David and Art - "No Twitter"

Mar 9, 2020

A culture that wants its information in tweet-sized packages is going to have trouble appreciating art.

 

When the number nine hitter comes to the plate with one on and no outs in a close game, he’ll often square to bunt. As the pitcher begins his windup the first and third basemen charge in and the person playing second wheels over to cover first.  It’s a complex series of events that unfolds quickly but because it’s not immediately evident what’s going on, those who aren’t familiar with baseball are often left scratching their heads. But if you’re patient and take time to figure it out or ask someone, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the subtleties that go on between every pitch. (read more)

Communication shows similarities to this, as anyone who’s tried to explain idiomatic expressions from one language to another knows all too well. Some people think the increasing prevalence of social media is what’s damaging our ability to communicate substantively with each other at all. The President is just one of the public figures often criticized for, among other things, reducing complex situations down to pithy aggressive tweets.

The more we condition ourselves to communicate in shorthand, the more likely we are to miss the point of a work of art.  When we’re confronted with subtlety or complexity, we’re increasingly incapable of — or, maybe just uninterested in — sorting through either complex emotions or difficult representations. This is also why most political commentary on television now deteriorates into nothing more than name-calling and shouting matches. As far as art is concerned, our reaction to it inevitably grows less patient and more crude.

How can a slowly-developing Beethoven piano sonata, let alone a Brahms symphony, survive in a world like this? Yes, we’ve always had popular music with catchy tunes of just a few minutes’ duration, but there was once a belief that other more complicated music was worth getting into.

Similarly, when a work of visual art is difficult to understand, whether it’s a Rembrandt rooted in mythological stories no longer familiar to the average American, or a Mondrian that looks like the artist did nothing but paint a grid of straight lines and fill in a couple of blocks with yellow and red, we’re more willing than ever to walk away and pronounce it pointless or to make fun of it. Fewer of us today seem to have the patience with an aspirational culture.

Whether in political conversation or art appreciation, an incurious determination to have things simple keeps us from really understanding what we’re listening to or looking at. But insisting on simplicity rarely leads to anything more than oversimplifications. Impatient shorthand doesn’t work in every form of human endeavor…and we really ought not to insist that it should.