite our personal reactions to the work.

I did not enjoy the movie Raging Bull. It was slow-paced and arguably “boring,” and it made me feel disgusting, angry, and frustrated as I watched. But I realize that that was part of its art. Despite the fact that it wasn’t “fun” to watch, it made me feel something. It made me think. And to this day I think and feel what Raging Bull instilled in me. That is art. Art has staying power. Art makes people think and feel, not just in the moments when you experience it but much later. Art creates moments of beauty and pleasure that imprint strongly on your mind. If you can approach art in that way, then it should be easier to appreciate it more.

Sometimes a film or a book doesn’t have to be “about” something. Sometimes a TV show doesn’t have to make you laugh or cry or grip your seat. Sometimes an album doesn’t have to make you jump around and dance. Art can be this, but it is more than this. Once people realize that, a new world of art opens up. It’s fun to experience fun things, but getting lost in the beauty of a work can be very gratifying in its own right—regardless of whether it fits your tastes or not.

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