Don’t Be an Art Historian

Don’t Be an Art Historian

Alt text: A cartoon brain holds a sheaf of papers on which the title “Affective Forces, 1942” is visible; the brain looks beyond the paper to a stack of boxes each labeled with an emotion: “confusion,” “anger,” “happiness,” “rage,” “calm,” “excited.”
Illustration (2019) by Sophia Di Iorio, courtesy of the artist.

A Story

On December 27, 2018, I was in Cuba on a family vacation. I’d always wanted to go there; in fact, it had been on the top of my list since I was fifteen. Being very into photojournalism, I had seen the colorful, animated, and otherworldly images that photographers lucky enough to go had taken. I once asked a photographer who had been what it was like, to which she responded: “You just point your camera in virtually any direction and you’ll end up with something beautiful.” Now I was finally here, composing my own photos, absorbing the atmosphere. My photos, though quite beautiful in the purely aesthetic sense, somehow failed to capture the underlying intangible energy that unquestionably permeated Havana. The moments I was capturing and thus remembering were blank, detaching me from Havana’s enigmatic appeal.

Blue car in front of a building on which "viva fidel" and "viva la revolucion" are painted
Photograph (2018) by Armaan Ahmed


December 27 was my third day in the city. For the past two days, we would get ready, head downstairs from our rented room to Plaza Vieja, and eat breakfast at one of the cafes on the square. This particular day, a group of singers happened to be singing for the people eating there.1 They were dressed in bright colors, some holding guitars, and others with congas. Though their outfits were all slightly askew and different from one another’s, they all looked as though they were perfectly in tune with one another, and knew that they looked as such. Their confidence and composure were unquestionable. That is not what got my attention though; I didn’t notice them when they approached the cafe. It was the second they struck their first chord. I vividly remember the exact moment they began playing. I was sipping coffee, looking off into the square at some shop or another, when something came over me mid-sip. It was not so much that I was actively aware of the beautiful, perfectly in tune, velvety melody that they were playing—which, as a musician myself, is something I am usually always aware of. No, it was the state of my body that changed in that instant. It changed before I noticed the existence of the singers or for that matter the music itself.

As I mentioned, I am a musician and a critical one at that. The second I hear a song I deconstruct it. It is good? Were those triplets in a 2/4 time signature? Pretty sure they were a bit sharp on that last chord. Do I like the melodies in this song? What is this making me feel? These are all questions I internally ask myself when listening to music, but not one came up listening to those singers. My brother is much like me in this aspect. He too is a musician and notices the subtle intricacies of songs. As I mentioned before, the first second that I heard the singers, something came over me. In the following seconds, I turned to my brother to see if he had the same reaction. He returned my mental inquiry faster than I had conceived it. We looked at each other, then back at the singers, then back at each other, a grin forming on each of our faces. Though we were both aware that something was going on within us as a result of this music, we were also both aware that we did not know what this something was nor how it worked, all through each other’s facial expressions. At this instant, we both knew that there was something about this experience that was special.

I later found out that these singers were traditional bolero singers, a genre of music characterized by Cuban ballad-like love songs. The second I got back home (there was limited Internet for us in Cuba), I found a Bolero song to play. Though I was fearful that my reaction to the music in Havana was a one-off, the second I played the music I had the same reaction. There was something there, something different, something new.

In this essay, I will analyze this something in hopes of finding the processes behind it, why it happens, and if it can be replicated. Because (as I will argue) the reception of any artistic medium is highly dependent on who views it and their relation to the art itself, I will use my experience of, and reaction to, listening to Bolero music and its effect on me as both an entry point from which to delve into this theoretical topic, and as a proxy for other affective experiences. As I will outline in this essay, I have come to believe two things: First, that one of the most visceral, deep, and intense experiences is what I have come to define as the nostalgic experience; second, that to have a nostalgic experience, the reality in which the receiver of the artistic medium exists within must have virtually no connection to the reality in which the artistic medium was created. These two notions will be the framing ideas of this essay. In the following paragraphs, I will first describe my reaction to bolero songs, outline parts of the existing theoretical framework of affective art as it relates to this essay, and lastly expand on this theoretical framework through my notion of the nostalgic experience and how it can be achieved. In essence, this essay is an attempt to explain to both my brother and myself what happened to us when those bolero singers began playing.

