21 September 2009

Turn on your television

(for only certain, specific shows)

The lady who lives in the apartment below mine turns on her television everyday at 7:00 a.m. and turns it off at 11:00 p.m. She is hard of hearing, so the volume is very high for the entirety of those 16 hours. Now, this is usually not a problem for me, because I generally have music playing. In the hiatus between two pieces of music, or the switch from the radio to iTunes, however, I can tell what show she’s watching and sometimes even pick out bits of the conversation. There’s one commercial that employs the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, which plays at least once every commercial break.

Now, this is not going to be a tirade against my neighbor (she’s elderly and lives alone; I imagine the TV is just a substitute for companions, a noise to block the terrors of solitude). Instead, I want to talk about the negative artistic effect of too much of one medium. I want to discuss how watching TV all day, listening to the same radio station all the time, playing your iTunes library on shuffle indiscriminately, and so on, can deaden our sensory and intellectual experience of art.

Let’s start with the TV example. I was brought up completely without television; we rented videos occasionally. I still don’t have TV. We have rabbit ears; we bought a converter box, but we don’t have it set up right now. Even with it, we only get one PBS station, two local Christian channels, and two Spanish broadcasts. So, I never watch TV. We rent movies, and it’s a special treat. So, here’s what happens to my senses. I am completely and totally distracted by television. When there’s one playing in a room anywhere (doctor’s office, friend’s house, electronics section of Walmart [dozens of huge ones! All playing the same film clips, over and over!]), I am mesmerized. I can’t pay attention to what anybody says, if the TV’s on. Now, although this can have negative affects on, say, my shopping or my social life, from an artistic point of view I think it’s a good thing. I am still sensitively aware of the art form of the television. I critique cinematography; I listen to the musical score; I analyze the screenplay; I am drawn into the lives of the characters and can’t bear to be torn away from even the most trite drama. That’s really, in a sense, one reason I don’t watch television; from the little I see, it’s not great quality. It’s basically the visual equivalent of the cheap-paperback-romance-novel. So I watch movies, selectively, rarely, and enjoy them as a beautiful, extravagant indulgence in art as well as entertainment. I would love recommendations here of films whose artistic value far surpasses that of the sloppy chick-flick forgettable series knock-off.

I’m sure if I watched more—movies or television—I would become inured. Immune to the magical spell of the screen. I don’t watch anything on a tiny screen (iPod, etc.); that takes away the awe of immersion. I love the big screen, and try to plan ahead to see anything important in the theatre. The darkness, the size of the image, and the power of surround sound enhance what is still a powerful experience for my emotions and my mind.

This is one reason I encourage my students not to listen to music or to have the TV on while they’re studying. Not necessarily because it detracts from the quality of their studies—which it might—but because it detracts from full enjoyment of the music or the TV show. One of my sisters always sews while watching TV; I can’t do that! I don’t want to miss a frame.

So then, let’s talk about music. I’m not pleased with what I’ve been doing to music recently. I used to be a selective and intentional about music as I am about films. But for the past few years, ever since I got my iPod, I’ve been less and less thoughtful. Now I generally just pull up iTunes and let it shuffle through everything I’ve got. This makes for some funny juxtapositions; Arabic pop gives way to a movement from a Beethoven sonata, which fades into a U2 song, then Glenn Gould playing his austere and precise Bach sinfonias, then a piece of Celtic folk music, then a Chopin etude, then a Wagner prelude, then an impressionistic piano composition by one of my former students, then something by Janacek, maybe a track from a Lord of the Rings score, and finally Domingo singing his heart out in a Puccini aria. It’s weird. And my iTunes library is small enough I’ve listened to every number dozens of times. The result is that I don’t actually listen to anything anymore. It’s all blurred together. The sharp distinctions between those genres and pieces I listed above have faded. New recordings temporarily revive my listening attention (have you heard the new U2 CD, “No Line on the Horizon” yet? It’s great). But it isn’t too many times through before it jumbles into the old stuff and loses its edge. I rarely listen to a piece of Classical music all the way through, movements in order, focusing on its architecture and structural development. I’m working to correct this: last week I loaded only Mahler symphonies (and podcasts, but that’s a different story) on my iPod, and listed intentionally to numbers 1 and 2 while working on Charles Williams research in a quiet library. Tomorrow, it will be symphony #4 (I don’t have #3; I guess I should purchase it right away). The point here is that I believe one should be thoughtful and intentional about music consumption, just as one should be limited and selective in film/TV watching.

The same can be true of the [static] visual arts, but is not usually a problem for us middle-class Americans. Have you experienced sensory overload in an art museum? There comes a point that you just can’t look at one more sculpture, no matter how sensuously pure and thrilling, nor one more painting, no matter how lush or verdant or celestial. Your eyes just get dazzled, your mind cluttered with images. This is rarely a problem at home: who has an art gallery in their hallways anymore? Having just one great work of art on the walls, though; hum. Does that create insensibility to the work, or greater sensitivity to its complex charms? I have two lovely paintings on my walls: “The Artist's Honeymoon” and “Windflower”. You know, I never stop to really look at them. I will try to be intentional about that, soon, too.

In the words of Susan Sontag, “We must learn to seemore, to hear more, to feel more”—by looking at less, listening to less, and touching less, or fewer, works, in order to see, hear, and feel BETTER.

I saw the PA Shakespeare Festival's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream three times this summer!!! It was fantastic, unforgettable -- but seeing it three times did dull the sharp tang a bit. Twice would have been perfect.

So, tomorrow, chose one piece of music to listen to straight through, uninterrupted, and one poem to read out load three times. Find a quiet room. And see what happens! Let me know.

1 comment:

mehitchcock said...

Yes to everything! Well said! Well said!
I like that you have verbalized this so calmly and well.
I end up feeling like media exhaustion or whatever is a dangerous psychic attack and treating it as such.
I haven't flipped tables in the temple marketplace or anything, but I have stolen batteries, power plugs, compact discs, and other necessary items while yelling "incoherencies" about aural pollution and mental attacks.
Your approach is more gentle and workable.