Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Death of Subtlety

Here's a two minute video of a guy doing unbelievably difficult things with a skateboard and never falling down. This is widely considered the state of the art (the original version of this video got over 9M views in less than a week):

As I viewed it, I experienced a cascade of epiphanies, which I'll recount in chronological order (the first few aren't super epiphanic, which I note mostly because I'm delighted out of my gourd that this word actually exists):

1. That seems hard.

2. He's not making it look easy.

3. He's not even trying to make it look easy.

4. I think that's because he wants it to look hard.

5. He wants it to look hard because the proposition here is "watch me do hard things".

Making it look hard serves that purpose. Making it elegant and joyful and elevational might mean a more rewarding experience for the viewer, but would distract from the main goal.

6. But wait. Elevating the enterprise to serve viewers would ultimately serve him, because he'd be the guy offering that experience - the elegance and joy and elevation - and that's an even neater trick.

Fred Astaire got credit for being a good dancer, but gobs more extra credit for making it look easy/elegant/joyful/elevational.

7. At some point, “making it look easy” stopped being a thing.

There's something deeper going on here, and it has nothing to do with skateboards. There's been a societal pivot.

Making stuff look easy is a complication; a strategic detour from the simpler goal of being seen as the doer of hard things. This complication once offered ample return on investment. "Making it look easy" being the hardest trick of all, doers of hard things pursued this ultimate challenge - graceful ease. And we recognized and appreciated the feat when we saw it.

But such subtlety has fallen out of favor, removing the incentive to tackle that extra complication. Or perhaps it happened the other way: fewer people pursued it, so the rest of us lost our appreciation. In either case, we've certainly lost something. Fred Astaire would not be revered if he were starting out today. He'd just be another good dancer, whose cool elegance would draw a fraction of the attention paid to artists who make a tortured ordeal of it all. The path’s been simplified. We've removed the knot. If it looks easy, it must be easy, period, yawn.

8. This is part of a larger shift away from subtlety.

There are countless instances in life where it's strategic to self-restrain and perpetrate a zigzag. Dogs wouldn’t comprehend this. They run straight toward the ball, come what may, their eyes squarely on the prize. Humans, more intellectually sophisticated and able to defer gratification, are able to pursue, and to appreciate, a subtler approach. At least, theoretically.

Zigzagging would confuse the hell out of a dog, who'd advise you to "just chase the damned ball!" But much of our culture is built upon certain deliberate restraints, complications, and backtracks. It turned out like this because there were rewards for such behavior.

Concert pianists could walk on stage in tux and tails and simply run through some impossibly difficult technical exercises to reap the acclaim they crave. But taking the trouble to wrap it in actual music is worth the extra trouble. Many more people want to hear Chopin than want to marvel at your fancy fingers (though the two sets certainly intersect). So the conceit becomes to at least feign at offering something substantial - a cultured, elevated veil beneath which, naturally, you scramble for validation of your awesomeness. At least you have the good grace to pretend to make it about something more than yourself. You give them their fucking Chopin. It’s a zigzag.

But as we become increasingly canine and simple, such complications seem confusing and counterproductive. If your eye is glued to the prize of seeming awesome, the gig is to heap on awesomeness without restraint - with nary a zigzag. Why waste time going the other way?

And so it goes. The shift has huge implications beyond concert halls and skateboard parks. We've seen it without connecting the seemingly disparate pieces.

I've written about how people, in flaunting their status, make themselves look especially low-class.
I once dined with a well-known food-writer who I'll call Arnold. We enjoyed a pleasant meal, and, once the check was paid and it was time to go, Arnold headed directly for the door. I yelled after him to wait, because he'd forgotten the profusion of plastic shopping bags he'd left under the table. His boyfriend leaned toward me, and, in a stage whisper, explained that "Arnold doesn't shlep!" He and I hastily gathered the bags and carried them out of the restaurant while Arnold strode majestically ahead, unencumbered.

This was what Arnold deemed having "made it": not having to carry bags. It's a fantasy that could be harbored only by someone with sensibilities firmly anchored in the nineteenth century Eastern European ghettos of his forebears. Which is to say that it marks him, unmistakably, as an absolute peasant, even while he feels most aristocratic.
Taking a self-aware step back from indulging such cringe-inducing impulses would be helpful. But it would be complicated to self-restrain amid self-indulgence. You’d need to pay attention to two different things...and there’s little appetite for complexity when there’s awesomeness to flaunt.

The true high-status move is to not give a damn about status. If you ever meet Queen Elizabeth and make a gaffe, she won't embarrass you. Quite the contrary. If you use the wrong spoon, she'll do likewise. If you affectionately pat her shoulder, she won't bat an eyelash. That's what class and status are: not needing to make a showy big deal over class and status. Making a big deal over status always reveals that you've got none. But that’s a subtle zigzag, less and less popular nowadays when the entire world is essentially nouveau riche. The Queen’s a relic, and the fact that her “go with it” attitude seems surprising must baffle the bejesus out of her.

