A wonderfully honest look at art snobbery in this past weekend’s NY Times Magazine by Dan Kois entitled “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” Kois dissects the crucial distinction between “should” and “want,” what is good and what is enjoyable, obligatory vs. desirable, etc when it comes to the music we listen to and movies/TV shows we watch. As it relates to the cultural artifacts themselves, of course, it’s an arbitrary question – enjoyment being so subjective – but as it relates to identity, it hits very close to home. Kois repeatedly equates the type of art one enjoys with what kind of a person one is, or what one’s cultural likes/dislikes mean, detailing his own failed attempts to engineer personal taste – an outside-in approach to self-improvement if ever there was one. Speaking as the chief of sinners, I’m struck again by how potent a value judgment/identity marker/Law taste can be… and on all ends of the high-low, contrarian-conformist spectrum, regardless of all the evidence, Kois’ included, about its relative immutability. Yet even if giving up on culture to shape or define is probably essential to enjoying it fully (and a fruit of exhaustion as Kois wisely suggests), it may also be part and parcel of caring about it in the first place. Or, since it’s impossible to detach a piece of culture completely from all association or meaning (i.e. that which makes it cultural), we may as well just enjoy the ride. Lucky for us, I hear the new Fast and Furious movie is terrific:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
My aspirational viewing is different in its particulars from [my daughter] Lyra’s, but we both embrace unfamiliar viewing experiences even though — or because — we struggle to understand them. We both yearn: Lyra to be 8 years old; me to experience culture at an ever more elevated level.
I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. My guilt isn’t unique, even if my particular aspirational viewing is my own. (Surely there are die-hard Hou Hsiao-hsien fans out there who grit their teeth every time a new Pixar movie comes out.) And my cultural guilt has only intensified as Twitter reminds me hourly that my colleagues and friends are finding deep satisfaction in reading “The Pale King” or attending “Gatz” or watching “Le Quattro Volte.” A friend messages me: “Oh, you have to see ‘Mildred Pierce,’ ” and she’s right: I do have to, because Todd Haynes is a major director, and Kate Winslet is among my favorite actresses, and the miniseries — currently resting quietly on my DVR — will be part of the cultural vocabulary for years to come. But that doesn’t mean that, as Kate Winslet bakes yet another pie, I won’t sometimes wonder if those five hours might be more profitably spent aspiring in a different direction: exercising, maybe, or reading a book or just watching 10 episodes of the hilarious (and not at all contemplative) cartoon “Bob’s Burgers.” [ed. note: Mildred Pierce was so exhausting... I repent of my earlier recommendation.]
As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me… But while I’m grateful to have watched “Solaris” and “Blue” and “Meek’s Cutoff” and “The Son” and “Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)” and “Three Times” and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste. Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.