I have had reason to examine my relationship to those contraptions called cars lately. When it initially became evident a new vehicle would have to enter my life (for reasons of age and infirmity) I was thrown into a consumer crisis which took months to resolve. About six to be precise. The process has revealed a number of things to me, the first of which is a badge of shame: it turns out that I care, rather more than I would like, what car I drive. In theory I am not at all concerned with brands and badges, or whether something comes ‘fully-loaded’. All I care about is fuel economy and CO2 emissions. But as I got into it, it did really matter to me that the car was not fundamentally ugly. So now I had to account not only for my parsimonious and green sensibilities, but an aesthetic one as well. Already, what had seemed like the straightforward job of replacing a car had become fraught with difficulty and challenges to one’s sense of self.
I will not bore the blog with all the turns and twists of my mind over the six months, but my investigations into the modern, fuel efficient car, revealed that, for some inexplicable reason, modern car manufacturers are making some bastard ugly vehicles. Or, cars that look the same as another. Or cars that don’t look the same as another, and aren’t too ugly but are dull and so lacking in character that if you drove them for more than five minutes you would fall asleep from boredom. To solve the problem I began to wonder if I could walk and cycle everywhere, but the children often need to be in two different places at the same time, as do I and, without the option of a teletransporter, it was clear a car was more or less a necessity. This was a disappointment. The next was that I couldn’t afford an electric car, which offers a limited daily driving range, but motoring that costs about 1p a mile which is a joyous concept in these straitened days.
I retired one car to a more gentle pace of life in the country with some dear friends, the other sat outside making me feel bad. Her front grilles fell out, I drove over one. Her tyres were nearly bald and went unreplaced due to the diagnosis of a dodgy timing belt and a leaking coolant system. After many years of loyal service, the car was being betrayed. At the end of last month, twisting the knife, the car tax went unrenewed. The scrap dealer was called in. On the first occasion I couldn’t go through with it. After another month she has had to go. They turned up in a car transporter yesterday and she started up with gusto and drove straight on to it with not a bother on her. ‘There is nothing wrong with this car,’ I said grudgingly to the man. He placated me with words about her great age and costs of work and then drove away with the old car and disappeared to wherever it is that elderly cars end their days. I found myself wishing I had kept the chrome gear stick knob that used to be freezing in mid-winter and make a pleasant sound when I clunked my rings on it.
I was also close to tears.
To be continued.
I wanted to pull together the strands of thought that have been exercising me this week, if only to continue with those things I need to do with a new clarity.
Firstly, I wrote that art is as diverse as humanity itself and thank goodness for that. That’s not to say we can subjectively appreciate all artistic creation, including our own. Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut, who was born this day in 1922, said about that:
The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. — A Man Without a Country, 2005
Then I moved onto the idea that dominant aesthesia, the sense perception, can preclude our appreciation of some of what Kurt talks about; it can lead to a narrowing of the senses, which is what I consider to be a sensitivity. Sometimes a sensitivity, or sensibility, can be a gift: it allows us to bring a rigorous focus to bear on some small, sometimes unobservable, detail in another object. This can gift us an intuition, a precious insight, an understanding. But this narrowing needs also to widen again and soon (hence this post); for if it remains as the contraction of your senses you can only experience your own, and others creations, with the terrible pains of a labour gone wrong, risking stillbirth. Or it’s the clenching of a fist, useful in a fight, but a deformity if you can never uncurl your fingers and offer your palms to the world. If you cannot open yourself wide after a tight and painful contraction you cannot be reborn through your own artistic creation.
Aesthetics and art are thus intertwined, but there needs to be an appreciation of both, an acceptance of the pain of sensitivity to the product and the joy of the relief in the creative process. Without that we are simply winding our umbilical connection to the universe around our necks.
For my last ‘post’ I posed a question about equality and diversity in aesthetics. Equality and diversity thrives in art as much as the creative instinct expresses itself in people; wide, high and long. But when our own appreciation of art and form, our aesthetic sense, is projected outwards it can become insular and singular. And we may say, why not? Aren’t people entitled to like what he or she likes based on feel and sensibilities.
But a strong, a dominant, as my friend put it, aesthetic sense does not always allow us to engage with the worth, the soul, the unutterable ‘ness’ of everything. A headstrong aesthetic sense might prevent one experiencing the full diversity of life. And what would life be if it were spent in total concord with everything we heard, touched, looked at and interacted with in every way? What would a life be without the raw edge of disagreement, the jarring of the senses, the looking-twice at some horror of colour and form; how would we move forward in ourselves?
A strong aesthete, it seems to me, seeks to create a utopia, where everything they interact with is… just so. And then, for them, how nerve-jangling to be in the world that does not fit with the vision, the rough-hewn humanity, the sprawling industry, the dirty clothes and the ‘monstrous carbuncles’. The aesthete necessarily removes from the world, and in the remove loses the necessity that drove the sense in the first place, until you have a vanishing of the one into the other. A subsuming of an artistic expression into a strong aesthetic sense and no need, whatever, for either. And in the end, the world is the poorer for it.
In truth, for many persons, his great, his most touching sign will have been his aloofness wherever he is. He is an aesthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window. It was a faculty that gave him much more a terrible sense of human abysses than a desire rashly to sound them and rise to the surface with his report. On the surface – the surface of the soul and the edge of the tragedy – he preferred to remain. He lingered, to weave his web, in the thin exterior air. This is a partial expression of his characteristic habit of dipping, of diving, just for sport, into the moral world without being in the least a moralist.
Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne first published 1896
Literary Criticism Volume One: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers