Taste Is Captive to Context
Ignoring Mitch Hurwitz’s most recent advice, I decided that, considering the jigsaw-puzzle structure of the new season of Arrested Development, it would be advantageous for me to view the episodes in reverse order. Four episodes into that venture, and I believe that it is paying dividends. So far I have seen it as a fragmented spectacle of failures, a complex, almost labyrinthine entity whose coherence is enforced only by the fiat of omnipresent voiceover narration. Further, and wandering into more dangerous critical territory, I have to admit that I have not laughed once during my entire time with the new season.
At the risk of seeming obvious, I believe that there is nothing wrong with critical uncertainty, especially about such a convoluted art/entertainment piece and at such an early stage. Perhaps by the time I reach the end of the first episode the comic aspect of the show will be more accessible to me. However, while I can recognize the intricacy and density of the show’s dialogue and narrative construction, none of it has struck me as primarily funny. This is what threw me for a loop. My memories of the previous seasons are fast eroding, since it has been a long and strange few years since watching them, but I remember them being hilarious and daring. I still see the willingness to push boundaries, but I think it has been removed from the comedic plane and nestles in the formal aspects of the show. It’s still absurd, it’s still layered and masterfully planned in spots, but the laughs have not come. Often, though the episodes are whirlwinds of cuts and shifting times and places, individual scenes have draggy, almost dreamlike pacing, running dialogue and situations in loops and meandering into obscure corners where I’m often either too depressed by the plot events or admiring of the structural oddities to laugh.
Comedic taste is a subjective and delicate matter. And I’m not even human, so there is an additional barrier to appreciation. Tigers, as a rule, are initially baffled by human comedy. Call us simpleminded or snobs, but we see it as lacking in guile and intrigue. I would prefer to emphasize that, for felines, human comedy is an acquired taste, like eel or escargot (though those will depend on your cultural situation). While perplexed by the first three seasons of Arrested Development at first, I slowly clawed my way toward a more nuanced understanding of the show and the reasons for its post-cancellation success and endless rewatchability.
It has been my experience, and I believe that science can back this up, that laughter is more likely to erupt in social situations. Watching the show alone, therefore, might be an inhibition, and the truth of this supposition might soon be tested. I suspect that even more specific situational constraints are at work here, and it has been in pursuing these that I have realized, more explicitly than I have before, that taste is fleeting. My lack of laughter at Arrested Development might be compared to my editor, who failed to enjoy several films when he was a child because he was ill with influenza when watching them. Now, I might suspect that his negative opinion of the animated Hobbit musical might stand up to another, less hallucinatory viewing. It still seems, however, that taste is, in large part, if not in whole, situationally constructed.
Taste is formed, essentially, through experience and situations. There are certainly personality traits that are formed early in life that persist consistently through our lives, and these help to form our preferences. Still, we cannot escape the situated-ness of each encounter we have with art. Each time we watch a film we are not doing so in the depths of deep space, unaffected by the entire universe save for the images flashing on the screen and the sounds in our ears. And, after all, even if we were in deep space, we had to have been born somewhere. I’m not sure how far I am willing to stretch this metaphor, but I would suggest that viewing a film even as innocuous as Madagascar in deep space would be a more profound experience than seeing it in a day care surrounded by screaming children you are being paid too little to tend to. As we are watching a film, reading a book, or listening to music, we are not only employing our taste as a tool to evaluate the work, but offering it up to the work. We are taking who we were before the experience and opening ourselves to change. This opening varies by degrees, and it can be more or less conscious, but I doubt that any experience, perhaps artistic ones most of all, can leave any person wholly unaffected.
Pain and pleasure alike can originate in this particularity of experience. My viewing of Arrested Development would probably be more pleasurable if I weren’t suffering from confusion and a minor spasm of depression due to being separated from some of those I love. Tigers don’t have many family reunions. These temporal, situational conditions are molding my perception, and this means that, as my situation changes for better, worse, or simply different, my view of the show will also change. Here is where the pleasure comes. It is this constant experiential and situational flux that allow us to return to a work of art not as an artifact of a cryogenically frozen past but as a living reality, renewed with each visit. Our tastes are perpetually metamorphosing, being deconstructed and reconstructed with each passing second.
Tastes are still worth defending, and though they might be plastic and essentially changeable, they are still, in some way, indispensable to the art of criticism. Or any art. What impoverished lives we would have if we had no tastes at all~! Art would cease to be meaningful, at least in a way we can recognize as meaningful. I would like to reclaim taste as an essential, as a basic part of what goes into engaging with art. Yet essences are malleable, because they are essential to changing beings. It is better to be humble, to view one’s tastes as contingent, even suspicious. They can lead us right or astray, and it is in attentively experiencing art, in thinking criticism, that we begin to understand what our tastes are and where they have led us so far. Are they leading us right? Or onto more and more treacherous territory? Of course, as soon as we discover where we have gotten, we will be somewhere else. This can be exhausting or exhilirating, depending on our ability to, in the words of an archaic cliché, roll with the punches. Arrested Development Season 4 may well become more hilarious as it goes. Indeed, my opinion of the show is very different from when I wrote the first words of this post. Questions like this are the ones that keep this tiger up at night, dreaming of a world that transfigures even as the sun rises.