Or maybe, opinion. But it’s The Great Everything’s central belief – that true Greatness can be found anywhere, irrespective of genre or category. It’s what we live by and what we quit our law careers to learn about. It’s even in our name. So we’d love to talk about it for five minutes.
PART I:INVENTING HOT WATER
In Italy, when someone states the obvious as though it were some grand realisation, he is mockingly complimented for inventing hot water.
Well, here’s some hot water for you. There’s nothing about a Michelin-star meal that makes it inherently better than a burger. Most reasonable people would instinctively agree with that, right? After all, the elements that tend to make it better (quality ingredients, craftsmanship, Great flavour) aren’t the exclusive domain of haute cuisine. In fact there’s no guarantee they’ll be present in stuff that’s labelled as fine dining. Isn’t that the whole point of rip-offs?
Well, duh The Great Everything, now can we get back to our lives?
Sure, but the thing is, the more we look at ourselves and people around us, the more we realise that this fairly trivial truth isn’t something we actually tend to live by. In fact, sometimes it feels like there’s these weird unspoken agreements between all of us. For instance, that some categories of things are just superior to others. Or on the flip-side, that arty stuff is cerebral and therefore can’t just grab you by the nuts the same way plain ole rock ’n roll can.
Bit of a problem. Because not only do these dogmas run contrary to what we intuitively feel, but by unconsciously accepting them we deprive ourselves of all manner of Great experiences across a shit-tonne of categories. Missing out on something special just because we dismissed its whole genre as beneath us, above us or just not our thing? To us, that would be a bit dumb.
So to fix these attitudes within ourselves, we came up with this:
Hot Water Takeaway #1 – what matters is not whether something is a fine work of art or a donut, but its quality and its impact.
But we also realised something not quite as obvious – its impact is mostly determined by us.
That’s what this sermon, and much of this site, is about. So, let’s break down these categories of highbrow and lowbrow a bit.
PART II: ART AND DONUTS
When thinking about all the stuffs (a technical term) we enjoy and the different ways we enjoy them, it looks like pleasure falls between two extremes on the Spectrum of Enjoyment.
There’s these two things we’ve all got going on:
• Brainy enjoyment, which is all about logic, reason and reflection. It mainly relates to stuffs that are multilayered, deep, take effort on our part to fully get, and reward repeat experiences.
The Greeks would have called this the Apollonian after Apollo, patron of good shit like music, poetry and science. We’ll just call it Art.
• Gut level enjoyment, which is visceral, instinctive and primal. It mainly relates to stuffs that are seemingly uncomplicated, accessible, don’t take a tonne of effort from us, and have immediate impact.
This would be the Dionysian after Dionysus, the Greek god of irrational chaos and revelry. We just like to call it Donuts.
Here’s some examples of stuff you might find in your Art and Donut compartments.
So that’s Art and Donuts. Transformation is what happens when you open up to enjoying both equally (more on this below). Also, it sounded like a serious word.
Cool, but here’s another obvious fact for you: we called it The Spectrum of Enjoyment ’cause, well, it’s a spectrum. Of Enjoyment. Most Great stuffs are gonna fall somewhere in between the two ends. For example:
Mad Max: Fury Road has raw, visceral impact – it’s a straightforward action flick with giant special effects, explosions and all the girls in it are hot. But it’s also thematically multilayered, it definitely rewards repeat viewings and incidentally, it’s a pop culture masterpiece (and as at this sermon, nominated for 10 Oscars). Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, unanimously recognised as Great Art, most definitely has all the complexity and timelessness you’d expect. But, let’s be honest, it’s also kinda just a collection of dance tunes from that era. If you’d been around in his time, the whole thing would have struck you as pretty much an awesome 40 minute boogie. There’s something visceral and donut-y in it, no matter how artfully it was put together.
Hot Water Takeaway #2:Great Things don’t usually sit completely in one category or the other. They can have a Donut’s visceral impact while also having Art’s craftmanship and innovation going on.
PART III: RE-EVALUATING THE DONUT
Art is superior to donuts. We’ve been told this forever. Certain activities are just better for your status. If you want to seem knowledgeable you talk about Citizen Kane, not zombie movies, if you’re refined you order the foie gras not the steak, and having an art book on your coffee table will make you look smarter than Batgirl comics.
Except, do any of us actually feel that way?
