Monday, September 30, 2013

Roosters and Buddha: The Value of Ideas


My first retail gig was at gift store/art store: two thirds devoted to cards, trinkets, and hastily painted figurines, and one third for closely packed isles of art supplies. Being an art major, I was primarily hired for that knowledge and experience but my tasks and duties covered the entire store. I liked this job. Would I devote a life of sweat, tears (only not so much), and occasional boredom to this career? Well, no. But art supplies!

Over the years I have become less and less a knick-knacky person. I see an object. Do I have a use for it? No. Does it hold deep meaning/significance? No. Pass. I unpacked, priced, and sold objects ranging from charming, to odd, to just plain dumb. I'll never forget this one line of ceramic rooster figurines, maybe about half the size of an actual rooster. But wait, you say. Some people like collecting roosters! Call me practical to a fault, but I fail to understand the need for a rooster dressed up as a mermaid.

In retrospect, what strikes me most about the rooster mermaid/merman is our complete disassociation with where things come from and why the hell we need them. How was it made, where was it made, who made it, and why? On the personal side, why do we buy things? Why are we drawn to them? Why do we want them? Why do we need them? What's the difference?

So I have a bone to pick with the internet. It's related to my rooster mermaid but I will set that precious artifact aside for a moment. I have a bone to pick with the cultural phenomenon of inspirational quotes.

Let me put this into a specific context since these babies are not new to the cultural neighborhood. I see quotes tossed around on facebook/pinterest like a big, internet game of hot potato. Or like passing a joint. Take a hit, pass it along and bask in the glow of instant gratification. Right now, you are CULTURED. “Heeey man, you gotta try this out, man. This shit is DOPE.” (My apologies to any offended; I am not a pothead, nor do I have any experience in how to talk as one.)

I claim no exemption in Inspirational Quote Land. The procedure: I scroll through my feed. I see something: a line of text carefully composed on some photo or abstract design meant to catch the eye, evoke a feeling. The text is stylized. I read those beautiful words. I barely think for a split second and my instant reaction seals my fate. I am just so... inspired! A randomly picked verbal response worms its way to my brain: “Right on!” “Yes!” “Exactly!” “Soooo true!” “Amen!” “Love this!”

My inner emotional and mental beasts gobble these words up like candy. I can't help but give into the strong desire to share this glorious truth, this gospel, with everyone I know. These words alone represent what I think, what I feel, how I want to change my life, though I haven't really pondered why or how. Thus, I click the “share” button, passing on the life-changing wisdom with my one word reaction. All of this happens in a matter of seconds. Moments later, I've completely forgotten about it.

What does this have to do with rooster mermaids? Allow me to brush the dust off my art degree and introduce a couple friends of mine: Kitsch and conceptual art.

What is important?

Those of you familiar with “kitsch” may understand the term in its broader context and how it has been used since the word first came into use (including the “KitschMovement,” which aims to liberate the term from irony or disdain). I moseyed over to wikipedia for a basic explanation of kitsch because I'm lazy, but hey, it serves a purpose:

Kitsch “is a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial or gaudy works or decoration, or works that are calculated to have popular appeal. The concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th-century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art.”

“According to Walter Benjamin, kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer; it 'offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation.'”

I find “it offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort” an interesting statement. Is sentimentality the bane of our existence? Well, you can decide. I do think there are themes and stories woven into our cultures and/or souls which evoke strong emotions within us, and those have value. We read/see/hear things that inspire us unexpectedly or move us. I get that. That surprise, excitement, passion is invigorating. It's a spark. It's a light. But what happens to a moth with a low bullshit meter?

I will defend liberal arts majors 'til the day I die. Why? Because art theory and history (along with any other field that examines metaphor, history, and meaning/value) teach us to investigate the intention/context in which something was made AND understand our reaction and response to ideas/art/thoughts/beliefs we consume.

Enter conceptual art. Some works of art sell for millions of dollars, and yet their aesthetic value seems... bizarre, such as Fountain, attributed to Marcel Duchamp. It's a urinal, on it's back, with a name scribbled on it and this piece changed the art world as we know it. And anyone who has taken an art class ever is rolling their eyes at me for using this obvious, over-used example, but damnit, I'm using it anyway!  Why do I find this so interesting? Not necessarily the piece itself, but the reactions people had/have towards it.

Conceptual art and kitsch point out something important: when we consume (see or purchase) art, we're not just consuming the aesthetic value or craftsmanship. We're consuming an idea, a moment of significance in time. Ironic or sincere, authentic or pretentious, it's context. It's history. Let me spell this out clearly: WE put a value on ideas. WE say “this is important, this is not.” WE say “this is worth my time and emotional and mental commitment.”

