The Gratitude Challenge’s twenty-fourth topic is “Art”.
I recently read “Forbidden Colors” by Yukio Mishima and added it to the list of my all-time favorites. It is in good company with Dostojewski’s “The Gambler”, “The Idiot” and “Crime and Punishment”, as well as with Amélie Nothomb’s “Tokyo Fiancée”, “Hygiene and the Assassin”, and “The Enemy’s Cosmetique”.
When I thought about what these books have in common, I found several aspects that make them particularly impressive for me. First of all, the sentences is written in a way that makes me think “wow, this person can write, how do they come up with such masterful creations of words and metaphors?”. Second, I think that authors that really impress me observe an everyday detail that most readers will know from personal experience, but then it is described and interpreted in a way that leaves the reader thinking “what an interesting way to see it, and it’s true somehow!”.
Then when it comes to character development and plot, I think I have a foible for tragic characters with a tendency to self-sabotage. Empathizing with a character, just to see them destroying everything. When this happens, I’m often not able to put down the book because I’m thinking “aaah, why would you do that?! It all could have been so nice, why do you blow it up?!”. And to finish things adequately, of course there cannot be a happy ending. Bliss.
Considering that these books are all highly popular, there must be many readers who feel similarly. It’s nevertheless interesting to look into why one feels attracted to this. For me, apart from the obvious artistic aspect, I think it touches a regretful childhood memory of “it could have been so nice… if just…” … and then when things are going downhill, instead of really trying to fix it, I’ll go full-on terminator mode and destroy everything. Impulsive breakups, decisions to “never do X and Y ever again”, savoring anger and sadness. But at the same time, I was told that I’m suppressing my feelings. You would think this is a contradiction, but it could also be that keeping all inside just increases the feeling of losing one’s mind.
Not only surrendering to the fear of getting hurt but actually even doing things to make sure the worst will happen. In any given moment I have the choice to be constructive instead of destructive. But destruction and self-sabotage is my way of revenge – towards the other person, but especially also towards me: I deserve to suffer.
I feel attracted to these tragic characters in a book because I can relate. Reading something light like Harry Potter is fun, no effort needed, heroic deeds on every page, happy endings guaranteed. But it doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t last. What resonates is the tragedy of seeing things go downhill and then ending it rock-bottom.
I would consider my life to be somewhat decent and filled with smaller and bigger successes, so obviously the urge to self-sabotage is way less than it might sound in this self-analysis. It is also mostly restricted to romantic relationships and even there maybe not so different from your run-of-the-mill avoidant attachment partner. But feeling drawn to these artworks, I see the described tendencies mirrored.
Similarly, art that reflects a somewhat troubled mind resonates with me. Whenever I go back to Mexico City, I will visit the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo which boasts a permanent exhibition of Remedios Varo. Her surrealist paintings like El Flautista or Armonía show so many details scattered around people who look as if they are about to die from severe illness.
It is like jumping into the head and heart of someone who is at the verge of losing their mind. But then, the longer I look, I find more and more interpretations. Are these people really dying, or in fact rather recovering? Whose perspective are we assuming? Looking long enough, I feel as if I myself am falling into a black hole of insanity. But then insanity can also have a soothing effect, providing a safe space away from all Weltschmerz that one might experience “in sanity”.
One of my favorite sentences from Yujun Wang, a Taiwanese indie artist, goes like this:
It roughly translates to:
On the verge of madness, you can still hug.
Isn’t this a beautiful sentence? Who is it, that you can still hug? Your beloved ones? Is love the last thing that remains when everything else in and around us already fell apart? Or is it that even when we are alone, left by everyone, thrown away like a piece of trash, we can at least still hug ourselves? Is this then pathetic or soothing? And why are we at the verge of madness? What is madness? How is it “at the verge”? Who defines it? So many possible interpretations in one short sentence.
Speaking of lyrics, the art form that has the most substantial emotional impact on me is certainly: music. There’s sounds, there’s lyrics, there’s a piece for whatever emotion or situation one can possibly experience. Making music can be an escape but it especially helps me to calm down. Just knowing that I can always make music, and if it’s only rhythmically tapping with a pen on a surface, calms me down. Music is there for me, no matter what.
Music from around the world, as different as it might sound, still shows how much we as human beings have in common. We wish for the same things, we are afraid of the same things, we suffer from the same things. Unity in music.
Unity can also be experienced when performing with others. If you “lock in“, you suddenly become one entity, and the feeling of unity extends beyond the band, taking in the audience, too.
As a drummer I enjoy how I can change the whole mood just by changing dynamics, playing more loudly or silently, hitting a drum differently to make a more “definitive” or “vague” sound, choosing a “four on the floor” bass pattern where listeners start to nod their heads; diverting from the common time signature over several bars and just as people start to wonder where they are, I come back to the established rhythm like a safe harbor (or sometimes I get lost myself and can only hope that the bass player didn’t…).
Switching to a slightly swingy shuffle and everyone will feel the tension rising in the room, creating suspense in space with a short moment of complete silence. Rhythm and drums are probably the oldest form of human music (is the sound of nature the non-human counterpart?). We start moving almost automatically when we hear a rhythm, so I think it touches something very old and wild in us.
