Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

The Art Solipsist

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What follows is a post by C. Thi Nguyen, which is cross-posted with The Splintered Mind.

I was a pretty isolated kid, raised on classical music and 60’s rock and roll by my parents. Then, in high school, I started making, you know, actual friends. And they expanded my musical world, but only a little bit. The indie rock they got me into was pretty close to the classic rock and classical music my parents had raised me. The aesthetic sensibility, the particular flavor of emotional build-up and release — they all made sense to my ear. But I distinctly remember, in my teenage years, having my first exposures to rap and thinking: this isn’t music. This is just some dudes, like, talking. All the melody is just this hyper-simplistic looping sample, and then they’re just, like, talking over it. Where’s the music? 

This is now an exquisitely embarrassing memory. My tastes have blown well past those early borders. I’ve become the kind of person who thinks that, right now, some of the greatest heights of musical wonder and emotional expression are pouring out of the world of rap and hip hop, and later stuff that has grown out of the soundscape of hip-hop. But I can still remember what it was like, to be my teenage self, hearing rappers that I would eventually come to revere — Nas, Erik B, Biggie — and somehow hearing just some dudes, like, talking

The transformation in experience is particularly sharp with Wu Tang Clan’s ultra-classic, Enter the 36th Chamber. Eventually, this album would come to reside in the bleeding core of my musical aesthetic — a mind-bending, world-warping musical wonder. But on the first exposure I missed all of it: all the weird genius use of silence and gaps, all the emotional load in those de-tuned strings, all the textural contrasts, the way the reverb-laden old R&B sounds conjured up sad nostalgia, all that ferocious metrical genius. The first few times I heard it, all I heard was just some dudes, like, yelling

Screencap from Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M.

What got me through was somebody I trusted telling me to listen to it, telling me to give it serious attention. I had somebody I trusted deeply, assuring me that there wonders in Wu Tang I wasn’t hearing — that it was worth the effort. And they said things that helped me find those wonders. I remember what my buddy told me: “If you’re used to listening only to classical and rock, you’re used to a complex and varying melodies over a simple repeating rhythm line. But with a lot of rap, it’s a simple repeating melody, and everything interesting is going on in the vocals, as a complex and endlessly rhythmic line. You have to listen in the right place.”

That comment really helped me parse what was going on in rap, to actually pay attention to where the action was. The words helped me focus in the right place. But the most important part was that there somebody I trusted deeply, in aesthetic matters — whose taste I respected about food and novels and classical music — also telling me that this Wu Tang stuff was worth listening to, worth my time and energy.⁠1 

Because navigating the world of art takes trust. This is the basic epistemic dilemma of much art:   many forms of art takes time and devotion to really get. So why would you ever put in the effort in the first place? Before you learn to hear all the subtleties of a particular genre or style — or even a particular album — it can just sound worthless. So why put in the energy? Where would the motivation come from? 

Some art is, let’s say, difficult. A piece of art is difficult if its value isn’t obvious from first inspection — if it takes some time and effort to see that it’s worth your time and effort. (This is my own slightly personalized terminology.) Maybe some art is difficult for everybody — like maybe Marianne Moore’s peculiar and hyper-dense poems. Her poems are so utterly unlike anything else, that you just kind of have to learn to figure out what the hell Moore is doing. 

But in many cases, difficulty is relative to familiarity and experience. Somebody like me who grew up on classical music probably experiences no difficulty listening to a new, complex piece in a familiar style. But rappers like Notorious B.I.G. were difficult for me when I first encountered even his poppiest stuff, with my utter paucity of rap experience. 

