Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Image sources:milanandoblog.blogspot.it & www.justfashionmagazine.com

Banal

I wish I could say it were some choice Brunello.
Something or other di Montalcino
in these rolling hills of Tuscany.
But a poet’s golden token
only goes so far,
and what’s it worth
for bowtie noodles?

I didn’t have the nose to sip it sitting in my rotten sock drawer bitter as my broken esophagus.

A finer kind of whine
might sigh more sweetly
in refined pedantic meter.
A better brand than sea-sick indigestion—
but what is in a name?
The wine-dark Atlantic
divides my fart in twain.

Airport Romance

Day 37: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

Sorry this letter comes to you later than usual.  I’m still jet-lagged from my flight over.

Zak, I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but my recent flight has reinforced for me how much airports are different in different countries.  As a case in point, when I was going through security in Italy, there was a girl in her twenties playing with her hair, leaning casually against the conveyor belt:

“dove vai di bella questo pomeriggio?”

“USA”

“he he he, ‘USA’. che bello!  USA, cio è USA dove?”

“Chicago.  Ha ha… I guess that is pretty funny.”

It’s very strange.  The security officials in the US are completely different.  Despite using fancy technology to look at you in the nude, they don’t seem as interested.  Maybe that’s not as paradoxical as I think:

“Sir, you are required by national United States law to accurately disclose your destination to me.”

“Dis year, to keep me from tears…

Am I allowed to find this amusing?  I mean, Italians find my accent amusing all the time…

In Italy, one of the things employees often look for in a job candidate is presenza.  They will declare this in the advertisement:

Wanted: airline security person. Experience with international law enforcement, competence with standard policing weaponry, and presenza.  Please be sure to wear a nice outfit to the interview.  You know, try to show a little skin.  Giggly coquetry preferred.

Sorry everyone.  I’m just telling you the way things are.

I know in recent months many of us in the US are bemoaning a massive step backward for gender equality

Until tomorrow,

Tim

All’s Fair

Day 35: Friday

Good morning Zak,

giuseppe_verdi_by_giovanni_boldini

Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901

So there was once this gran maestro in Milan named Giuseppe Verdi—maybe you’ve heard of him.  Verdi spent most of his time writing operas and growing magnificent facial hair.  If you’ve ever been to a Verdi opera, you have a deep appreciation for the meaning of the phrase “it ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings…”  Verdi’s operas tend to last on the order of 3 to 4 hours.

But don’t worry if you sleep through part of that.  Before the fat lady sings, Verdi will write into the music one elusive little something that miraculously summarizes the entire work.  He calls this magical something the tinta.  A tinta can sometimes be as short as two notes, but in those mere two notes, Verdi embodies the underlying spirit that unifies hours upon hours of music.

The first time I came here to Milan, I had to go through a bit of cultural sensitivity training.  Just as you would expect, cultural sensitivity training consists primarily in listing off a detailed catalog of facts: Italians tend to be less punctual than Americans. Italians tend to talk with their hands more than Americans. Italians tend to

img_1134

I should’ve just asked them to print the receipt on foil

Zak, this letter comes to you from an airport.  I am about to spend twelve hours in a giant metal tube shooting through the air above the Atlantic ocean at unfathomable speeds.  All this so that I can be home for Christmas.

Reading the Odyssey has taught me not to expect too much whenever I come home from a long trip.  I’ll really just be glad if I don’t find my house invaded by a ruthless band of hostile men I have to slaughter single-handedly.  That would be super awkward.

Italians tend to speak at a louder volume than Americans.

I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me.  Some kind of tinta that could explain everything.  I guess a lot of travelers probably feel this way.  That’s why there are so many souvenir shops.  I love useless junk as much as the next guy, but somehow I’m not sure if I feel that a “kiss me I’m Italian” tee-shirt really summarizes the spirit of this place.  There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you.  Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else…

Yesterday I had a conversation with an Iranian composer who is setting a poem written in Persian to music.  He translated the poem into Italian for me.  It’s this brilliant little double entendre: at first it seems like a tragic piece about unrequited love, but only at the very end you realize that the whole thing has just been about a school boy trying to copy answers on an exam.

Italians tend to like pasta more than Americans.  Don’t let any of these things freak you out.

Shame the poet’s work is only available in Persian.  Then again, translating poetry is extremely difficult and impractical.  Communication is hard enough when it’s confined to one culture.  People often have trouble interpreting each other’s business emails.  That fact should put things into perspective whenever an artist tries to share the human experience on a deeper level.  Being human, after all, is about more than just information in a business email.  It’s about cheating on exams in school.

See you soon,

Tim

day 2 of battle.png

Day 3 of Battle: I neutralize your vinegar with electrons, and I huff and I puff, and I blow your base down.

Preaching to the Choir

Day 32: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I did end up joining the choir. I’ve attended two rehearsals and sung at one mass.  The choir members are hilarious.  They’re all adults, some of them quite elderly, but they act like little children.  At one of the rehearsals someone mentioned that the priest had complained of chatting going on in the choir pews during the homily.  This meant that yesterday, instead of just chatting during mass, they also told each other to be quiet in between conversations.