We learn the takeaway points on the big Art topics (and might actually be into some of them) but yeah, when we’re not around our boss or on a date, everyone knows we’re all opening a Ben & Jerry’s, watching a rom-com or bobbing to Taylor Swift. Really, everyone loves Donuts. But in a scrambling, inauthentic effort to not look like simpletons, we relegate these pursuits to the status of guilty pleasures never to be mentioned in polite society.
There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. By not respecting the lowbrow as much as the highbrow, what we actually are guilty of is robbing ourselves of the opportunity to experience Greatness across a whole realm of different categories. There really is such a thing as a Great Donut.
But if we want to be this open-minded for more than five minutes, we’ll need to tackle where this stigma against the so-called lowbrow comes from. Why is it we automatically place Art above Donuts?
Here’s where we came out.
(1) Art is associated with Greatness, Donuts with the everyday
Why are we designed to find certain things beautiful?
The late philosophy and aesthetics professor Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct, has a compelling evolutionary theory. In his fantastic TED talk below, Dutton refers to the hand-axes fashioned by homo erectus in Ethiopia some 1.4 million years ago. These thin stone blades could have a number of purposes but the sheer number of specimens found and the fact that many of these display no evidence of wear and tear indicates that they couldn’t all have been used for butchering animals. So what were they for?
The answer may have something to do with, er, bumpin’ uglies. Much like a peacock’s tail, a finely-made hand-axe served as a useful indicator of desirable sexual qualities such as intelligence, fine motor control (if you catch our drift) and planning ability, giving its maker a reproductive advantage over his less dextrous peers. Gradually, these practical tools were transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship. From prehistoric gadgets to the Sistine Chapel, we have evolved to admire works of Great skill. In the words of Dutton:
We find beauty in something done well.
Fine, but what about Donuts in all this?
Well Donuts, too, can be something done brilliantly well. There’s examples all around us.
The making of zombie satire Dawn of the Deadrequired no less skill, technique and sheer mastery than any arthouse movie. Some scotch drinkers snobbishly ignore that the beautiful caramel complexity of bourbon didn’t just arise by freak accident – some extremely talented hillbilly actually created that. And sure, when we say barbecue, some picture the cheap chemical smokiness of McDonalds’ sauce. But try the ribs at Pappy’s in St. Louis and you’ll realise the level of dedication needed to nail that perfect balance between sweet, spicy, smoke and tang. Making BBQ ribs at that level takes all the competence, expertise and command of palate as you’re likely to find in any Great chef.
(2) Art is durable, Donuts are temporary
Art is shaped by the culture and tastes of of its era. But when we tried asking 10 people what they think makes a work of Art Great, we kept hearing the same notion pop up again and again – that Great Art possesses the quality of timelessness.
Agreed. Even though our idea of beauty is changing all the time (we were looking at Rubens nudes and thinking about how all those chunky knees have been replaced today by models skinner than our lattes), whenever we contemplate a Great masterpiece, we feel that it is saying something universal, that applies equally to anyone.
I hate and I love you. How, you ask? I don’t know, but I feel it and I am torn apart.
Does it really matter that the guy was a Roman writing over 2,000 years ago?
On the other hand, we have our Donuts again. Full of instant gratification, granted. But can’t they be timeless too? Just look at classic horror movies like Nosferatu or The Exorcist that still give us the shits to this day. But let’s get deeper than that. A few days ago, like most days, we were talking about Texas brisket. We were trying to work out exactly why we love it so much. Where we came out is that fundamentally, this is a taste that’s older than any of us. It’s basic, it speaks to us on a primal level. Fire meets meat. We both felt like we’d known that taste for millions of years.
If Art is timeless, then here’s to the primordial Donut.
(3) Art is refined, Donuts are vulgar
We managed to bash this idea pretty quick. Geoffrey Chaucer likes to write about bums sticking out of windows and Absalon getting facefuls of fart. And that paragon of timelessness we mentioned up there, the Roman poet Catullus? Well, when he’s not lovingly pining for his ex, he’s calling her a whore and telling other girls he’s so horny he’s boring holes through his tunic. But it’s cool, ’cause it’s poems. Art certainly can be vulgar. What’s more, today’s vulgar Donuts can become tomorrow’s Art.
(4) Art boosts status, Donuts damage it
We mentioned this above. Everyone loves Donuts! We figured that whenever we pretended not to, it was because we were scared of being perceived as dimwits. Except the funny thing is the people whose judgment we were worried aboutwere all doing the same thing.
