Unless they’ve had some contact with their art in one of my colleague’s classes, most of my students have never heard of Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya. They’ve heard of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso (who they think is French), and perhaps one or two others, but almost never Velázquez and Goya.
After explaining that Velázquez does not play for AAA Pawtucket, and that this Goya has nothing to do with that aisle at the grocery store that their mom skips quickly past I go on to show them Las Meninas, and some of the Black Paintings. In what has become a favorite, fun, and utterly predictable ritual, I anticipate their response to me telling them that Las Meninas is considered by many to be the single greatest painting in the history of art and I assert; after asking them what they think IS “the greatest painting in the history of art”; that they’ve never actually seen the Mona Lisa.
Almost inevitably two or three hands shoot up: “I have. I’ve been to the Louvre.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I tell them, “you’ve never really seen it either.”
I go on to explain that they’ve been so propagandized to see it as the quintessential work of art that they never really look at it. “Do you know what ‘sfumato’ is? What makes La Gioconda (what its called in Spain) better than this (I toss up a portrait by El Greco) to you?” The classroom usually breaks out, mildly, into chaos, as students actually begin to think about what they are seeing.
I go on to explain that I understand why other people view Las Meninas as such a significant work of art, I appreciate its genius, but, I tell them, it isn’t even in my top 10 pieces by Velázquez! What I ask from them is that they understand those reasons as well, but that they are under no pressure to pretend to substitute anyone else’s preferences for their own.
The key point is that, while we may believe our aesthetic judgements to be our own, any thoughtful introspection will reveal that they are anything but that. Whether from urges to accept or reject our societal indoctrination, what we view as most beautiful has more to do with our programming than whatever it is our authentic self, whatever that may be, might perceive.
So when Richard Florida writes that beautiful cities have a distinct advantage over ugly ones when it comes to attracting jobs and residents, it’s important to keep in mind that what qualifies as, or is even allowed to be, beauty, has been pre-filtered.
The same Richard Florida article tries to slip past the reader that sunshine and a lack of rain are considered “beautiful” as well. I’ve written on how that constitutes an irrational, and probably temporary, shift in preferences. I will never be convinced that Phoenix has better weather than Seattle, or that Houston is meteorologically preferable to Boston.
So to say that beautiful places are more popular than ugly ones is not only tautological, it begs the question. What places like Springfield need to determine is how to win the propaganda war, as New York has since the 70’s for example, and convince people not that Springfield has beautiful qualities, but that the qualities that Springfield has are beautiful. I’ve seen it too many times; to do the former is merely to get people to grudgingly admit that the otherwise abhorrent, disgusting, value-less community of Springfield has this or that speck of aesthetic quality, like an aged, deformed serial killer with a nice haircut; to achieve the latter is to create the receptivity which will allow for the entire community to be appreciated for all its qualities.
The way to do this is to not be afraid to shock people, and be viewed as a philistine, by expressing your own appreciation for the beauty of your unappreciated community. I’ve had people tell me, when I tell them how beautiful I find Springfield, that I must not be well travelled. I will always then actively engage them in a comparison of experiences: How many countries, continents, or even American states have they visited? Have they lived in a European capital? Have they been to Africa? Studied in Europe? Can they compare the art, the architecture, the churches, the neighborhoods and parks of Springfield to those same features of any other place…I mean apart from Epcot and the strip in Las Vegas?
I thought not.
They don’t admit to changing their minds. But they have been humiliated. Some may disagree with that tactic, and if places like Springfield were on the verge of being considered acceptable, I would disagree as well, but the absolute freedom with which so many cast about their utter contempt, as though it were an unassailable and established fact that Springfield was irredeemably contemptible, has to be met with just as assertive a response. Love your place, but love it out loud.