The mystery of good art

The trick about good art is that it has some mystery, an unknown. The problem is that if you get too close to the art, you risk unraveling the mystery. If you deconstruct it, engage it, or study it, the unknown becomes known. Thus, if I really enjoy a song (in particular), movie, etc. I stay away from taking it apart to see how it works. I’d rather enjoy it for a long time.


I have this problem where I over-listen to an album. It started in my teenage years. I learned all the bass-lines for Pearl Jam’s _Ten_. After that, I couldn’t listen to the album for ten years; I knew all the secrets, all the interesting bits. Rewind a year ago, and The Who’s _Live At Leeds_ was my jam. Now, I can’t listen to it.

But I’ve been very rigorous about listening to Bruce Springteen’s _Born To Run_. It is such a perfect piece that I only allow myself to listen to it once a month[1]. No more. Similarly, I won’t let myself learn to play any of the songs on the guitar. I want to maintain that mystery.


I wonder if there is other art like this. Could you get overexposed to a Mondrian painting or a Hemingway book? Even with works that are more popular in their sensibilities, is it possible? Is there such a thing as too much _Starry Night_ or _Ghostbusters_?[2]

The bottom line: enjoy good art, but take care not to over-enjoy it.

fn1. I even feel like I’m cheating if I listen to Born To Run in anything but album-form. To hear “Thunder Road” or “Jungleland” by itself feels incomplete, like I’m missing something.

fn2. Yes, I just put these on the same level, even though I’m not much of a van Gogh aficionado.

2 thoughts on “The mystery of good art

  1. Glenn Vanderburg

    Interesting. For me it’s kind of the opposite … the more I understand, the more I enjoy. I’ve always loved this quote from William Safire: “Knowing how things work is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.”

  2. For me, there’s a line between understanding and execution. I _understand_ some of the song craftsmanship that makes “Thunder Road” a good song. But if I were to teach myself to play it and memorize the lyrics, I fear I would cease to enjoy it.

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