Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to state my personal aesthetic philosophy.
Although I never became a regular or even infrequent user of marijuana, my thoughts about art tie back to a few experiences of being stoned that I had in my early twenties.
Getting stoned was the first time I understood that what seems fascinating, profound, or moving to me is as much a function of the thing itself as it is of my current mental state. I remember being stoned and finding soap bubbles in the kitchen sink endlessly intriguing, or saying a word – I don’t know, “luminous” – and thinking its sounds were so fascinating that the word itself was some kind of masterpiece. One could say that my perceptions were distorted by the drug. In this view, drugs disconnect you from reality, and when a drug wears off, you realize that all the things it made you think weren’t really true. But one could also say that mind-altering substances expose truths about the self. Marijuana revealed to me that I have the capacity to find pleasure in places I normally wouldn’t find it. I have the capacity to be endlessly fascinated by soap bubbles. I didn’t know that before. What is it about weed that unleashes this latent capacity for appreciation?
I think it’s all about attention. Soap bubbles seemed so rapturous to me because, for once, I could give them full attention. Where normally I would have said that soap bubbles are pretty but I’ve got to get the dishes done, I was now free to stare at them intensely and endlessly, with no sense of time passing, no voice nagging me to focus on something more important, no inner chatter distracting me from enjoyment. Where normally, I would have said that “luminous” is a nice word, but it’s just a word, I could now repeat it again and again, loving its sounds without caring whether it was a piece of sonic art by a famous creator, or just a word. The critical side of my awareness, the side that gets bored and demands novelty, the side that gets haughty and says “This is not worthy of me!” had been subdued, allowing the appreciative side, the side that looks, listens, and thinks “Isn’t that interesting?” to have free reign of my consciousness.
If soap bubbles or a single word can be “art” to me when I’m stoned, why can they not be art when I’m in my normal state of consciousness? That’s because my normal state of consciousness is dominated by a critic who expects certain requirements to be met before he will step away and allow my attention to flow to the object in question. The inner critic, custodian of worth, helps me function in life by keeping me focused on priorities, stopping me from staring too long at any random thing that happens to catch my eye. While the critic is helpful in that regard, he also disrupts pleasure, treating pleasure as a limited resource which must be conserved. The critic expects that something called “art” should be made by an artist, and the artist should have a pedigree, and the piece at hand should have novel properties that can only be achieved through rare skill; otherwise it should not be allowed to produce enjoyment. When the critic’s requirements aren’t met, he refuses to step away and let the appreciator take the reigns.
And so, when I’m stoned, I can give my attention freely to soap bubbles and experience so much pleasure from staring at them that they seem like magnificent, intentional creations, but when I’m not stoned, I require a justification for why I should give them the benefit of my time: are they worthy? Were they hard to make? How much do they sell for? Who made them and what is that person’s status?
So my aesthetic philosophy in a nutshell is this: appreciation is an inner capacity. When our internal critic is silenced, the raw experiences of color, form, light, and sound can captivate us endlessly. What makes a work of art successful for a particular viewer is that it unlocks the viewer’s latent capacity for appreciation, realizing a potential that was within him or her to begin with. It does this by conducting the viewer’s attention. We look to art to guide and control our attention in ways that we cannot will to happen. If the viewer is in an altered state of consciousness, his attention might flow so generously that the art object needn’t struggle to capture it. But if the viewer is in a typical state of conscious, his attention might be constrained by an inner critic that must be appeased. In this case, the work of art must accomplish the appeasement, and it can try for that in myriad ways.
We can divide these ways into those that are intrinsic and extrinsic to the artwork itself. On the intrinsic side, the art object can present a series of surprises, things that startle us because we sense they are rare or difficult to achieve. In a state of surprise, our experiences are heightened. You could read me your journal entry, and I might listen to it, but if it’s in iambic pentameter and all the lines rhyme, I’ll listen harder because you’ve done something difficult that holds me in a state of surprise as I hear each line. By itself, this doesn’t make your journal entry into a great piece of art, but it means I have a better chance of appreciating what’s there because I’m tuned in. If you then go on to add internal rhymes, startling but effective metaphors, and a provocative juxtaposition of topics, I’ll keep tuning in, and so the more I’m likely to notice.
On the extrinsic side, the piece of art might happen to be famous, or ridiculously expensive, or historically significant, or it might have been made by your best friend. All of these thing signal to the inner critic that an exception should be made, more attention should be afforded to this piece than to others. Even if some scribbles on a canvas don’t interest you at first, the knowledge that they are worth twenty million dollars would make you look closer in a desperate attempt to understand how its value and merit could be so utterly uncorrelated. And yet now that you’re looking, you stand a better chance of finding merit in what you see than if you had never looked. In a topsy-turvy way, the outrageous price of the art – or any other outrageous quality that might be attached to it – opens a path to appreciation. It shocks you into noticing, and perhaps looking further.
I don’t mean to imply that art is nothing but artifice aimed at subduing the viewer’s inner critic so that stoned appreciation can then ensue unimpeded. We experience art over time, and a critical voice that had been subdued in one moment might resurface in the next. Aesthetics would be a simple domain if a piece of art needed to pass only one test, once. In reality it must pass many tests over time, and it must pose tests for the viewer himself to pass, thereby fostering an interaction. It demands things from us, and those demands build our investment in appreciating it. It gives us riddles to solve. It confuses us and makes us struggle to understand. It tires us and forces us to build our own endurance. It promises and withholds. It plays hide and seek. It prompts observations and questions which we can discuss with our friends. It generates gossip that we overhear and repeat. So we should name a third set of ways that art can bind our attention: first, through its intrinsic virtues, the difficult and surprising things it achieves; second, through its distinguishing extrinsic attributes, the circumstances around it that attract our notice; and third, through the interaction it fosters, the way it involves us and makes us work.
The interaction of these mechanisms gets very complex, beautifully so, and when I promised to state my aesthetic philosophy I didn’t promise to explain the fine details. I am not addressing how human attention works, nor all the specific ways that art might engage it, nor what communication means, nor how culture and community frame interpretation. What I am offering is the conviction that when art is successful for a particular viewer, that is because it has mastered the viewer’s attention. Somehow, it has subdued the viewer’s inner naysayer and unlocked the same appreciative capacity that one might experience under the influence of a mind-altering substance. In that sense, art is a way of getting stoned.