• I take the visible world at face value, experiencing it first of all as an abstract panorama of colors, shapes, and patterns. This makes it possible for me to gaze out the window of a train or an airplane for long stretches of time, wholly absorbed in the stream of images unfolding before my eyes. It also explains why my initial response to a figurative painting rarely has anything to do with its subject matter, to the point that I’m capable of overlooking the most obvious of representational details.
No doubt this quirk of mine arises from the fact that music, the most radically ambiguous of all art forms, was the one with which I first became closely acquainted. Perhaps as a result of my early musical training, I tend not to worry overmuch about what any work of art “means,” except when it insists on its “meaning” so aggressively that you can’t possibly overlook it, in which case I’m likely to find the results tiresome or irritating.
It’s my impression, however, that most people approach art in exactly the opposite way: they view a work of art as an act of symbolic communication whose “meaning” is fully knowable, and they become uncomfortable, even anxious, if they can’t figure it out more or less immediately.
Flannery O’Connor once said something highly relevant in this connection:
If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
• I dreamed last night that a friend of mine had a nervous breakdown after being bumped from a reality TV series. No part of this dream makes sense: I don’t watch that kind of show, and the friend in question doesn’t even own a TV set. To be sure, I don’t care for such reality TV as I’ve been unlucky enough to see. Back when the genre was new, I watched one episode apiece of Survivor, The Real World, and American Idol, and loathed them all. But that was the end of it: except for a short piece written for the New York Times in 2002 and later collected in A Terry Teachout Reader, I’ve had next to nothing to say about reality TV in or out of print, nor do I sit around my apartment at night thinking evil thoughts about Simon Cowell. So why did I dream so vividly about something that means so little to me?
• An old friend writes, apropos of my recent postings from Smalltown, U.S.A.:
I was just wondering…do you think you could ever be happy outside the big city again? I mean to live. Are the artistic offerings essential to your happiness? I read you appreciating your escapes but wonder how you would “be” if you were someplace quiet for very long.
I wonder. Having been a New Yorker for twenty-odd years, I can’t easily imagine living in a place that didn’t offer a like amount of artistic stimulation. On the other hand, I don’t spend nearly as much time on the town as I did before I fell ill last December, and even if I were to move elsewhere, I’d presumably take my books and CDs with me (not to mention the Teachout Museum).
My guess is that what I’d miss most about New York is not so much its “artistic offerings” as the regular face-to-face contact with artistically inclined people that living here makes so easy. I know art isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most important thing in my world, and in the absence of friends and colleagues with whom I can talk about it, I start to get restless.
It hasn’t escaped my attention, by the way, that this restlessness bespeaks a certain narrowness of mind on my part. Some of the nicest people I know don’t care about art.