Here's my issue: do we cheapen ourselves by how we engage in and consume ideas?

Meaning and Value

My primary problem with inspirational quotes is the same problem I have with the rooster mermaid: we disassociate ourselves from where things come from and rarely pursue why things are important. In doing so, we strip away meaning and value.

I look at a piece of art: what do I feel? Then, how does this painting impact me, the viewer, based on my perception, history, spirit, and personal investment? What was the spirit/intention in which the painting was created? Or, in simpler terms: what was/is the intention, significance, and experience?

Inspirational quotes can be extracted from poetry (lookin' at you, Rumi), historical scriptures/texts (lookin' at you, Buddha/Jesus), speeches (hey there Dr. Martin Luther King Jr!), and literature (William Shakespeare, Paulo Coelho, and Maya Angelou walk into a bar...). All of these sources, just like visual art, have context. Take a phrase out of context and we take away part of its meaning, or even completely miss the point.

What about the personal meaning/significance we project onto a quote or story? Sure, we respond instinctively to experiences. But posting a quote and saying “Yes!!!” means almost nothing. Yes, we have an experience and we have an emotional response. Both of those are important and very, very valuable. Sometimes that's enough. But there's no dialogue here. This is bumper sticker philosophy; it's gonna excite one person and piss off the other. Why did those words impact you? What did you feel when you read them, why do you respond to them, what in your history or situation or life philosophy sparked the connection? “I see the world differently now!” “This inspires me to change my life!” Or my favorite: “This affirms my belief set that is already in place!” That's great. What next?

Why do we believe/think/feel/see things the way we do? What do objects, what do ideas, what do words mean to you? Understanding these questions within ourselves begins a dialogue; when we meet other people with different ideas, experiences and beliefs, we arrive pre-equipped with tools to converse, challenge, and explore perceptions well outside our own.

So I observe inspirational quotes being used as a form of spiritual or philosophical kitsch. They're mass produced, shared, they're popular, and they inspire us for a grand total of five seconds. Fast food for the soul, baby. Quick, cheap, and delicious.

We LIKE this stuff. Human beings are seriously sentimental fuckers. We like mass-produced, we like popular, we LOVE instant emotional gratification, and we're fine with this. We enjoy a scoop of ice cream and “yummy” is a perfectly acceptable summary of our experience. I sold rooster figurines to people who happily purchased them. We pass around inspirational quotes for a nickle a piece, we gather them up like M&Ms.

And that's okay.

If we are genuinely okay with the value of what we buy into.

Know Your Source

There is one more point I'd like to bring up: everything on the internet is true.

Did you laugh? I hope you laughed.

When we read/post a quote that gives credit to the author, do we asked ourselves these two questions? 1) Do I really know what it means (ie it's context) and 2) Am I sure this person actually said it?

Ah, yes, the glorious world of misquoting and fake quotes. Buddha seems to be an internet favorite; do these look familiar? 

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
One of my favorites: “In the end, only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

You may notice from the links (this is one of the reasons I love the site) that misquoting something doesn't necessarily devalue the quote we love so much. The true source may not be what you thought, but clearly those words have meaning to you and to many others.

What is the source, if known?
Am I aware of the cultural value and context?
How engaged will I choose to be?
What does it mean? What does it mean to me?
What do I feel? Why?

Not all these questions require dissertation length explanations. Basic awareness or inquiry counts, too.

In Summary: How will we engage in ideas and emotions?

I realize that obsessing about inspirational quotes this much is rather silly. Quotes are snippets, they're sparks, they're inspirations. Why you gotta be so SERIOUS about it? But if a spark fizzles out, what was the point? If that's all we use to communicate our thoughts and feelings, how valuable are those commodities?

In the end, what you think is bullshit and what you think is valuable is up to you. How deeply you explore why things are meaningful is up to you. Yes, it's harder to get through a piece of literature, go to the source, or look into the background/history/context of something. Yes, it takes a couple seconds to verify who actually said something or what their meaning was. But I think it does a huge disservice to those who gave me the gems of wisdom to NOT go that extra step. To NOT engage and go beyond the popular, easy, quick, “shareable” content.

If a quote triggers something inside of you, that's great. Can you challenge it? Can you feel it? Do you want to know more? Perhaps most importantly, will you create something of your own? Understanding how and why words and art impact us is crucial if we ever want to successfully create stories and paintings, speeches and songs.  

I'll leave you with some excerpts (quote!) from one of my favorite blogs on how we consume art (and I highly recommend the whole essay, even if it is hard to read in all caps):



No comments:

Post a Comment