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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 1998/09/15
by Jesse Jarnow

Why Art

...some quasi-philosophical ramblings from the bunker regarding falling trees… social deviants… veggie burritos… neural trails… the sweet baby Jesus Crust… and good ol’ Robert Maplethorpe… but not really…

Life is a series of events. Each person moves through, perceives, these events in his own way. Some people take everything at face value. That is, “a tree falls… so what? It fell.” Some people take everything, shall we say, more deeply than others. “A tree falls… one reason it possibly fell was that the ground beneath was rotten and eroding due to the chemicals leaking from the nearby power plant. The social implications of this are great: on one hand, the power plant is providing us with electricity which, in turn, provides us with light, warmth, any number of things that are necessary for our survival. On the other hand, it’s killing off trees, which – through their complex system of carbon dioxide processing – provide us with air to breathe, even more of a necessity than the light by which we see…” And so forth.

Contrived as he may be, and annoying as he may be at parties and other social events, I’d rather hang around the second example. There’s a basic understanding that EVERYTHING happens for a reason, even if that reason is that a couple of atoms went where they weren’t supposed to, I find those reasons interesting. It may be circular logic, but I find that life is only interesting if one stops and thinks WHY it’s interesting and what makes it so.

This is another form of understanding, similar to the tree example. In the case of the tree , o one examines physical implications of why the action occurred. He studied external causes and effects. These can be broken down into two categories: physical and philosophical. The physical would be the toxic crap under the forest, the power plant itself, the pollutants in the air that saturated the bark, etc. The philosophical would be an investigation of the society that allowed the whole blasted affair to occur: why people would accept the construction of a potentially dangerous power plant in an area bordering a valuable oxygen factory, what the fallen tree means to the society, how people perceive trees, how it will – directly or indirectly – effect the community as a whole, etc.. These things are all external. They are part of analyzing the world as a whole. By doing so, theoretically, we can understand how things fit together and, from there, be able to make the world a better place to live.

At the same time – perhaps even more important than understanding external events – we quest to understand ourselves, internal events. These events are much harder to pin down than things in the physical world. There is rarely, if ever, any physical evidence to back these things up. “These things”, simply put, are emotions. They are intangible, squirming, nasty little buggers of things. Most importantly, they are always changing. Emotions take external events, run them through a filter, and internalize them. They determine how a person reacts to events in the outside world, and what those events mean to a person.

It runs, perhaps, something like this: When one eats, say, a veggie burrito, the food enters through the mouth and moves on through the digestive system. There, different organs extract nutritional value from the burrito in question. These nutrients fuel not only the digestive system that “analyzed” them but the entire body of which the digestive system is a part. The effects of the burrito can be physically tracked through the body by following the paths of carbohydrates, blood cells, and other bodily fluids.

When one has an experience, it enters his body though some sensory orifice and moves, virtually instantly, to the brain. There, like the burrito is digested, an experience is processed. Instead of triggering complex nutritional systems, it triggers complex neural systems. These experiences set off neurons which, like the burrito’s relationship to the digestive system, fuel not just the brain but entire body by telling it what to do.

It’s a hard thing, being able to figure out what exactly an event means to a person, HOW an event means to a person. The effects of an event on the brain are much harder to track than that of the burrito. One instinctually feels energy, or doesn’t, from food — either way it’s something vaguely tangible. Neural pathways are infinitely more abstract and obscure than those of the digestive system. It is, quite literally, brain science. And, in an effort to understand one’s self, one usually doesn’t study neuroscience — one reverts, often subconsciously, to metaphor. One creates an imaginary system, an imaginary place, and places himself somewhere in it. Usually, this place is a skewed (in a good way), personal representation of the world.

For example, for centuries, the dominant metaphor in society has been religion — primarily of the Christian-Judeo sort. For people who see the world through rosary-tinted sunglasses, things take on Biblical meaning. “The tree fell because God willed it.” That’s external. Then, to apply it to himself, “it is representative of man. Man is but a tree. The power plant is God: it gives us electricity which gives us light, just as God gives us the Sun. For those who are weak, God is too powerful…” The message can be further taken to heart by an individual who can alter his own lifestyle to meet his own drawn conclusions.

An individual can – and, invariably, will – learn more about himself through placement in a good metaphor and a couple of solid hours sitting with it and thinking about how he fits. The results of these efforts, like I said, are often extremely intangible. However, in a rare situation, they are. And, in an even rarer case, the individual has the drive to channel those ideas into a form, a product — something he can look it and see a representation of those ideas. Art. Writing, poetry, drama, song, dance, comedy, whatever-the-fuck-you-wanna-call-art-these-days. This is when an individual becomes an artist.

If, after producing it, the artist looks over his work – and deems it worthy – out it goes to the public. Here, we must make a compromise of sorts for the purposes of this essay: we are going to imagine that all art is pure. All art was and is produced with only the highest intentions in mind. There will be no sucking of Satan’s pecker today, folks. Yeah, in a perfect world… all artists are funded with enough money to buy food to eat and clothes to wear (and money to pay the electric bill from that damned power plant o’er yonder.)

So, the artist has deemed it worthy. It is a way of looking at the world that the artist feels is in unique to his art. He has made significant, personal, emotional discoveries through this art and he wants to share it with the world… he wants other people to experience what he has experienced, to take a step into his metaphor. Or, at least, have their OWN experiences, based on what he has experienced.

Like it says above, in ye olden days, for many years religion was the dominating metaphor for individuals. Consequently, it stands to reason that, as art is – in one way or another – a representation of an artist’s personal metaphor, most art was – for a good long time – religious. As science began to replace religion as the primary explainer of all things unexplainable, people’s ways of looking at the world were changed. Thus, art was changed too. And rock ‘n roll was born. Or something.

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