As I write my comparison essay between the Great Gatsby and Quicksand I am reminded of a New Yorker piece that I read last year. In this essay, George Packer postulates that Rick Moody’s idea that “in America, racial identity is experience… [is] so radically limiting that what looks like a compliment is more of a pander concealing an insult.” The article goes on to examine the polarizing nature of seeing race as a factor in one’s ability to perceive the world. Moody, in a kind of backhanded compliment, says that black people are unique in their ability to understand black art and music. Packer rides the slippery slope of Moody’s argument and says that this is like saying that Mozart can only be appreciated by white Europeans. This idea of “aesthetic destiny” as determined by one’s identity, whether it be racial, geographical, or socioeconomic, limits the transcendence of experience. It is to say, if one’s identity is the determining factor of one’s understanding on beauty, then there is no universality in the aesthetic.
As someone who often finds herself lost in a rap song, I can understand where Moody is coming from. Some art is more naturally digested by certain types of people. For example, in my classic Italian cinema class, some of the images that appear in our films are references to biblical scenes, Catholic mass, and Catholic symbolism. While some of my classmates are at a loss, my Catholic school upbringing means that I notice these things more easily and that they have a more instantaneous impact on me. However, our teacher often pauses these images and gives a verbal footnote for context. In this way, my Catholic heritage and upbringing may allow me to more easily understand the films’ symbolism, as Moody suggests, but others may also partake when given the same instruction.
Perhaps, in America, racial identity does define our experience. However, the ability to understand and appreciate art may be aided with greater knowledge of the background and experience of the artist but perception has more to do with intellectual ability than racial background. If the American experience is racially colored, then it is because our society insists upon it being so. This is not to say that we should be “colorblind,” each person’s identity is different. However, this affects an individual’s intellectual capabilities insofar as they allow it. For example, a spatially adept individual may prefer to analyze the lines and uses of color and shading in a painting and find meaning in these choices. Another person may choose to analyze the religious context of a painting. Yet another person may decide to analyze the racial undercurrents of a particular piece. These unique angles on a particular piece of art demonstrate how each individual can determine his/her own experience with or without race. To say that race is the crucial tool for one’s understanding is an incredibly limiting view of identity and one that detracts from the richness of artistic experience. Art is about feeling and emotion and often paintings become more about the audience than the painter. A variety of people can connect to a painting in the same or in an entirely different way. This is what makes art fun and this is what makes art valuable to society.