And the whole point is that difficult art doesn’t always wear its difficulty on its face. Some stuff is showily difficult. I bet, for a lot of people, if you first encountered Joyce’s Ulysses or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and didn’t get it, you’d see that there was a serious, complex, arty thing there. The surface density makes it clear that there’s something to chew on, there. But other stuff is stealth difficult. Like Biggie’s “Juicy”, for teenage me: I didn’t get it, so it sounded like nothing, like simplistic fluff. It seemed simplistic to me because I was looking in the wrong place; I just wasn’t attuned enough even to realize how much weird, fascinating, subtle rhythmic texture was in his vocal line. I wasn’t listening for the way he caressed the beat; I was just listening for some goddamn melody, because that’s the only place I was trained to look for musical complexity. 

I think haiku can be like this for a lot of people too: if you’re raised expect poetry to wave complex symbolism in your face, and drown you in fancy literary references, then the surface clarity of haiku can just make it seem like superficial fluff.

So, if you’re not steeped in a form, or even a particular artist, it’s easy to encounter something and not see what’s really going on, and miss it. You can dismiss Ornette Coleman’s free jazz improvisations as random noise, or Theodore Rothko’s moody color studies as pretentious art-world bunk, or Joanna Newsom’s dense expressive textures as precious hippie hipster shit.

Light Red Over Black, Mark Rothko, 1957

 If you’re trained, like I was, in the aesthetic of clear controlled vocals and melodic complexity, then your first encounter with punk might just yield total disdain. The whole expressive aim of punk is just so far from what you’re used to, you might just not get it.

But it’s not like you can just spend your attention on anything. This is the heart of the problem: it’s not like every piece of art is worthwhile. The world is actually full of random noise, pretentious art-world bunk, and precious worthless hipster shit. And we need to be able to filter it out quickly, so we don’t waste energy on the crap. The deep epistemic problem of art is that, when you’re an outsider, you just can’t tell the poser crap from the good stuff. But to be able to tell, you need to gain skill and experience — which takes effort. And since we are cognitively limited beings with incredibly tiny shares of time and energy, facing a ceaselessly and endlessly overwhelming world, we need a good reason to spend that time and effort. Attention is the most precious cognitive resource. But difficult art is exactly the stuff that, on its own, doesn’t give you a reason to spend that resource. So why would we ever spend the time and effort?

I think the answer is: a lot of the time, it’s because we trust somebody. Maybe we trust a reviewer or a critic or a teacher, or a friend with shared taste. Maybe we trust the artist — so if you dug Miles Davis’ early, more comprehensible stuff, you might spend the effort to dig into his weirder-sounding later stuff, even if it just strikes you as totally bizarre on a first listen. Maybe you trust a community. For example: right now, the Atlanta trap musical community is putting out such a constant stream of relentlessly good stuff, that I’ll basically give at least one serious listen to anything that comes out of the scene. 

It is extremely hard to understand how we would ever possibly navigate the world of art on our own. It’s the social network that surrounds and interweaves the world of art, that makes it possible for us to expand our tastes, that gives us the motivation to press on into the unfamiliar.

This also helps us diagnose some problems and traps that might arise in the aesthetic exploration process. 

Imagine a kind of person who simply doesn’t trust anybody else about art. (Probably, you don’t have to imagine them; you probably already know lots.) Let’s call this distrusting person Roger. Roger experiences a piece of art — if they listen to a song, or watch a TV show — and doesn’t like it. Then somebody else tells Roger, “Oh my god, that artist/show/album/book/genre is amazing! Give it another go.” An adequately trusting person would, in the right circumstances, give that kind of testimony some weight. The adequately trusting person might, say, let another’s positive word outweigh their own first impressions. 

But Roger does not. Roger extends no real aesthetic trust to other people. Maybe he grants a tiny sliver of trust, in that he’ll take recommendations of stuff he hasn’t heard. But Roger always trusts his first impressions over the word of others. In any conflict, Roger dismisses others’ taste, rather than let others’ word push him to re-examine things. Even in cases when it’s Roger’s brief opinion up against somebody else’s life-long devotion: Roger dismisses. Roger would rather think that, say, the entire world of people who were into rap were all just crude simpletons, rather than think that he might have missed something — that he might have failed to cultivate the right sensibility. Roger cannot imagine that there is a difficult skill to listening to rap, that he might need time and experience to catch onto. 

