Finding Our Bearings with Art

NigredoJohn Lysaker at nonsite:

We have come some way from the days when a stone torso fixed a poet and lead him to speak of its gaze, one that saw, even read him head to toe. For many if not most, it is now the reader or viewer or listener that sets the terms of such encounters, attenuated as they are. That is, it is no longer simply beauty that is in the eye of the beholder, but everything there is to say about a work and whatever might be found there. Not that “reader response criticism,” whether based in affect, cultural identity, and/or the neuro-Kantian turn, is the principal variable in this turn away from the sensibility that enabled Rainer Maria Rilke to write “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But even without exploring the art market and museum culture, one has a firm sense that the basics of aesthetic engagement have changed in our age of digital reproduction.

Permit me an anecdote. I asked my “What is Art?” class: “How often do you listen to music?” “All the time,” I was told, each reporting that he or she listened for at least an hour a day. “But what do you mean by listen,” I asked. “Do you play the music just to listen to it, to follow it, to see where it goes and where it takes you? And then again, maybe a day or two later, listen again, armed with a few anticipations that, if you’re lucky, will cede to more intriguing discoveries? And might all that then ask of you something, something dear?” No. Music accompanied some other activity: studying, working-out, walking to class. For these students, and I do not believe they are unique, though they certainly were talented and a pleasure to engage, music had become ambient, what Brian Eno glosses as “an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.”

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