“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” Hamlet assures his trusted friend, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This sentiment wouldn’t go down well today. We tend to believe that our individual philosophies, our tastes, our likes and dislikes, are quite perfect just the way they are.
We are particularly this way about art. Most people focus on what they like and disregard everything else. This is especially true in light of the great divide in art that Modernism and its various offspring introduced over the course of the 20th century.
Today people believe that art is strictly subjective and not worth taking seriously enough to think deeply about. “I like what I like,” is the incontestable (if tautological) response often given in the face of something unfamiliar.
Profess as we may the opposite, our comfort zones are shockingly small. We want the familiar: either that which is sanctioned by popularity or by our long experience with it. It’s in part why sequels are so bankable for movie studios. And today, contemporary technology allows us to indulge in our prejudices completely.
These thoughts struck me on board an airplane recently. Before we even left the ground, I discovered that the airline’s safety video, which used to stand out because it was a quirky, animated video with a dollop of irony, had been replaced by a banal song and dance video which could have been lifted straight from any current television “talent” show or, for that matter, any recent Super Bowl halftime performance—sassy, attitude-laden, sunglasses-wearing kid included.
By the time we were climbing out, people around me were already consumed by their seat-back video screens. The lady next to me was sliding her credit card so she could watch three episodes of “Game of Thrones,” and even as I wrote this sentence she was growing vexed that the credit card reader was not immediately responsive.
In front of me and to my right, a woman was watching the movie “Sherman and Peabody” while a young girl next to her was into the ubiquitous “Frozen.”
All this is progress, right? Now we can fly, drive, walk, exist, without any loss of control of our cultural surroundings.
Yet this increasingly determined assumption that we should be able to tailor our cultural surroundings to meet our tastes exclusively erodes our ability to experience art deeply.
Ultimately, coming to a deeper appreciation of art is about being open to new manifestations of it. As T.S. Eliot explained long ago, all new art we experience deepens our relationship to all the art we already know.
Being wedded to one style or one artist is a dead end, but cultivating the alternative leads you deeper into art itself, and greater knowledge of all that’s out there. If you’re a Monet fan, being open to a painting by Caillebotte, of whom you may not have heard, will take you in new directions, while not exactly going too far out on a limb.
Being receptive to the compositions of Erik Satie, if you think Debussy hung the moon, is still being open, and again, while it’s not a great leap, it points in the direction I’m talking about. If you like the sculpture of Henry Moore, see if you can find something to like in Richard Serra.
Put yourself in situations in which you can experience something new. You won’t like everything—you don’t need to. But soon you’ll delightfully come to realize that, when it comes to art, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your current tastes.