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He who binds to himself a joy
does the winged life destroy:
But he who kisses the joy as it flies,
lives in eternity’s sun rise.

~William Blake


Have you ever been driving and gotten so lost in thought or some preoccupation that you found yourself already home, as if you had just lost ten minutes of your life? We often say that the driving route home is just so routine that you can do it in your sleep. I have no profound insights on this process, per se, but I would like to distinguish it from another kind of inadvertent behavior: artistic inadvertency. What is this? As discussed by William Shatner on the Star Trek IV commentary (not that I was actually listening to such a thing):

There is a line between improvisation and the necessity of saying the words that have been written and going through the progression of what needs to be done for the story. On top of that, there is an application of something else, some other reality– it’s hard to put into words– that the actor can bring. Sometimes, at your best, it has an improvisation, it’s almost escaping out of you and when you hit that… where it’s almost a surprise to you the actor as it is to the audience it is like archery where the ideal time to loose the arrow is when it surprises you. Or the time to take a shot with a rifle is you’re on the hair trigger and suddenly the trigger is pulled by breath almost. And so an actor should breathe the words out and they happen almost inadvertently, if you can achieve that the inadvertency, the artistic inadvertency, you’ve gotten to the peak of what an actor does. I’m always looking for that.

Shatner suggests that mindlessly reading the lines is one thing, like driving your car back home at night, but filtering the lines through the actor’s creative lens can lead to more dynamic, artistic, and perhaps even correct expressions. A better description might come from a surgery analogy. In Atul Gawande’s Complications, he likens surgeons to artists but says that their skill comes just like an artist’s: through practice. By this constant effort, their work may seem effortless in the face of any obstacle — a sudden, unpredicted hemorrhage or some other crisis — but it is still a result of master artistry. Just so, in artistic inadvertency, an actor reflexively utters the lines true to the character for a given scene. This led to much script intervention on the part of both Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) during the original run of the Star Trek cast from 1966 – 1991.

Just as with the frontier of economics moving slowly but surely into the domain of neuroscience, so too must the study of aesthetics. We must learn to distinguish between these types of inadvertency, to determine if art is truly the entire domain of that which is not nature, or if it is delimited by the intentional. If it is something akin to the later, then we will need to find translations of our terms and concepts in terms of neuronal firings (P600 or N400?) and the structure of cerebral cortex layers. Of course, eventually beyond these studies, we may find very little meaning for the way we live, instead implying an ever more deterministic structure of human decisions. For in describing neuronal firings, we may learn very little about consciousness, and perhaps little of why we make the choices we do.

Worst of all, they will say nothing profound about paradox, which I will argue in future posts is the ultimate and most powerful domain of human expression.

For thousands of years, in an unbroken but accelerating trend, humans have migrated from rural areas into urban ones. It’s not hard to come up with reasons why, but in conventional parlance we say that people can find more opportunities in a city than on a piece of farm real estate. Still, that’s only part of the story.

In ancient days, cities weren’t worth much unless they were built near water because it could be used for irrigation and trade. These same economic advantages still hold, but moreso for the latter reason. With more trade comes more goods and services to sate human desires — of which you can be sure there are an infinite number. The more these desires are fulfilled, the happier (so the theory goes) humans are. In general, this should be rather obvious. Looking at the extremes, places where there are no choices (North Korea, various indigenous communities), humans almost always prefer lifestyles with more choices. I do not mean to say that indigenous communities do not have intrinsic value, merely that humans do not prefer them, just as I wouldn’t say a 1992 Ford Taurus isn’t worthless– but almost everyone (Conan O’Brien excepted) would prefer a 2009 Nissan Maxima if all things were equal.

New York City is arguably the greatest city on earth, a place where interesting, growing culture and life can be found in even the darkest and smallest nook and cranny, which in my mind cannot be said of Los Angeles, Barcelona, (my beloved) Hong Kong or Vienna… and Paris is in no way as dynamic a place as NYC. Speaking of French food, you can get it 24 hours a day at fine dining establishments all over NYC — good luck finding delicious cuisine in Paris at 4 am. ( I’ve tried. And failed. ) In New York, there’s more than job opportunities: there’s family, transplanted and reformed nationalities, linguistic hot zones, and, oh yeah… art.

