Familiarity Breeds Contemporary Art

mise_en_abyme contemporary art header

My wife and I just got back from a wedding in Charleston, and while we were there, we wanted to sample some of the local flavor. We both noted that franchises and food chains had infiltrated the picturesque historic downtown area, and we wondered why. Our conversation went something like this:

“Why would someone rather go to Starbucks than to a local coffee shop?”

“I know. I thought the whole point of traveling was to experience a new place and new things. It seems like people just want the superficially exotic qualities of travel, but they really don’t want the adventure anymore.”

“Yeah. But it makes sense. With Starbucks and McDonald’s, you know what you’re getting. It gives the security of familiarity in an unfamiliar place. It might not be great, but it’s consistent.”

To make good on our convictions, we did in fact go to a local coffee shop. And it was not good. My wife’s Chai Latte tasted overbearingly of cinnamon, and my mocha with a double shot of espresso was very bitter. That’s the chance you are taking, though. And I’m not sorry for taking it.

Because every once in a while, when you take a chance, you get something extraordinary. The consistent and the familiar will always deliver the same experience. And for some, that’s just what they are looking for in a commodity.

But art should be different, right? Don’t you want that unforgettable, unrepeatable experience? That outdoor concert where the weather and the performances and the crowd and your friends all come together perfectly. Or that time when you saw that one painting and it transfixed you for some reason you couldn’t explain. It’s magical when that happens, but it usually involves taking chances. Because nine times out of ten, there’s rain at the concert. Or not one of the new paintings speaks to you.

We don’t want aesthetic experiences to be unrepeatable, though. We just want them to feel that way.

We don’t want aesthetic experiences to be unrepeatable, though. We just want them to feel that way. In reality, we want it manufactured that way to remove all the risks. So we try to mass produce it, but somehow in the process, the heart of it is missing.

The first time I read C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, this idea really struck me. In one part of the book, the protagonist Ransom eats from a particular Perelandrian fruit tree, and realizes that every so often one of the berries contains an exquisite red center that far surpasses the flavor of any of the other fruits. He thinks about eating only the red-centered ones, but he stops himself:

Every now and then one struck a berry which had a bright red centre: and these were so savoury, so memorable among a thousand tastes, that he would have begun to look for them and to feed on them only, but that he was once more forbidden by that same inner adviser which had already spoken to him twice since he came to Perelandra. “Now on earth,” thought Ransom, “they’d soon discover how to breed these redhearts, and they’d cost a great deal more than the others.” Money, in fact, would provide the means of saying encore in a voice that could not be disobeyed. (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996], 44)

Lewis was right. And contemporary art is that encore, ringing out like a mise en abyme in a billion iterations of itself. Every record is trying to capture that magical coalescence that made everyone swoon back in the day. Every movie is trying to recapture that narrative arc that people never tire of—remake after remake should be enough to attest to this.

We aren’t yet able, like God, to experience repetition with unflagging joy.

Contemporary art of this kind comforts us because we know what to expect from it. It may never surprise or delight us. It may never challenge us or mature us. But it won’t disappoint us or question our values either.

We all say we want something different. But we really don’t. We don’t desire to take the risks involved in having the extraordinary experience. And when God forces us into one of those extraordinary experiences, which He so often does in His grace, we want to find some way of never leaving that experience. Or of recreating it at a scheduled Revival™. We all, like the disciples, want to build tents (nay, houses) on the Mount of Transfiguration and never come down (Matt. 17:4). We all want to live perpetually in the House of Feasting (Eccles. 7:2). But Jesus has other things in mind for us. He realizes that those redhearts wouldn’t mean anything if they became familiar to us. Not until we’re perfected, that is. We aren’t yet able, like God, to experience repetition with unflagging joy.

So here’s to exploring the unfamiliar and valuing the work and sweat and waiting that characterize our daily lives. And when you do get a chance, as we did at that exquisite wedding in Charleston, to taste one of those redhearted moments, savor it with gratitude. And then get back to work.

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