Hope flies across the city of Milan:

img_1130

An astronomical projectile, a traditional symbol of holiday magic and apocalyptic peril

Anyway, today’s post is not a letter but a poem.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Decisions

Day 29: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

When I was in high school, I had a philosophy teacher who asked the class one time to close our eyes and imagine somewhere we would like to be if we could be anywhere in the world.  When we opened our eyes he asked if the place anyone had imagined was room 312 YC high school.  I was the only one who raised their hand.  Maybe I was over thinking things, but if I really wanted to be somewhere else, wouldn’t I just get up and leave?

Zak, I know Thursday is a work day for you.  Maybe this letter comes to you over your lunch break.  In fact, I’m willing to bet a strong majority of our readers join us here on Thily Fin from cramped little office spaces.  Zak, I know you love your job, but many people don’t.  My question to those who don’t like being at work is this: why don’t you just leave?

Another one of those moments when I picture my future employer coming across this blog of ours…

I enjoy going to classes at the music conservatory here in Milan Italy.  Most of my composition classes here begin with the Maestro asking me a question: hai lavorato, “have you worked?”  This is a very routine way that we begin.  I answer him with a si and then hand him whatever I’ve written that week.  But our conservatory is the kind of place where other answers would probably be equally acceptable.  I get the feeling that I could come in one day: “have you worked?” “No, I didn’t work this week.  I just sat in the park and listened to the sounds of the people walking by.”

Leaving your work would be an administrative decision that you make about the infrastructure of your life.  We don’t make those kind of decisions on a daily basis.  Most of life is about finding beauty in the mundanity of a fairly regular routine.  Of course, the option to change that routine is always available.

My Maestro tells me he once had a student who would visit other eras.  She’d come in: “have you worked?” “No, I couldn’t work this week, I was in the Middle Ages.”  The student was supposed to write three minuets, but week by week she would show up with nothing.  Finally my Maestro told her, “spend this week in the eighteenth century, and you’ll write me three perfect minuets.”  And according to the Maestro that’s exactly what happened.

Some decisions are made for us.  The other night I decided to go to a performance of the Mozart Coronation Mass at the little parish down the street.  This was another one of those times when bad music was better than good music.  I’ve never heard the Coronation Mass quite like that before, but I doubt if I’ve ever felt quite that much spirit in a room either.  Everyone was beaming afterword, including this one lady:

“do you go to our church?”

“who me?”

“do you like to sing?”

“um…”

“will you sing in our choir?”

“I…”

“you don’t have time?  Oh you must come sing with us.  Here I’ll show you where we have rehearsals.”  She brought me around the back of the Church, and told me to come there the next day at 9 in the evening.

She was just beaming.  If that old lady were a piece of music, she’d be written in F sharp major—a sharp for each ridiculous impulse that pops into her head.  “And now this is where you find out I really have a screw loose.  Every time I pass this statue of our Lord and savior I give him a nice little greeting.  ‘Good evening Lord.’” She shook hands with the statue.  “It’s just that he has his hands spread out like that, and I don’t know…

“This way you make some connections.  Life in the city is, can be very cold sometimes, and…” She looked at my jacket zipper.  “You’re freezing!  Button up.  Life in the city is very cold, all the people walk around with their noses in the air.  This way you can make some nice friends.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Pigeons Rummaging

Day 21: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I got my hair cut on Saturday, and now I have the exact same hair as literally every dude in Milan: long on top, short all around.  I’m using “literally” in the hyperbolic sense of the word.  If my memory of English serves me, this is an acceptable usage, but correct me if I’m wrong.  It’s been a while since I’ve lived in an English-speaking community.  Anyway, the point is, I’m sure not everyone in the city has this hairstyle; I just haven’t seen the guy yet with a different one.

In any case, negotiating the cultural obstacles to getting a haircut is a bigger accomplishment than you might think.  I usually try not to worry too much about what people think of me, but it’s hard for a bum like me not to feel at least a little bit self-conscious about getting his hair cut in the fashion capital of the world.  Anyway, it’s settled now and I can relax.  I’ve disappeared as an individual into the fabric of society—at least as far as hair is concerned.

The other day I found these pigeons rummaging through the leaves in the park.  Their tiny little feet made these exquisitely subtle crinkle sounds as they walked.  It was like a delicately woven web of white noises.  All I had was my cell phone, but I thought I should try to record them even if the sound quality isn’t the best…

In the picture, it’s a little hard to see the pigeons clearly.  They almost kind of blend in with the fallen leaves.  But I think that was an intentional part of the aesthetic they were going for.  It’s a poetics of invisibility.  Their sounds also almost disappear into the fabric of the surrounding sonic environment.  You might not even notice them when you first start listening.  That’s what makes it so interesting.

For a similar effect, take a plastic wrapper and crinkle it next to your ear. Then contemplate the complexity of human identity as you chew on the candy inside.

I was going to include the Tom Lehrer song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” in this post, but I listened to the lyrics again and realized something: I hate that song.  I mean, Zak, I don’t get emotional about too many things, but poisoning innocent pigeons?  The poor defenseless little creatures, you hardly even notice that they’re there.  No offense, but anyone who thinks that’s funny is sick.

Until tomorrow,

Tim