26 March 2023 › The Quiet Delights of Art

Suck the marrow out of life. It’s a good quote, vivid, visceral, wild. I don’t even know if I’m remembering it right, but I remember the moment from Dead Poet’s Society. The kids excited, savoring the words, sucking the marrow, and they don’t understand what it means, but it sounds great, sounds full of passion, full of life. They want strong feelings. They desire intensity. They will shake the thunder from the sky.

And that’s pretty much how we speak of art. It’s all about the passion and the intensity. We judge based on how strongly it makes us feel.

Reminds me of a joke—digression time—and the punchline is entirely visual, so that’s going to work like gangbusters here. This is from my 20th-century music class, so we’re talking dinosaur days, the early 90s. The teacher wanted to give us a sense of the difference between 18th-century classical music and 19th-century romantic music. Yes, this was a 20th-century class. This was preamble, setting the stage, giving us poor students a bit of perspective for what was to come.

Teacher said romantic music was often called “hands music,” which he proceeded to demonstrate by dropping into a chair, doubling over, and running his fingers through his hair as if he was in great anguish or profound despair.

Yeah, visual gags work like gangbusters when described.

So we’re talking deep passion and feeling. We’re talking life-changing experience. We’re talking ecstasy.

Art is described as something that moves you, that makes you feel, makes you laugh, cry, weep.

So that’s how we judge art—one of the axis on the graph—by how strongly it makes us feel. We don’t just smile or chuckle. We laugh out loud, laugh until we pee, laugh until the tears come streaming down our face. We don’t just cry. We sob, sob until our sides ache, sob until we want to die.

That’s a mighty high bar to clear—very hard for art to live up to—and it’s also hard on the audience. When we’re not moved—when we don’t feel the intensity—we wonder if it is our fault. What did we miss? What did we not understand? What should we have known?

It’s practically an Emperor’s New Clothes thing.

And the deep, dark secret is that the intensity of art is a really crappy standard. It’s an impossible bar, and it is not how we should be measuring anything.

Not all art is going to impact us the same way. Not all passion is intense passion. Not all feelings are strong feelings.

When I go to the museum, which is a convenient example, I use a very simple standard. I look at the painting, drawing, sculpture, whatnot, and I wonder very casually to myself if I like it.

And I very typically have a simple reaction. I quietly think to myself, “yes, I like it” or even more simply, “hey, that’s cool.”

Other times I’ll think “that doesn’t really work for me.”

And it’s not even really a conscious thought. It’s an impression, a feeling of “like” or “not like.”

And that’s all there is to it.

We don’t have to feel strongly, react strongly. It’s not a requirement.

We can just feel or think or experience, and it’s not a big deal.

It’s baked into our culture that we should experience things intensely, that we should feel great things. We should seek these experiences out—sucking the marrow from the bones—dance on the head of a pin, sing in the rain. We should live to eat—or eat to live—or whatever. We haven’t lived unless we’ve . . . fill in the blank with whatever random thing other people are trying to bully us or shame us into doing.

We should experience the world with such passion and excitement that we are left physically and mentally exhausted, and it is all . . . so exhausting.

Thinking that everything must be felt intensely can leave a body feeling like there’s something wrong with us when we don’t feel it that way.

So it is very important to understand that strong emotions and intense feelings are not a requirement for everything. It’s not a prerequisite. We shouldn’t feel bad.

Some things are simple pleasures. Some things are uninteresting. Others don’t impress at all.

And this is all good. This is all right.

If everything is turned up to eleven all the time, we’ll burn out, collapse from exhaustion. Simple things are good. Unimpressive things are useful. Uninteresting things are . . . fine, I guess.

There’s nothing wrong with this or that work of art bouncing right off of us, leaving us without a strong feeling or thought in our bodies. There’s nothing wrong with us for being unmoved or unimpressed.

It leaves more room for the simple pleasures and the quiet delights. We can experience more if we’re not hung up on why something didn’t impress. There’s nothing wrong with us at all.

copyright © 2023 by keith d. jones – all rights reserved