You Don’t Need To Understand Art

james_2249735bPhoto: ALAMY

Back in September I was in Boston for a weekend visiting a good friend of mine who goes to Harvard. While she was in class, I killed time in the best way that I knew how – by exploring all of Harvard’s bookstores. This campus, according to several proud locals, has the most books stores per capita in America. I didn’t try and validate this, but Harvard seems like a reasonable place to have the most book stores in one concentrated area.

My favorite bookstore was the famous Harvard Book Store near Harvard Square. This store has been selling books since 1932 and it has pretty much every book you could ever want and more. Throughout the shelves are notes from the staff pointing out their selected favorites and why you should read them. Some notes were poetic and moving while others were short and funny, and they were all convincing. I was looking through the shelves and I found a note explaining why you should read James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of my favorite books and a notorious pick for being one of the most pretentious too-hard-to-read books along with Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The person who wrote this (someone named Craig) knows how off-putting this book can seem. He also knows that reading Ulysses is an amazing reading experience if you have the right attitude.

Harvard

The note reads as thus:

*

“You will need: Backpack, Flashlight, Patience, Sense of Humor

You will not need: Guidebook, MFA, Intimate Knowledge of Irish History, Prerequisite Reading Of Any Kind

Here’s the deal: you’re not going to get everything. This is perfectly fine. Why should you? Do you really understand your favorite song, or your favorite painting? That is: Is there really some concrete Statement being made that explains why you like what you love? There’s no reason to demand this from a novel. See if you like the words – how they sound. Treat it like a song. It is a beautiful song, an optimistic one. Yes, it is the most optimistic work of art that I have ever experienced. It is a magic spell, a love song for life. Don’t interrupt it with maps or facts. This is a breathtakingly well engineered sequence of words that are heartbreaking, hilarious, and hopeful.”

– Craig

*

This note is about Ulysses, but you can apply this to music. You can apply this to all art.

You don’t need to understand art. Learning about the process of creating art and understanding its context in which it was created can help strengthen your appreciation, and if you create or write about music then it helps to know what you’re involved with. But it is not necessary.

Music is an escape. It comes from nowhere and it hits you in places you didn’t think existed. It’s communication that often doesn’t require words and it only needs to say one thing – you are not alone. I feel this too. It is a lie that tells the truth. It’s a complete mystery. It is my favorite thing in this world.

Music is the most wonderful thing, especially when there’s still wonder to it.

I think the Internet is taking away a lot of the mystery of art. Do you have a favorite musician? You can follow him/her on at least 8 different platforms. You can look up everything about that person and the information on the music. There’s probably a couple of thinkpieces out there about your favorite album and how it actually represents this and it actually means that and you’re supposed to understand it in this one way. And so on.

Steven Hyden makes a good point in his recent discussion of Kid A of how that album’s release changed the way we talk about music:

“If the music on Kid A no longer seems revolutionary — I eventually learned how much was cribbed from Brian Eno and Aphex Twin — the way in which listeners engaged with Kid A was legitimately new. For many music fans of a certain age and persuasion, Kid A was the first album experienced primarily via the Internet — it’s where you went to hear it, read the reviews, and argue about whether it was a masterpiece.

So much of what we now take for granted about the discovery and subsequent discussion of new music was ushered in with Kid A. Some things have changed since then — advance streams subsequently became traffic generators for media entities like NPR, and now streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have emerged as go-to clearinghouses for sneak peeks at upcoming albums like the recent Drake/Future mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, which debuted on Apple’s Beats 1 radio earlier this month and then immediately went up for sale on iTunes. In contrast, the pan-platform availability of the Kid A stream seems inconceivable today.

But the routine established by Kid A for how albums are digested remains in place: Listen early, form an opinion quickly, state it publicly, and move on to the next big record by the official release date. In that way, Kid A invented modern music culture as we know it.”

Modern music culture in 2000 that is. But then social media comes into play:

“Of course, old data must always make way for new on the Internet. As Pitchfork and countless other music sites have come to essentially ape the language of the old-world mags they supplanted, the wildness of Web 1.0 has migrated to social media, the principal arena for experiencing moment-by-moment reactions to the biggest “event” albums of recent years. (‘The new Pitchfork is just people talking about stuff on Twitter,’ says DiCrescenzo, who left the site in 2006.) The rosy Gen X nostalgia forKid A has since been overshadowed by the mountain of tweets expended for albums like Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Beyoncé.

The never-ending dialogue can seem overwhelming. In the space of a few days last week, Ryan Adams’s remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 went from being a playful lark to a referendum on gender bias and the pop vs. rock divide. It was enough to make the act of listening to breezy pop songs feel like drudgery.”

That’s what listening to pop music feels like these days. Drudgery. I can’t just listen to something and enjoy it for what it is. I’m not allowed to just like Taylor Swift; I have to love her or hate her. I have to form an opinion and I have to share it now. Music needs an agenda. It has to mean something for all people.

Yet to enjoy music for its mystery is a beautiful thing. Knowing and understanding a song’s place within a specific context is nice, but sometimes I just want don’t want to think. I want to feel it. I want to feel inspired, feel grotesque, feel anything at all. Take me to a place where I’ve never been before. Cheer me up when I want to feel happy. Keep me company when I feel alone. Fill up the space in my head when I feel like something is missing. Come as you are.

Let music be what you want it to be.

Thanks Craig for reminding me of this important lesson. Now go out and read Ulysses. And enjoy the words.

 *

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He's responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He's also on Twitter @BradyWGerber