Perhaps you know people like this. We can call them aesthetic solipsists: in their universe, their experience overrides all other people’s. Their own experience is the only one that carries weight. They act as if other people’s aesthetic experiences didn’t really exist — as if it was impossible for another person to carry a sensitivity that they themselves did not. 

And we can find a subtle social variant of the aesthetic solipsist. Imagine a person who does trust lots of others and takes their recommendations — and even occasionally lets a deeply trusted advisor give them reason to think again. But they extend their trust based only on a pattern of profound similarity of taste. So: imagine I grew up only into classical music and I despised hip hop. So I choose who I trust about aesthetic matters based on who agrees with my specific taste. That is, I only trust other people if they share my love of classical, and my specific tastes in classical — and only if they despise hip hop. (You can imagine the thought process of such a person: anybody who is into hip hop, by that very fact, reveals their bad taste.) So I let people I trust recommend me things; I will let a trusted advisor’s testimony partially override my own experiences, and let them direct me to look again at a performance or piece that I’d initially thought was bad. But notice that I will never, following my network of aesthetic trust, get into hip hop. 

If I were to act this way, I wouldn’t exactly be acting as a pure aesthetic solipsist. I would, sometimes, be letting a trusted advisor’s word outweigh my initial impressions. But something subtler, and perhaps creepier, would be going going on. I’ll have hidden a more complex version of aesthetic solipsism inside the structure of my trust-network. Since I’d be trusting my advisors only if they largely align with my own tastes, then I will have constructing an aesthetic echo chamber. My trust in others will be based, in its root, on profound trust in the clarity and completeness of my own taste, and so will have constructed my social world of art so that I will never be able to expand, and comprehend new forms of loveliness and expression.  

Endnote: This blog post draws from some scholarly work of mine: “Trust and Sincerity in Art” and “Cognitive Islands and Runaway Echo Chambers”. Autobiographical side-note: I’ve written some stuff on political echo chambers, but I actually started thinking about echo chambers, long ago, on cases about art and aesthetics. My original question was: is there any way for an outsider to tell the difference between a community with an aesthetic sensitivity that the outsider did not possess, and a community of hipster posers?

C. Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Utah and Associate Editor here at Aesthetics for Birds. His first book is Games: Agency as Art.

1 Something similar I think is going on with the Dissect Podcast, which devotes a whole season to dissecting particular hip hop albums. The podcast has done Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Lauren Hill. In particular, there is a particularly excellent Season 2, devoted to dissecting Kanye West’s astonishing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I have some private reservations, though. On the one hand, I’ve recommended that podcast to a whole legion of friends, who were often hip-hop averse, and the intellectual clarity to the podcast has brought so many skeptics to see the depth in these albums. Host Cole Cuchna is particularly good at getting people to see the density and subtlety going on underneath the surface. On the other hand, I am sometimes worry that the podcast involves an extremely obviously white host, with a background in classical musical theory, and a perfectly NPR voice, getting people onto Black music. My discomfort isn’t about appropriation or anything, and it’s no knock on Cuchna’s obvious pedagogical brilliance. It’s just a discomfort about the fact that so many people seem to need the stamp of approval of a Western European Musical Expert, with every possible signifier of whiteness, to let themselves be guided into getting hip hop. Of course, then again, my younger self probably wouldn’t have been willing to trust somebody about the wonder of rap, if that somebody hadn’t already proven their chops to me in my classical music world. So maybe it’s all fine and I should just relax. In short, listen to Dissect, especially Season 2.

One Comment

  1. Trust in general gets more and more important; a lost art.

    Which leads me to think about the idea of the so-called canon; instead of thinking about it just as an oppressive product of a dominant culture and/or group, shouldn’t it also be a sort of fine-extract-of-aesthetic-trust?

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