But performing with others is more than just the music that such group creates. Even without hearing anything, the interaction is similar to a dance. The visible component of music in this case is the musicians that move in a certain way to create what you hear. Even though she writes it in a different context, I find Matilde Marcolli’s understanding of music very fitting in that regard:
“Music is then, no longer a purely temporal art, but also an embodiment of movement.” (p. 14)Marcolli, M. (2020). Lumen naturae: Visions of the Abstract in Art and Mathematics. MIT Press.
I recently watched a video where a French man apparently speaks native-level Mandarin, both in what he says and in how he sounds. He says that as a trained musician, picking up the tones to sound more native was relatively easy. Most interestingly, he thinks learning a language is generally rather easy compared to learning an instrument: You might strive for perfection in each of it, but in a language, there is something like a final destination. Once you speak and sound like a native, there is probably not much more you can improve. On the other hand, with an instrument, it’s never “perfect”, there is always something you can still improve, something that could be better. It is a never-ending journey.
And yet, despite our strive for perfection, it is not even what the receiving end enjoys most. If we use a computer to create “perfect” sequences of tones and timing, the result sounds less organic and hence less pleasant to our ears. The organic imperfection of a human is what attracts us.
This is similar to what we observe in visual arts: A face where one half is vertically mirrored is perfectly symmetric. Yet, viewers consistently rate an “imperfect” face as prettier, where the two sides are not completely identical.
Are we afraid of perfection? People wish for a “perfect” partner, but would they really want that? Wouldn’t it be very scary if someone really never made any mistake, never disappointed us, always knew the correct answer, and was always resting in themselves (or who knows how you envision your perfect partner…)?
Imperfections can be adorable, it’s what makes us unique, rather than clones but at the same time we are also all united in our imperfection. Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing things with gold shows us how something “broken” that bears signs of breakage can be much more beautiful than its perfect counterpart.
I recently learnt a bit about macramé – the art of tying different knots and creating patterns through repetition. Why is repetition something we like? Why do so many of us try to break behavioral patterns, but then still like routine – which is nothing else than a repetitive sequence and therewith a pattern? Why do we like patterns in art, on our clothes, in nature?
„Nature provides examples of many kinds of pattern, including symmetries, trees and other structures with a fractal dimension, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tilings, cracks and stripes.“Patterns in nature – Wikipedia
Related to patterns, there’s the wide and fascinating field of chaos theory:
„Chaos theory predicts that while the laws of physics are deterministic, there are events and patterns in nature that never exactly repeat because extremely small differences in starting conditions can lead to widely differing outcome.”Chaos theory – Wikipedia
You might have seen beautiful works of fractal art such as the Clifford Attractor:
Here the same algorithm is used to create beautiful and interesting patterns that some describe as mathematical beauty. I think it is easy to see science and arts as to disjunct areas, but as the above examples show, there is still a strong connection. Many times, I try to be less in my rational mind and more in my feelings, when in fact they are so connected. Sometimes I feel I should dedicate my time to something less head-focused and more emotional, but I do not think that there needs to be a decision – either science, or feelings.
As the idea of mathematical beauty shows, as emotional beings we cannot get rid of them, we might just not be aware or suppress them. I hear people saying that they do not “understand” arts, that they do not see the beauty in it, or that they think they could have done the same, because it seems to be technically simple – so is it even arts? Such ideas of “it needs to be pretty and sophisticated” are reflected in sarcastic sayings as we have them in German (and as they certainly also exist in other languages):
Is this “art” or can I throw it away?
Without having any formal education in the arts apart from what everyone learns in school, I still take the freedom to claim that art does not need to be “understood”, that it does not need to be “pretty” and that it also does not need to be technically difficult. For me, the value of arts is that it touches something in me. It can be that I think “oh that’s so beautiful”, but it can equally be a feeling of being disturbed, confused, disgusted, angry.
I am very grateful for having arts in my life and for the gift of feeling something when we experience arts. I am grateful for having found more inner peace to allow myself to take the time to do something “unproductive” like exposing myself to different forms of art. Grateful for – sometimes – having the awareness to realize what happens inside of me when exposed to some kind of artistic input (which can be really any kind of input for that matter).
I’m grateful for the many pieces of arts that mirror my inner state of mind. This also helps me to see more clearly where certain feelings come from, what they mean and to eventually understand myself better. But I’m also grateful for having found more ease of mind so that I can be ok with not understanding everything, to accept that something can just “be”. I do not need to understand, I do not even need to label it as “weird” or judge it otherwise. Just as arts can just be, so can I. Taking this thought further, we can be grateful for art because it helps us to be aware of the richness of our existence.
Moreover, I think we can proudly say that all of us can create art even though we might be afraid that our creation is not “good” enough. As Matt Pearson writes in his book Generative Art:
“Declaring our work as “art” is a bold and arrogant thing to do. By doing so, we’re saying that our work is beyond mere utility: it’s an expression of our humanity and individuality. It may even be in the realm of the ineffable.”Pearson, M. (2011). Generative Art: A Practical Guide Using Processing. Manning Publications.
On that note: Let’s be bold and arrogant.