T is for Triggers

| May 5, 2014

When I went to the MET in mid-April, I remember a middle-aged woman transfixed by Théodore Rousseau’s painting The Forest in Winter at Sunset. I too, felt the same way. I stared at the work as she sat down and I stood. When she left, I sat down in her place. I wondered what she felt while looking at this landscape—to what extent our emotional states differed. Strangely enough, when I left the MET, she stood alongside me before I crossed the street toward my car a few blocks away.

Rousseau, Théodore. The Forest in Winter at Sunset. 1846–67. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


I bought Brian Eno’s diary, A Year with Swollen Appendices, at the beginning of this semester, with hope of exploring it immensely and bringing a lot of his ideas to class. Time worked against me. I did not have a lot of time to read the diary, but a particular passage from a short essay entitled “Miraculous Cures and the Canonization of Basquiat” prompted me to purchase this text. As I went to read the entire essay, I found that the passage that initially interested me, and everything thereafter, was worth sharing:

Suppose some things. Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences (Roy Ascott’s phrase). That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue about whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serrano’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.

Then suppose that what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you – so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art. It is then possible, within the context of the right expectations, for a test tone to become a musical experience. It is also possible for you to have quite difference experiences from me, which says nothing about the test tone and everything about our separate perceptions of it, our different expectations and cultural predispositions. What we could then agree is that there is nothing absolute about the aesthetic value or non-value of a test tone, and that we don’t have to consider the question of aesthetic value with a view to arriving at different ones for both of us at another time. It can change value for each of us. More interestingly, we can also say that there is nothing absolute about the aesthetic value of Rembrandt or a Mozart or a Basquiat.

Suppose you redescribe the job ‘artist’ as ‘a person who creates situations in which you can have art experiences’. Then you might accept the notion that an artist could be someone who convinces you, by some means or another, including outrageous fakery, that the test tone you’re about to hear is in fact a piece of music.

Suppose now that these means can include the creation of ‘media events’, networks of spin and buzz that make you think you are in the presence of something special – the event itself is minimal, but the spin is sufficiently powerful to infect you with enthusiasm, and you have a great time. Is that going too far?

Suppose that you could even think of yourself as the media event, as the experience-trigger itself, so that everything to which you simply directed your attention transmuted mysteriously into art.

And suppose that people wanted that, and wanted to believe in it, and wanted to make each other believe in it. Who is then the artist? You or them? Who is making the patient feel better? The shaman or the patient? Is the value of the art experience to be found in the ‘weightlessness’, the suspension of disbelief, the floating surrender, that it produces, rather than in its objective mineral properties? (Eno 368-69)

Eno might have summed up a lot of the aesthetic issues discussed in this class. Like, I do not know what to say even in response to this passage.


Since I studied British Romanticism throughout my last year as an undergraduate, I realize that I have valued subjective experiences with art—and whatever else—for most of my life. I have attended nearly ninety concerts since I was fourteen. I make the experience what I want it to be. For me, art will always (at least I’d like to hope) a visceral experience.

Modern Life Is War at This Is Hardcore 8/9/2013. Photo by Angela Owens.

(Bottom middle, kind of to the left)