Enchanted objects

Having been listening to John Green a lot, and re-reading the Great Gatsby a few months ago, I keep thinking about the explanation of symbolism as 'enchanted objects.' Tonight is apparently World Book Night (Thanks, SourceFed), so I'm thinking about the weird sort of fetishization we have, culturally, for books.

I don't think it's a bad thing, by any stretch.  But I do think that there are some weird qualities about it which I'd like to explore.  Like, the idea of burning a book is, for most people, inherently repulsive.  There are only a few other things like that -- burning flags, for example.  Burning food is wasteful, but it's not grotesque in the same way as burning a book.  The same, I think, with burning clothes, or furniture, or CDs.

It seems like there are a number of kinds of objects that have significance not just for their utility, but for their presence as an object.  Books are one of them.  For me, my watch is another.  I think that cell phones are also commonly treated this way.

I have to wonder, is it entirely cultural, these feelings?  Or are there qualities about the objects themselves -- are there certain types of objects that lend themselves toward feeling enchanted?  Both a cell phone and a book are windows into deep emotional experience.  Waiting for a phone call and anticipating the climax of a plot can feel quite similar, and I could see why they might lead to similar kinds of awe and respect for the objects that transmit that experience.

On the other hand, I don't often feel that way about my computer, and I personally haven't heard about that sort of attitude about e-readers or iPads.  Then again, maybe I'm just not entirely in touch with those particular subsets of technology use.  Maybe, to an owner, the Kindle does feel a little sacred.

Art Matters

I've heard a lot of people, in my life, say that art is not terribly important.  That, for example, if we need to cut the budget, the thing to do is to cut down on arts -- that all the essentials need to be absolutely satisfied before we even consider spending any money on art. I wish I had some sort of magic power, by which I could show them a world entirely without art.  There would be no written histories apart from farming records and ledgers, where there was no music, all forms of media (if they ever came to exist) present nothing but dry, boring news.  Houses would have no aesthetic flourishes, being made out of a sturdy shape with no unnecessary paint on the walls (the outsides might all be barnhouse red, because it prevents rot) and the cabinets would be boxes with flat, planklike doors.

After a long day at their painfully boring job, unlightened by jokes, music or interior design, they'll come home to their show-less TVs, no books, no games or interesting bits of wall to stare at.

Even that's not far enough, though.  There are always decisions to be made about making things that come down to more than just what's most functional.  Those decisions are aesthetic.  Still, I think no one from this world who were moved to that one could handle it.

***

It's hard to say what art is for, exactly. It's easy to see, if you're not trying to deny it, that art is necessary for positive life experience.  But it's very difficult to explain exactly why -- and, for critics, it's very easy to refute any proposal, because all you have to do is find one niche piece of art that, for most people, contradicts the claim, and you seem to have a case.

You don't, actually, because one of the important things about art is that it varies hugely in appeal.  Soccer, dance and civil war reenactment aren't my cup of tea, but they're all activities that require a lot of work and culminate in the putting on of a show.  I don't think a sane definition of art could exclude them.

Meanwhile, hyper-ironic, self-referencing social commentary humor (like A Softer World) is right up my alley. When I show it to people, they'll often insist that there's absolutely nothing remotely funny about it, and that no one could possibly find it entertaining.  At the time, they're generally blissfully unaware of how uninteresting I find football to be.

The thing about the majority view, though, is that there are plenty of people who are totally cool with the idea that art is useless, because they see "art" as that weird stuff with the squares and a bunch of old paintings that people pretend to like to seem important.  But grounding a definition of art in personal preference can't possibly build a usable definition.  The definition of art can't be "Frank from Baltimore likes it."

So, here's my proposal.  I say that art is:  any act, or result of an act, which adds value.

A book is the product of an act of arranging words which has made those words, on that paper in that ink, more valuable than their component parts.  A sport is an interaction between groups of people who make their skills valuable.  A well-constructed bottle and label can actually make wine taste better.  Wine, by the way, is value-enhanced fruit juice.

Good art adds lots of value.  Bad art might only add value in your own eyes.  Controversial art might even decrease value in some people's eyes.

I'm tempted to add "or attempts to add" to the proposed definition, but I'm not sure it works quite that way.  I think there is such a thing as failed art.

***

By that definition, which I sincerely believe, art is definitely important.  I mean, it's basically the only important thing.

Which is why it annoys me when people complain about artists and art.

I feel like doing something weird

Just getting some braincrack out so it doesn't eat my brain; I may or may not actually do this. Reasoning

Since I'm in a fairly editing-heavy portion of my novel, I feel like my creative psychological resources are being a bit underused.  But I'd rather do something light, that's a bit more like practice than like an actual, publishable project.  Hopefully, it'll be fun and something people want to check out.  Worst case, it'll suck, and then when I'm super famous there will be work available to explore my process #italicsforsarcasm #tellmyselfwhateverIneedtohear #ignoringtheFutilityofBeing

Idea

I was thinking of doing a sort of study in symbolism, by writing a blog style series with really, really blatant symbolism.  Like, it would start with a dude in a hat explaining to the cast that they're in a story, it's super symbolic, and for example the hat represents that he works for the author.  I like the idea of a bunch of characters knowingly interacting with an inherently symbolic environment, while conscious of the fact that there's a narrator who knows everything they're doing or thinking.  (I'm not sure if I want to do 3rd person omniscient, so they all always know that anything they think could be being revealed, and therefore made manifest in the symbolic fabric of the text, or 3rd person limited, so they can try to hide behind someone else's viewpoint when they think or act.  Or maybe some other perspective.)