Here's an older posting titled "Going All the Way in One's Shmuckery":
I've never understood people who insist they're right all the time, and who never allow their minds to be changed. Those with a deep stake in their own rightness ought to live for constant correction, because the only way to attain the Pinnacle of Rightness is by having all remaining dabs of wrongness systematically expunged.

The conceited ought to thrill at being proven wrong, as it brings them one step closer to their self-image of utter perfection. Plus, what better way to seal the legend on one's grandness than to eagerly accept fresh ideas and publicly renounce faulty ones? Only terribly competent and secure people - studly, admirable, heroic people! - behave this way. So why isn't this a more popular pose?

Similarly, people who want to be seen as tough and menacing ought to act immaculately gracious and deferential. One can best signal one's ability to harm by exaggeratedly declining to do so. This pose is slightly more popular (in fact, its roots go back to ancient times), as I learned while commuting to my first-ever music gig, with a blues band in a crack house in Roosevelt, Long Island. By waving a pedestrian to go ahead and cross in front of my car, I discovered that I had been perceived to have aggressively challenged him. It took years before I was able to unravel the psychology.

Early in my food writing career, I met a famous food writer/editor, who'd attained her lofty position through unimaginable cunning and ambition. I was struck by how down-to-earth this person seemed, but there was a discernible "twist" to her humbleness. A certain sort of modesty broadcasts one's power more effectively than any boast, just as a certain sort of graciousness says "I could effortlessly crush you like a bug...but choose not to."

If those who've decided to act like shmucks would simply take their shmuckdom all the way, the end result would be a more pleasant world.
Those are all subtle zigzags, less and less likely these days to ever be appreciated or understood.

Compare architecture today to architecture of years past. These days there are few touches or subtleties. Few nuances; mostly just big bold assertive contours, and grand statements. One might let nuances make the statement, but that would be subtle, and thus doomed. The notion of going small to go big is awfully complicated, and little appreciated. A more obvious and winning approach is that “big is big” and “more is more.” If your eye’s on the prize, why zigzag? That move is for the weakly hesitant.

To successfully pull off a zigzag - to inject subtlety; to adhere to “less is more”; to make it look easy - we’d need to be other-than-canine. We’d need to defer gratification, apply intelligence and restraint, and increase effort and workload - all blindly trusting that people will appreciate a result without a big stupid cheesy sparkly "TA-DAHHHHH!!!" They’d need to look beyond the superficial and recognize low-key extraordinariness. And while that’s never been something one could assuredly count on, at this point it’s extinct. Subtlety, modesty, and elegance are not 21st century virtues.

We no longer sigh at the ease of an Astaire. Few appreciate detail work. Power needs to scream “POWERFUL” to seem like power. Authenticity is an empty term - far too subtle to comprehend - so the truly gracious are stepped upon, and we are far more impressed by intelligent-seeming poseurs than by the genuinely intelligent.

And now here we have this dude, looking miserable and clunky, tiresomely performing pointlessly difficult moves on his stupid skateboard, heedlessly revealing every one of his 20,000 hours of brutish practice while we dutifully peer at him on our ubiquitous screens. There is only one takeaway, with no complication of subtext: This is hard. I am awesome because I’m doing something hard.

He doesn’t enjoy it, and we don’t enjoy it, but enjoyment has nothing to do with it. We’re supposed to acknowledge empty pointless accomplishment, and that’s it. Don’t go looking for anything else. Don’t complicate.

A pianist gives you a sonata. A novelist offers a story. A chef proffers yum-yums. None are generous at heart. All operate from the same vain, selfish impetus. But skateboard kid has dispensed with any quid pro quo.

I may, oddly, have been the only jazz musician on Earth who registered the evident fact that people got dressed up and paid money and sat quietly for hours to hear me make up music in the spur of the moment...and tried conscientiously to rise to this daunting proposition. I framed my job as striving to be worthy of their attention, rather than as a public gathering for the affirmation of my awesomeness.

And the reason my writing is often richly surprising is because I owe something remarkable to those who invest limited time in retracing my squiggly characters across the page. I'd never just "express myself." Seriously, shoot me if you ever spot me expressing myself.

The prospect of watching someone express themself is as tempting as watching them evacuate their bowels. As a reader or audience member, I want something I can use. I want to understand something, or to feel something. I want to be a slightly different person than I was before I arrived. If you don't have the power to induce that, don’t presume to draw people's attention.

Mr. Rogers was quite right: you are beautiful and valuable exactly as you are. However, if you seek to occupy strangers’ attention, you owe more. You are scarcely worthy of it, and must bear that closely in mind if you have even a scintilla of generosity in your heart. Do not come as you are. You owe more. So much more.

As I wrote here:
It's not that every thought in my head is original; it's just that I don't post anything that isn't. I have plenty of conventional ideas and opinions, but can't imagine why you'd want want to hear me repeat what everyone else says. We live in a world where seven billion people say about forty seven things. It bores me, and I don't want to bore you.

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