How to encourage a person's aesthetics?
August 18, 2017 7:28 PM   Subscribe

A young man I know is adept at quickly memorizing, reading through, music, art literature. But I get the nagging feeling that he is following lists; critics top 100s; etc. for it's own sake, and almost intentionally skipping over the ideas or emotions or messages behind them.

These lists are good places to start looking for ideas. But it seems like alot of accumulation. I have several times asked if there was a particular piece, note, passage that meant something to him. That carried him away; impressed him. Especially if he could not analyze it.
Not a quiz, just a mild question.
I am completely ok w/ just "because I liked it". I do it all the time!
Yes, he has to develop his own personal sensibility; and I am not being presumptuous. But is there a way I can just simply, quietly encourage him to leave the lists behind; and open him up more to a scene in a film, or something that is sometimes evoked? He has never shied from giving an opinion; reticence is not his style.
posted by ebesan to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Reading this, it almost sounds arrogant. But it is not, I am not.
posted by ebesan at 7:36 PM on August 18, 2017

How well do you know him? Sharing an opinion is not the same thing as revealing an emotional response. As a younger person I would not necessarily have wanted to tell most people of my deeper feelings on something, even a close family member. Even as an adult I often don't. Opinions are for sharing, emotions are personal. And I'm a woman and haven't been socialized to pretend I'm tough and unemotional.

Also, as a less-young adult I'm much more able to really appreciate things that I just absorbed when I was a kid. Books and music that I first encountered in high school have a lot more nuance and meaning and emotional depth for me now.

You could just tell him your opinion: "Hey, it seems like you are accumulating a lot of great stuff, but I can't really tell if you're enjoying it or not. Are you?"
posted by bunderful at 7:37 PM on August 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Age, maturity, experience.

If it’s the “best x records” lists where x is rock, or the Rolling Stone list, or whatever, challenge him to examine who is making the lists and why. Now people will default to a in lieu of a RS or Pitchfork or Village Voice year-end list, but it’s very often the same sort of mentality. The same goes for film.

The end run, though, is that after listening or viewing all kinds of best-of lists, you start to figure out what you actually like. The things that broke me of the idea of a canon were hearing all kinds of things, going to shows where I’d pay attention to all of the openers, music festivals where I’d wander from stage or stage, movie services where I can watch all kinds of movies including critically derided stuff and not just best-of material, and theaters showing everything from blockbusters to indie darlings to cult classics and had deals for repeat viewers.

I’m guessing your cringing about his “giving an opinion” is that it feels parroted and overly critical at things that don’t fit his view of what is good. I’d challenge him to watch or listen to a few things he’s read nothing about, more than once, and see what he thinks without any preconceived notions. Or find a group of friends who is into something he knows nothing about, experience it with them to see how it feels to do things together, and then at a much later point, after he has digested it as part of his own life, peek at what critical consensus was.
posted by mikeh at 7:39 PM on August 18, 2017

I think that is the key, experiencing some things without having preconceived critical notions, and then reconciling them with how the critical consensus has evaluated. Encourage curiosity, and not toeing the line.

Eventually you get to the point where you can read a negative review, recognize the reviewer, and from their description realize it’s probably right up your alley.
posted by mikeh at 7:41 PM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Even "quietly encouraging" him to do something different, to talk about it differently, is sending a message that says "you're doing it wrong." If he's doing this out of his own interest and motivations, I think the most important thing you can do is let him be, and, if you want to talk to him about what he's reading, let him talk about it on his own terms. You don't say how old he is, but it has been my experience that things I read when I was, oh, 12-15, because I aspired to read all the "greats" have meant a lot more to me when I've come back to them as an older person. And I've also been freer to say, "Wow, this may be on a lot of Best Of lists, but it's actually kind of crap." He's taking a lot in right now, but developing a more nuanced, or more emotional, or more critical perspective is a really long game. Trust him, support him, and let it play out.
posted by Orlop at 7:45 PM on August 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

You're doing the right thing! Sometimes the key is finding people who you can talk about this stuff with. You might have to do a lot of the work in pulling this out of him, but it's a skill he'll learn and eventually he'll start finding details all on his own.

FWIW, this question speaks to one of my favorite character traits in The Squid and the Whale.
posted by rhizome at 7:45 PM on August 18, 2017

Probably the best thing you can do - maybe the only thing you can do - is talk to him about music, art and literature that mean something to you. Talk about what you like and why you like it and what you don't like and why you don't like it. You can try asking him if he agrees with you or try to get him to express his own opinions but if you don't think he's really forming thoughtful opinions or letting himself feel an emotional response, there's no point pressing him too hard. Just let your own responses to art be an example. It may inspire him to think more about his own responses.
posted by Redstart at 8:04 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Knocking off a bunch of Great Books and Great Films and Great Albums lists from junior high to university was how I developed my personal aesthetic. Even now, when I definitely have my own opinions, I don't necessarily want to discuss them beyond I liked it - I didn't like it - I ship it. There are people I will discuss things with on a "deeper" level, but that is a very small group of people.

And some people like to collect aesthetic experiences like they're Pokemon, and unless he's planning on a career as an academic or critic, there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe ticking the boxes is more fun for him than sitting around contemplating.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:14 PM on August 18, 2017 [11 favorites]

But it seems like alot of accumulation.

God, yes. This kind of absolute openness to influence and naive-innocent belief that there is something of value to be found in almost any well-regarded piece of art, so that you can start with all the critics' lists and read all you can and take in all you can and build this irreplaceable foundation of accumulated context and knowledge that usually only very young people have the raw time for -- this is valuable beyond any dutiful Art Appreciation vocabulary or gift of emotional expression he may acquire in time.