Implementation?

I might start doing this later tonight, if I feel like I have the energy -- in which case, I'll be setting up a sub-blog on this blog, writing a follow-up post here to link to it, writing out the rules and starting parameters on the new blog, and putting up the first installment.  If not, I might start it in the next few days, and if not then, probably never.  No matter what I do, I lay no claim at all over this idea (not that I could, anyway) and would love to see my friends/readers try it out as well.  It could be fun.

Text, Context, Subtext

I stayed up far to late last night, and spent a little bit of time re-watching old Vlogbrothers videos, and this one got me thinking:

If you didn't watch it, the key quote to my point (which I quote here unironically) is:  "It's impossible to pull a line or a sentence or even a chapter from a book and understand the meaning of that section. Because as much as it pains us in this soundbitey twittery world, text means nothing without its context."

Now, I generally agree with that claim.  I don't think you can really understand the meaning of any given line from a book or poem unless you've read that book or poem, and know at least a little bit about the context within which it was written.  Of course, recontextualizing it can allow it to take on new meanings, that the original author might never have intended.  But in a larger work, authors can work pretty hard to develop a sense of context and subtext that inform the interpretation of every subsequent sentence.  For example:

"Oh yes. Richard and Anthem 2.00. Susan, that thing has got to be in beta testing in two weeks.  He tells me it's fine.  But every time I see him he's got a picture of a sofa spinning on his computer screen.

That's from the book I'm currently reading, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and won't make proper sense if you haven't read much of the preceding page and at least one chapter that turns up later in the book.  In fact, that sentence might turn out to have significance I can't even begin to appreciate now, before I've finished reading the entire novel.

***

So, obviously we can't take a single sentence and assume we've got the whole context.  But on the alternative end of things, do you have to understand everything, know everything, have an intimate appreciation for the whole of the history of the universe, before you can claim to appreciate anything within its proper context?

That belief cracks under even the slightest pressure of pragmatism -- if there has to be a level of context we can deem 'close enough to live by,' that's certainly not it, because you can't live by it.

***

My question, then, is:  is there any way to design a sort of criteria test for figuring out how much context one should provide?  Does such a test or standard already exist?  Ideally, it would be clear enough that anyone with a reasonable interest in whether they're miscontextualizing would be able to apply it, and transparent enough that in cases of obvious exceptions, one should be able to explain why the rules are different in that case.

I

As some of you may be aware, I have a webcomic -- of poor quality and infrequent updates -- where I toyed around with plot for a while, experimented with autobiographical stick figures, and played around with absurdism a bit.  I wouldn't call myself an artist, but I'm interested in art, and I'm passionate about comics as a form for storytelling.  My comic is sort of my sandbox for that. I just finished my first read-through of Scott McCloud's "Making Comics."  And, to be honest, his textbooks on the craft and philosophy of comics are, themselves, some of my favorite comics.  I love what he does.  I love the way he uses the form to impart information in an unavoidably engaging way.  I love the way he manipulates the reader's perception of the medium so that he can draw attention to it when he needs to, and let it fade back into the background when he's talking about something else.

Those are the sort of comics I want to do.  I'd love to write textbooks that took on his comic form.  His style is so richly experimental, it seems like it's almost a whiteboard for experiments -- experiments in comics, thought experiments, or walk-throughs of actual scientific experimentation.

I don't know for certain that I'm going to be able to complete any printworthy comics very soon (and I've decided I'd rather leave the page unupdated for a month or more than publish any more unworthy comics) but when I do, I think I'm going to be experimenting with comics as a medium of clear communication of ideas.  And I'm very much looking forward to that sort of playing around.

New Headphones

I wouldn't think of myself as an audiophile, and I certainly don't think my tastes are so sophisticated that I'd see much of a difference between $100 headphones and $1000 headphones.  I could be wrong about that. But I do notice a difference between $10 headphones and $50 ones.

I just got a pair of iGrado headphones -- they're the cheapest headphones Grado makes, but they're still at least as good as the Skullcandy ones I had for about a year, and a lot better than the $5 Walmart headphones I sometimes get.

And having been listening to them for a little while now, I can see the audiophiles' case.

While it's certainly nice, entertaining, even, to listen to my favorite songs piped out of my cell phone's speakers, or out of a cheap pair of earbuds I've got on hand, it doesn't compare to listening over good speakers.

Music, like all good art, has a transformative, transporting power.  It can, in the right circumstances, scoop you out of the complex, ambiguous narrative of your daily life and temporarily cradle you in the bubble of its private little story.