To look at a list and read out loud every gallery and museum in New York City would take you hours. ( I recently enjoyed this post by Joanne Mattera on a beautiful, tasteful private home-cum-gallery. ) The diversity and wealth of aesthetic experience, perhaps only possible in New York City, is a direct function of trade. Trade opens up people to new possibilities, and enables different parties to, based on the principle of comparative advantage, share what they are good at. The more people you have in a place like New York City, in a country that prides liberty and trade like America, the more possibilities.

So when I read this article in the New York Times (h/t Russ) on the New York Philharmonic performing for free in Central Park, consider how many improbable but beautiful elements of this there are: a first-rate world-class orchestra that has served as America’s ambassadors to North Korea and soon possibly Cuba (an effort I support, unlike many of my GOP colleagues), people of all income levels enjoying its artistic excellence, and a green space where time slows a bit (just a bit) from the world’s greatest city that surrounds it. The space, incidentally, enjoyed as much for its moments of artistic resonance as its jogging paths.

And so I wonder how cognizant the New Yorkers are of just how anomalous their experience that night on the lawn was: the people in that orchestra can play in many other orchestras, but they chose New York (let us blessedly avoid discussion of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the time being). The painters and photographers whose work draws millions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions but make their home in New York could live in Paris, London, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, or any number of other cities. But they chose New York. Why? In part because the pay is better. In part because there’s more creative possibility — and these parts are related, neither being possible without the freedom of expression and number of people. I suppose what I am trying to get at, but am not expressing very well, is that urban aesthetic experiences like this are built on the backs of business people (and their families), those like the traders of ancient times who founded and built cities on rivers — who, today, are the daring entrepreneurs, empire-building capitalists, and, yes, the heroes of any given Ayn Rand novel.

The more regulations a city passes, the higher taxes a state imposes, the higher the barriers to entry for artists. ( How many low-income artists are going to be able to hire a lawyer or consult with the VLA? ) Sooner or later, the people gathered in Central Park to enjoy a perfect evening with the New York Philharmonic will have to confront a startling reality: it’s not as easy, as obvious, or as likely, that these kinds of aesthetic experiences come as a result of charity and luck. Although such experiences may indeed be ends in themselves, make no mistake, the artists can afford it — and they can afford it because they’re already satisfied in so many other ways (financially, temporally, etc.). This seemingly simple and eminently enjoyable experience is inextricably linked to the thriving, dynamic commercial nature of the city.

( Picture credit: New York Times (2008) )

Some see Mandy Moore’s name and automatically recoil. As someone who grew up in Orlando, however, I take a little bit of pride in the fact that she went to school across the street from me and we had mutual friends. Still, Moore herself apparently has called her past music “just awful.” Since 2003, she has been trying to rehabilitate her image by taking on seemingly, slightly subversive movie roles and making “adult” albums, either of covers or her own original songs. Her most recent album is Amanda Leigh – maybe she’s establishing a Sasha Fierce type character, I don’t know. The album itself isn’t my type… but it seems to scrape at something that is. When I heard the song “Love to Love Me Back” I realized what that means.

A couple years ago, Minnie Driver released Seastories, an album with a lot of songs about love, self-knowledge, and forlorn hopes. I actually like this album probably more than I should, but I like her voice, some of the mysterious lyrics, and the stories she alludes to (and by the way, ending a sentence with a preposition is perfectly fine according to real linguists). I’m not a big lyrics go, so when I come across a song whose lyrics catch me and bring me along for a story, I get interested. Anyway, it turns out Driver was singing in jazz clubs before she was ever an actress — and she writes her own music these days.

Moore’s latest album seems like it’s a really, really weak copy of Seastories. And that’s the only point of my post. Side point: I strongly recommend Seastories.

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