With the onset of winter we leave behind the world of real tomatoes. The taste of a real tomato is something to be prized. Fresh on a sandwich. A drizzle of olive oil, a thin slice of mozzarella atop a fresh slice of bread. In a salad. A real tomato can make your heart sing. Now we enter the purgatory of Styrofoam tomatoes that don’t taste like anything.
These days we live on processed food. Food is engineered within a micrometer of its non-life. It’s manufactured to be delicious and satisfying in clinically specific ways. Not so satisfying that you can’t have just one more chip, or cookie, or cheese thing. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more. Well, one more wouldn’t hurt. How about one more? They’ll make more. The factories work ‘round the clock. The clinically engineered, processed and manufactured dip makes it even more delicious.
Or, we need to send the kids to school. So, let’s send the kiddies off with the most convenient engineered lunch. Then recess. Upon coming home, each member of the family can have a fantastic processed microwave supper. And wash it down with engineered soft drinks.
The processed food is engineered to have just the right “mouth feel.” The crunch has been studied and field tested a thousand times. A million times. Food scientists study each facet of the food almost to the molecular level. Each chip is quality controlled to a high standard of shape and taste. Processing processes are robotically controlled for a perfect frying environment.
Now if a person has any sense and self-awareness, a person knows that all of this overly-processed food isn’t good for us. And after a while, parts of the body starts telling the other parts, “Please stop this.” The tummy tells the mouth, “Stop.” The cringing intestines tell the brain, “Please, don’t do this again.” When people ignore these signals (or, let’s acknowledge this – when they live in a food desert), we see a rise in diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.
I’m no saint in this. I’ve eaten my share of processed food. I’ve had the chips at the Super Bowl Party. When I was a boy, my family went on a cook out. Oh, the hot dogs and the ‘smores were delicious. And it was chilly, so I had about a quart of dry-mix hot chocolate. The hot dogs, the chocolate bars, the engineered cocoa mix all swirled together in my tummy and decided it didn’t want to go any further on the downward path. Oh, it made for a colorful display it come back up on the return trip into the world.
If we listen to our stomachs and our “insides,” we should know when too much processed food is too much.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a similarly clarifying monitor for too much processed art.
I risk offending many of my friends and colleagues who work in the very fine and very important processed entertainment industry. I repeat I’m no Puritanical purist. I don’t live on organic, raw roots and berries that I picked myself.
But I know I can’t live wholly on processed food.
And as much as I love engineered and processed art, I can’t live wholly on that either. I need to interact with living artists who are in the same room with me right now. Real musicians. Real actors.
Real humans with real humans. Live. And living.
Our culture has perfectly engineered art now. Films are engineered to have perfect lighting and perfect digital sound. All elements are processed to reflect a level of performance perfection previously unavailable to fallible humanity. And all the elements of every shot in a digital universe can be endlessly manipulated as long as you’ve got the money and the software to manipulate. The CGI artists can perfect each nanosecond by nanosecond sub-frame of every shot.
And, of course, with everything from pitch-bending to infinitesimally delicate digital editing tools, music is equally engineered to perfection. The electronic pulse of the beat. The intonation of the digitally sampled string section. All is perfect. The sound is digitally re-mastered so that the music is literally in your own head.
You too can be Bach. You don’t have to listen to his music – you can have it literally in your own head!
All of this perfectly processed, artificial entertainment can be accessed 24-hours a day via a smart mobile device. Listen to the music. Watch the video. The screen has billions of pixels that accurately produce color shading undetectable by the human eye. The ear buds produce sound so rich that you feel that you yourself are playing all of the instruments.
But there’s no internal monitor to tell you that too much processed entertainment is hurting your insides.
Years ago on a long writing project, each day I plugged in a recording of Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky’s original orchestration, please) in my personal stereo and wrote and wrote. There’s no earthly way an opera company was coming by the computer lab where I worked to perform each day. And I doubt the other folks in the lab would have appreciated Russian opera the way I did and do.
Recorded music and performance allows people to hear a wealth of culture previously unknown to the vast amount of humans in most part of the world up until the last part of the 20th century. And I’m not arguing we should take that away.
But how often do we engage with artists in a live setting?
In this instance I’m writing for people who probably don’t read this column. My guess is that if you visit my little corner of the Interwebs, you know all about live performance and seek it out.
When I was a boy in Iowa, the National Endowment for the Humanities paid for the Des Moines Orchestra to come to our little elementary school and play a concert for children in our gymnasium. This introduced me to music that didn’t come through any electronic interface. It wasn’t amplified, equalized, or engineered. It was a group of folks playing music.
As our culture has faced more and more budget cuts in our national arts funding and in our local arts programming, we have had less and less of this kind of programming. As a result, I will tell you, if you haven’t observed this, that our young people in their late teens and early 20s gobble up processed entertainment in a way that would make the people at FritoLay salivate.
But what is the effect on their insides?
Good art is good art, regardless of the format and/or delivery system or medium. Fine. Unprocessed food has problems in a modern society. The shelf life of a real loaf of bread, for example, is fairly short. A fresh loaf doesn’t stay fresh all that long. Unlike the soft, squeezable bread, you’ve got to take advantage of it while it’s fresh, or it’s gone to waste. If you pick a real peach at the peak of the season, you’ve got a real wonder of creation. Wait too long, and even the fruit flies will keep their distance. So unlike engineered food that remains “fresh” (or edible) for weeks . . . or years, real food has some risk associated with it.
Live art contains a greater element of risk than engineered entertainment. Live performance hasn’t been equally engineered and processed. With live performance, you encounter another living person as they are today, now, this minute. And that always contains some element of risk.
Why is this so important?
A necessary and fundamental part of the violence and cruelty in our world is the dehumanization of the victim to some degree. The bully and the autocrat essentially work from the same book – “That isn’t a person deserving of respect like I am.” The bully and the autocrat dehumanize the other person and then, as a result, say, “I can and may beat them up.” “I might send them off to concentration camps.” “I might commit genocide.”
If you think the victims aren’t really human, violence and cruelty can be visited on these people.
The great benefit of live art is the living interaction of actor and audience. This human interaction can provide a deepening humanization of everyone in the room. It’s hard to dehumanize some group if, instead of seeing them as sub-humans, one looks at the world populated by fully human folks.
Eating real food provides nutrition that builds up our insides and keeps us healthy.
Engaging with real, live performers without the separating veil of engineered controls helps our insides and keeps us healthy.
We need this very much.
We need, particularly for young folks, more opportunities to have non-processed living interactions with performers and performances. Sometimes the art might be quirky. There are risks with the live performance.
As with all risks, the payoff can be astronomical.