On Being Mugged: An Aesthetic Perspective
On Tuesday evening I was mugged. To celebrate having submitted our students' grades and to prepare for emails of discontent, a group of friends and I repaired to the Riverwest Filling Station for trivia and a $10 burger-and-beer special. Merrymaking ensued and we left triumphant with the third place prize of raspberry sodas and bombers of Russian Imperial Stout.
Less than a block away from our destination, as my friend as I approached an alleyway, two men bounded out, placed menacing objects to our heads, and demanded our valuables. Having gotten what they came for (as well as what they probably didn't come for: the raspberry soda and Russian Imperial Stout), the knaves turned on their heels and absconded in a getaway car waiting in the alley...
What in the world does this have to do with art and aesthetics? More, I believe, than meets the eye.
"Aesthetics," in the modern sense of the term, concerns the study of beauty. This usage can be traced to the largely forgotten German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-62), whose two-volume Aesthetica (1750, 1758) brought the term into the philosophical parlance.
From its philosophical birthplace the term has found a home in other domains. Pianist, composer and theoretician George Russell released a forward-looking jazz album in 1961 entitled "Ezz-thetics;" a word that Russell, a Cincinnati native, claimed to have coined in honor of boxing legend - the Cincinnati Cobra - Ezzard Charles. Even if we disregard its referent, the term remains apt. While homophonous with "aesthetics" and therefore calling beauty to mind, the Ezz- lends off-kilter overtones that suit the album's unorthodox appropriation of the jazz tradition.
"Aesthetics" has also resulted in 'aestheticians,' which, much to the chagrin of label-greedy academics, has come to refer to licensed skincare specialists. It appears that beauty really is only skin deep.
Etymologically speaking, "aesthetics" is not restricted to our experience of the beautiful. The OED finds the origin of "aesthetics" in "Greek αἰσθητικ-ός, of or pertaining to αἰσθητά, things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to νοητά things thinkable or immaterial)".
It is in this sense that we can speak of an 'aesthetics of being mugged.' Simply put, instead of reflecting on mental experience being mugged, an 'aesthetics of being mugged' pertains to reflections on the affective, bodily, and sensory dimensions of the experience. In fact - in my limited experience - there is very little thinking that goes on when you are on the receiving end of armed robbery. The element of surprise, the threat of bodily harm and the haste of the proceedings all contribute to making a mugging a thoroughly unreflective and automatic experience.
The aesthetic dimension, however, is pronounced. I was especially surprised to discover the similarities between being mugged and being overwhelmed by a work of art. Of course not just any strong emotional reaction to a work of art fits the bill. "Twelve Years a Slave," for example, is an overwhelming film. Two hours of viewing unremitting injustice is bound to bring about physical discomfort. But on the whole, the experience is too cerebral and our reaction too rational to warrant comparison to the experience of being mugged. It makes sense that we would be reduced to tears by "Twelve Years a Slave" or "Schindler's List," and we enter into those experiences knowing what to expect.
The experience of music or a painting is different. Even if we acknowledge that a strong emotional response is a distinct possibility, perhaps it is because we cannot explain why Tchaikovsky's Sixth affects us so strongly that it retains the power to do so. Like being mugged, the overwhelming experience of music possesses the element of surprise. Tolstoy's troubled relationship with music also suggests a correspondence with the experience of being mugged. The great writer's reaction to Chopin was so powerful, yet so irrational, that he remarked, "wherever you want slaves, you need as much music as possible."
It is equally surprising that the non-representational organization of three colors on canvas could elicit tears, but somehow Mark Rothko's works manage to have that effect on many viewers. Concerning this response, Rothko wrote, "I am not an abstractionist. ... I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
While the experience of being mugged is strongly reminiscent of being overcome by a great work, given my druthers, I'd rather be assailed by art. Had I encountered Chopin's Ballade No. 4 on Tuesday night I may have had a similar response, but I'd also still have my phone.