And if not, just ask yourself this – are you really that concerned about the opinion of someone who will actually judge you negatively for being passionate about lowbrow stuff? Anyone who genuinely decides what to be into based on the status it’ll grant them kinda definitely seems like a moron to us. Objectively.
A book doesn’t make you smart and comics don’t make you a dummy. If you’re talking cinema and you tell me you only watch Bulgarian arthouse classics, you’re not some expert, you’re a fool.
Hot Water Takeaway #3: What’s smart (or not) isn’t the thing we’re experiencing but the way we think about and relate to it.
PART IV: “TRANSFORMATION”
So now, some hours later, we’re finally where we wanted to land. We’ve cleared it up. Donuts aren’t inherently inferior to Art. In fact, they can give us as Great an experience as any piece of Art, depending on how we choose to engage with them. Yay.
The problem, we figure, is that how we engage with things is based almost exclusively on our expectations.
There’s this guy. Let’s call him Simon, ’cause his name is Simon. He goes into a cinema sometime in the summer of 2011 to watch contemplative badass arthouse flick Drive. He exits the theatre sorely disappointed – Drive is a pile of shit. Why?
Well it was really slow, he says.
He explains what he means by slow – it’s a quiet, atmospheric auteur movie. He’s usually down with that type of stuff, but this time, he’d gone in expecting Fast & Furious 5.
Drive was not Fast 5. It was Drive. So he thought the critically acclaimed Drive was a pile of shit because it was what it was.
Obviously what happened here is, when Simon went in he already had a story in his head about what he was going to experience: high-octane pace, fun, cheesy dialogue, quick editing, fast cars, big explosions. When Drive hit him with its tense, brooding nightscapes, he was thrown off. There was a discrepancy between his story and what actually happened. This threw him in a tizzle which he took out on Drive. Despite the fact he normally enjoys that kind of film.
Expectations colour our experience. Here’s what Patrick has to say about it:
Take Marc. Top fella. He’s smart, caring, loves the things I love and smells like a woman. Easily one of my 50 best friends. But say I haven’t met him yet. I’m on a first date, waiting for a tall, green-eyed Jewish girl to turn up:
Right? Marc is still the same brilliant Marc, but sod Marc, all I wanted was a new girlfriend 🙁
We both realised that we really needed to stop ourselves from doing this. It was damaging, ’cause just like that automatic anti-Donut snobbery, our expectations were depriving us from finding whole categories of Great things.
So we made a conscious effort to try his on:
To judge things for what they are, not what we want them to be.
It turned out to be really easy. Try this simple two-step process the next time you’re watching some music or eating a movie – just ask yourself:
(i) What is it trying to do? Where is it trying to take me?; and
(ii) How well is it doing these things? Has it achieved the aims it has set itself?
That’s really all there is to this sermon. And it works even better with stuff you aren’t enjoying. We’re not saying you can enjoy anything by doing the above. All you’re doing is taking yourself, your biases and expectations, out of the equation. Once you do that, if something is legitimately Great you’ll at least appreciate what it’s trying to do, even if it’s not your thing.
And who knows, you may even be surprised. You might find a new lifelong passion. It happens to us all the time and we want it to happen to you too.
And that’s pretty much it. Simple, right?
So when you approach the book, dish, movie, album or whatever, leave your expectations at the door, get what it’s trying to do and see if it does it. Does it move you in any way? Does it have visceral impact or leave you marvelling at its multilayered structure? Yes? Fantastic. Sounds like a Great experience.
No? Well at least you gave it a fair chance, and that’s a huge deal for what it says about you. What it says about you is that you’re the red guy, not one of the white robots. By being aware of the layers of bias, status anxiety and accepted truths that always try (even without us noticing) to get in the way of our assessing things fairly, we can peel them back and come to conclusions that are truly us. Authentic reflections of our own taste and not the prepackaged opinions we’ve been fed on what things should be.
Art or Donut, be open to letting it take you where it wants to. Look for Greatness in everything. It means giving yourself a chance to have a richer, more rewarding experience.
What matters is not whether a thing is Art or Donut but its quality and impact. Let’s not dismiss something solely because we assume it’s lowbrow.
Great Things don’t usually fall completely into one category or the other. They can have a Donut’s visceral impact while also having Art’s multilayered structure.
How we relate and think about things is what makes us smart, not knowing about the thing itself.
Let’s judge things for what they are, not what we want them to be. Ask: