To live the good life, we have to zoom in close enough to experience to get engrossed in events and enjoy them, and we have to zoom out far enough from experience that we are living on a trajectory that has meaning to us, and not merely reacting to things. This balance between mattering and not mattering is found in the aesthetic attitude.
Roger Fry defined the aesthetic attitude as not having to react, not having to consider the function of a situation. When artists like Picasso and Duchamp stuck ordinary objects like matchboxes and bottle racks on pedestals and presented them as art, Fry noted that the pedestal made the difference. It created a context in which the observer saw the physical aspects of the object and could ignore its use. Fry also noted that the cinema could present an image of a train heading toward you, but you could observe the train without (after a bit of getting used to the experience) having to react to it. You can watch Lear destroy his relationship with Cordelia without feeling responsible for warning him about the mistake he’s making.
Fry assumed you’d react emotionally to artistic presentations and left that out of his definition. Otherwise, you’d be zooming out too far for art to function. If you read Anna Karenina gripped by Anna’s fate but without asking yourself if you might be either too selfish or not selfish enough in your own romance, then you are probably zooming in too close (engrossed, but as in a melodrama) or out too far (recognizing the themes but not applying them to you). The aesthetic attitude can be safely discarded during moments of physical indulgence (when there is no such thing as too close) or existential reflection (when there is no such thing as too far).
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Art teaches us how to relate to ourselves and our experiences with the right mixture of mattering and not mattering. We care about the characters in a well-written novel, we learn from their mistakes and successes, and then we move on. The beauty of a painting or the empathy evoked by a sculpture teaches us to recognize and cultivate a feeling, but then rather than organize our lives around the beauty or set aside a period of mourning for the evocative figure, we learn to pursue beauty and to visit empathy and move on. Art teaches us that, in Keats’s words, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” largely because of classical conditioning (which Keats describes thusly: “even as the trees/ That whisper round a temple become soon/ Dear as the temple’s self”). Narrative art—novels, plays, movies—teaches us to relate to our own pride as we relate to Othello’s, with compassion, admiration, and regret. Indeed, much of Othello’s plight stems from his having too little of what Hamlet has too much of: emotional distance.
Is Your Mind Under Your Control?
I recoil, for reasons embedded in my own psychology, at efforts to control other people. Subordinates appreciate this but my superiors get frustrated with my not being a good lieutenant. If I do try to control my supervisees (or children) after all, they resent it, since I’ve established non-control as our relational culture. I think it’s fair to say that my disinclination to control others makes me a mediocre parent and organizational man and a pretty good therapist and husband. I learned to dislike control as a child, but—and this is the point for now—I exercised my dislike of control by watching an inordinate number of movies and reading a lot of novels. I got used to caring about characters under circumstances where they were impossible to control. I sometimes wish I were better at giving orders, but I never regret the fact that I treat myself as I treat many fictional characters: with compassion, acceptance, good-natured mocking, and without much control.
Be a Good Role Model
Caring for yourself with the same attitude with which you care for a literary character is, in my opinion, healthy. A good place to learn this is at home, growing up with parents who find the right balance. Indeed, the “coddling of the American mind” is largely attributed in the book of that title to parents who inadvertently teach their children that everything matters more than it does. I recently read Educated , in which the children’s experiences don’t matter enough to the parents. It’s hard not to notice that boomers raised their children largely away from grandparents, who are disposed to roll their eyes at putatively momentous parenting decisions. Boomers also raised fewer children, focusing the brunt of their parental concern on only one or two kids. I imagine that it’s hard to take a fourth child’s journey as seriously as an only child’s.
If you miss it the first time around, you can learn what it’s like to be experienced aesthetically by a good therapist. Therapists, like parents, can spoil, neglect, and even abuse their charges, but good therapists find the aesthetic balance that includes emotional engagement and a comedic shrug, zooming in the right amount while retaining the ability to zoom out again. It’s expressed in every session when the therapist demonstrates empathy but still starts and ends on time. Like a regular bedtime, ending sessions on time is not properly construed as a rejection or dismissal; each is a way to teach an important life skill, sleeping well and an aesthetic attitude.