If he has within him the ability to respond to art, he will not lose it. if he has only the seed of the ability, it will blossom in its own time. but what he will lose, almost guaranteed, is the sheer energy and number of free hours that lets him take a top 100 list and go through ALL of it from top to bottom, indiscriminately. that is the only thing that the old should legitimately envy in the young. he is doing a good thing to his brain. it is easier to develop critical faculties later in life than to pack in the pure information to exercise those faculties upon. and if he is really young, good art takes a time to unfold inside him. whatever you can get out of him right after he reads a book, or right that same year, is not everything it will give him over his life.

if he is inarticulate about it but keeps right on voluntarily filling his head with art, he will get less and less articulate for a while. this is a good sign. being quiet about art is a good sign in a person who is usually full of opinions, because it means the effects are happening inside him and he is not ready or willing to undertake the unrewarding task of carrying his reactions from inside to outside.

I have several times asked if there was a particular piece, note, passage that meant something to him. That carried him away; impressed him. Especially if he could not analyze it.

but -- what did he say when you asked him this?!
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:35 PM on August 18, 2017 [22 favorites]

I have to agree with queenofbithynia! How young is this young man? I did the same as a youth and could not understand a damn thing but the context I had once I began understanding (and creating!) was invaluable. Plus it's just a great habit and he will think of all this free time when he gets older and wax nostalgic.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:47 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's difficult to know how to address the question without knowing more about the young man's habits and experience so far. It certainly can be true that list following as end to itself may not be opening him to the wider possibilities of art or broadening his aesthetics given how limited many lists are, but that isn't a universal by any means and some lists can be far more challenging than others.

What he wants to get from the experience and what he's looking into aside from the lists will matter. Is, for example, he reading about the works beyond the listing of them? A list just gives names, but the reasoning for why those names have been selected for singular praise comes from further reading and reflection. Some of that is a comparative process requiring an accumulation of different works and their varied methods and perspectives to balance against each other to see how they provide meaning in different forms. Lists that adhere to a too narrow selection of names are less likely to provide the same breadth of comparison as more wide reaching lists, so even in list following alone there can be ways to broaden experience by finding ones with more diverse selections, which often comes from having a wider selection of people making the choices for inclusion, something of real importance.

Again though, if the young man is interested in the art forms, then reading more about how others see and discuss individual works can help provide a vocabulary for his own appreciation and help him to see or hear things in new and perhaps better ways. This doesn't even have to be from agreement with any writer or podcast or whatever, but through thoughtful disagreement with their assessments as long as what is being discussed is dealt with on something more than the binary liked it/hated it model and provides something more than snark and surface level comments on believably of plot or action which is sort of the base level of discussion. That level is fine if that's all he is interested in, but if he does seem to want more than providing more in depth discussions of the works could help further spark his interest in exploring the art further.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:19 PM on August 18, 2017

Oh, and I meant to add that it too can often be helpful in starting discussions about art to use a third party's perspective as a starting point. A critic will choose certain things from a work to emphasize and often build something of a narrative around those points in expressing their thoughts on the work as a whole.

Asking someone what they think about what critic X said about a work can provide a form of thought that can help shape the discussion as the person can respond to a sort of template on thoughts about the work to agree or disagree with in creating a competing or aligning narrative of their own experience of the work.

It can be helpful because finding a method of entry into how one frames thoughts about the experience is often the most difficult part of talking about a work, so using a pre-existing frame as a reference can make the translation of experience much easier. Professional critics do this all the time when they challenge someone else's review. It's so much simpler than starting from zero.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:29 PM on August 18, 2017

The best of both worlds, here, might be to point him at 'top 10' lists of critical works that explore what you probably have in mind by 'the ideas or emotions or messages' of other work. Here's a MeFi post I made about Fandor's "The Best Video Essays of 2016," and here's one thetortoise made about the National Book Critics Circle's Critical Library column. You might also encourage him to develop his own top 10 lists within domains narrow enough that he can sample a good chunk of what's available and not overlap with many existing top 10 lists. I mean, if top 10 lists are his thing, I think that doesn't inherently block him from having the experiences or developing the skills he might be missing--sure, it's a simplistic model of aesthetics, but I think there are probably ways out that start from within.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:38 PM on August 18, 2017

(If I was in his shoes I'd want someone to load me up with more books and music and movies)
posted by bunderful at 5:49 AM on August 19, 2017

When I was younger, I didn't have critical language to talk about books/music/movies I liked. Going to university, reading music reviews and literary criticism and histories, hanging out with people with a background in the humanities and hearing them talk really helped me learn to explore and express why I liked what I liked. Sharing a collection of criticism for a genre/medium he's into might be a good entry point. I'm currently loving Lindsay Ellis's introduction to film theory via the Transformers franchise. Even though I've never seen a transformers movie, it's given me a way to identify and talk about things I do and don't like in (esp action) movies.

Another thing that really helped was having people seem interested in what I thought and pleased to hear what I thought, even if I felt frustrated with my ability to explain my opinions.
posted by congen at 10:21 AM on August 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Going down lists is actually a pretty impressive quality and from what I understand some people's minds just work like this. I understand it could set your teeth on edge because you feel he's being worshipful and blindly uncritical. But all you can do is wait for him to come forth with his own opinions. Maybe you could drop a few of your own opinions in the mix, and see what emerges. In a way, you can't force someone's response to art right? Parroting interesting reactions to things is forced the way that just name dropping having read things or knowing things but curtailing a discussion of them is forced. I think you should just trust that if he is going to have an emotional response to some work, it'll come of its own time. That's a kind of non answer to your question but I hope it makes sense.
posted by benadryl at 2:49 PM on August 19, 2017

Don't, you shouldn't, and I wouldn't. Tastes and taste acquisition are a personal journey.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:33 PM on August 20, 2017

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