AZ Kaos on Aesthetic Atrophy: "It's Bullshit"
In case you missed it, "Aesthetic atrophy is the diminished capacity to appreciate new or unfamiliar music or other sensory stimuli. It is typically accompanied by the sufferer's retreat to familiar and comfortable works." It's a phrase I coined in a column introducing my list of the top 50 records of the naughties and which was the major impetus behind out year-long Nothing Not New project.
Jay Bennett, who is 40 and had found himself not listening to much new music, gave up his record collection for the entire year based on the theory, and has been writing a record review every weekday. So it's something we at Up On The Sun are a little defensive about.
The writer, Ashley Naftule, calls the theory bullshit, but, in asking for the text to post here, since AZ Kaos is print-only, I did say I think he agrees with me more than he lets on. To that he replies: "And in retrospect, I do admit that I agreed with you in some respects more than I thought I did when I was writing the piece..."
That said, Ashley does disagree with my contention that a dulling of the ability to appreciate new music is an unavoidable consequence of aging. I'll let him tell you why after the jump.
By Ashley Naftule
The Phoenix New Times music editor, Martin Cizmar, has gotten a lot of justifiable flack over a variety of bone-headed theories and faux-pas. Whether it's the hilarious claim that house shows are killing the local music scene or putting a Paris Hilton in his top 50 albums of the decade list, "Downtown Is Ovah" Cizmar has eaten his fair share of tin cans as the community's scapegoat. I'll admit that I eagerly await his next quixiotic rant about who/what could be killing Phoenix Music As We Know It: perhaps next up on deck will be an anti-Dave Driscoll meme? "PINK AND BLACK STRIPED BODYSUITS ARE KILLING THE SCENE!!!" But in all the snark and incredulous face-palming that accompanies Martin's State of the Musical Union addresses, one of his pet theories has gone unremarked on and unmolested. The theory in question being "Aesthetic Atrophy". Here to explain A.A. is The Ciz himself:
"Aesthetic atrophy is a wasting away of the ability to appreciate new, different, or avant-garde music. I believe it to be an unavoidable consequence of aging, though the process can be slowed through therapeutic episodes of forced exposure to various stimuli (more on that later). In some people, the slip is more noticeable than in others, which I think has a lot to do with where the person peaked."-Martin Cizmar, The Scourge of Aesthetic Atrophy, and the Top 50 Albums of the Aughts
Now I'll put my cards on the table outright and say that I think that aesthetic atrophy is bullshit. And I say this as a 27 year old, as someone who is creeping closer and closer to 30 and thus in an age bracket highly susceptible to an outbreak of aesthetic atrophy. While I can't disagree with the premise that people often lose their taste for adventurous listening as they age, I take issue with the notion of it being an "unavoidable consequence of aging", something that can be "slowed" but is still an inevitable decline. Cizmar's theory is yet another in a long line of justifications for one of the most damaging cultural stereotypes we all grapple with, the idea that as we age we MUST become lame, we MUST become boring, we have no choice but to BECOME culturally useless, crippled by nostalgia and unable to understand those whimpersnappers nipping at our heels. The idea that adventure and the avant-garde and boundary pushing and experimentation is solely the province of the young, fun but foolish things we must all put aside in the end. The idea that stagnation is natural, a sad but "unavoidable" aspect of growing old. To which I say fuck that notion with the sharp end of a broken bottle-neck.
The real cause of aesthetic atrophy has nothing to do with aging and everything to do with ignorance. The refusal to accept one's ignorance. The one thing that all true lovers of art, be it film or theater or books or music, must come to grips with and embrace in the end is their ignorance of the subject. We cannot possibly know as much as we want to know about the things we love. I think when we're younger we don't really recognize or acknowledge that ignorance yet. We're too busy absorbing anything we can get our hands on, still flush with the idea that we'll live forever and have all the time in the world to keep on mining and processing the good stuff, to really have that idea sink in. That there is too much good stuff out there to be experienced in a life-time. And I think as we age we come to see that, that there's a growing list of things we never knew existed, a list that over time dwarfs our own knowledge, that shakes our confidence in our identity as in-the-know, hip-and-aware people. And upon confronting that idea, one is presented with a choice: acknowledge your ignorance, accept that you will probably never be as hip as you thought you were, and get down to the dirty unglamorous business of looking stupid and tryuing to educate yourself and humbly expand your artistic horizons... or become intimidated and overwhelmed by that ignorance and shut down, refuse to accept that there are still areas on the map you haven't explored yet, that there are many sounds and visions left for you to experience, and stay close to the comfortable and familiar. Make a deal with the devil you know and the one you don't know can go fuck itself with those pesky kids on your lawn.
My fight-or-flight moment with ignorance came when I stumbled upon the Gilgongo Records-curated box of LPs at the Trunk Space. Flipping through that stack of vinyl, each affixed with white labels rattling off info and opinions and impressions of the sounds contained within, was like finding an explorer's journal documenting their journey to a new continent. At the time I thought I was pretty knowledgable about music, but those labels shattered that illusion really fucking quickly. They talked casually about bands, scenes, sub-genres, movements, record labels, entire dimensions of sound, a parallel secret history of music that I had never even imagined could exist. I was faced with the choice at that moment: engage with the mysteries or pull away from them. I chose the hard road and engaged them, and a couple of years later, my brain has been flooded with all sorts of great and strange new sounds, I've been able to develop new ways of hearing things.
Aesthetic atrophy only happens if you betray your curiosity. Age has nothing to do with it. If you're the kind of person that when someone talks to you about some new thing they're into that you've never heard of and you show sincere interest in the subject, asking them to enlighten you about this foreign thing they fancy, then you have nothing to worry about. If you're the kind of person who believes that if you haven't heard of it by now it can't possibly be any good, the kind of person whose eyes glaze over with disinterest when someone mentions the name of a book or band you've never heard of, then you're already way past the point of aesthetic-atrophy and are for all intents and purposes aesthetically dead.