An Unknown Place2

Bolero songs like “Sabor a Mi” have the same special quality as the songs that I listen in Havana. As a student at NYU, a resident of New York City, and a person who generally overbooks myself and overcrowds my mind, more often than not, my mind is fully saturated with various information about the next place I need to be or the next essay I need to start. Often, I will listen to a bolero song walking to my next class. The second the song begins to play, I freeze. It is not a physical freeze, but a mental and sensational one. Sensations stop being received by my body. In the winter, I stop noticing the shards of cold wind slicing my face. The assault of my mental to-do list stops. The worry about being late to the class I am headed to is squelched. It is, in fact, an immediate and instantaneous reaction. However, the reaction is not simply a subtractive one. When listening to good bolero, I am transported. To where I know not. I do know that the indescribability and indecipherability of the place I go to is a pleasant one. One filled with acoustic-wooden warmth, melodic sepia-toned simplicity, and an almost conga-steady rhythmic consistency that suggests that the sounds originated from a place far off in both time and space. If I were to compare the feeling and aura of the space I am attempting to describe, I would liken it to the feeling one gets when searching for an old forgotten memory, one that is neither completely forgotten nor in perfect clarity, but blurry and swirled.

Whenever I listen to bolero, I smile. I smile in part because, in a cold, dark place like New York City, the space that bolero takes me to offers welcomed warmth and safety. However, I smile in larger part because of the act of transportation itself. The feeling of being transported is what to me makes bolero special. Bolero comes from the sky, lifting me from myself—and that feels amazing.

The Affective Experience

Before I dive into the primary thesis of this essay, I first want to outline a framing theory that I will use as a starting point for my own thesis. This framing theory is based on affect theory.

Feelings are predefined and demarcated. For example, there is a consensus as to what a “happy” reaction to any given event is. Happiness—a feeling—is happened, an ends, predefined. Therefore, feelings are dead in the sense that the boundaries that define them will not change. Affects, then, are the forces that precede feeling. They are the instantaneous reaction to stimuli that are prior to consciousness and emotion. They are presubjective. There are no “types” of affect, because no boundaries can be drawn around them—they exist outside of categorization. Furthermore, an affective experience is an unconscious (and preconscious) one. Affect is automatic. It is a bodily reaction rather than one of the mind. It is not processed but had. Thus, because an affective experience is not bound by the structures which emotion imposes, a fully affective experience is a sublime, transcendent, and a fantastic one. Affect, in essence, is the gut reaction one gets when they hear a particularly beautiful melody before they even know they were having a gut feeling. It is the “feeling” before the feeling.

Affective experiences generally end as soon as they begin. Affect precedes feeling, though it turns into feeling almost instantly. In an attempt to understand itself, the mind analyzes the state of the body after an affective experience to determine which emotion it should trigger. The mind takes the abstract, uncategorizable affect and estimates its equivalent translation to one of the various societally defined emotional responses (e.g., sadness, excitement, etc.). The mind seeks structure. However, as there is an infinite variation of affective experiences and a finite number of emotions, this task of the mind can be difficult. In special instances, the translation from affect to emotion is delayed. Even though all affect is outside of categorization, some affective experiences defy categorization more than others. These affective experiences are those which have no easy translation to the experiencer’s set of defined emotions. Thus, in these instances, the mind will have trouble translating, and the body will be able to remain in an affective state for a longer period of time.

This is what bolero music does to me. I am able to remain in the affective state. My mind is not sensing as it is preoccupied trying and failing to translate the affective experience into an emotional one. My body reacts automatically. It is this process that I seek to understand—that is, what makes these affective experiences, more than others, able to remain untranslated and thus alive? This is what will be discussed in the next section and are the primary insights of this essay.

Removed Realities

One might argue that in order to understand why bolero music “works” so well (on me), one must know about the first bolero singer Pepe Sánchez and his first bolero piece, “Tristezas” (1885); or about the general form of Bolero melodies, which, in the overwhelming majority of cases, have a rhythmic cell in 4/4 time signature; or about its sound, which is generally characterized by two to three singers in harmony accompanied by acoustic guitars and congas; or perhaps about the genre trova which preceded bolero and ultimately was the base off which to jump; or maybe even about Spanish bolero, a genre with completely different origins from Cuban bolero that happened to share the name. Perhaps one could say so.

But I believe that none of this is necessary to understand why bolero works, and why it remained for me an untranslatable affective experience. In fact, it is from this mystery-turned-insight that I have  begun to understand the mechanisms of the experience I had. Here, then, is what I have come to believe: That it is precisely because of my lack of knowledge of these things that I experience bolero music in the way that I do. My reality (that is, the one in which I was born in, raised in, and exist within—the combined sum of all my lived experiences) has no connection to that in which any of the bolero songs I enjoy were created. I know not a word of Spanish, nor do I know about the intricacies of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Cuban culture (nor do I really know about anything that was mentioned in the preceding paragraph as, that information was taken from the generic mass of information that exists about the genre). I am a third-generation Indian American fully assimilated in the American culture. I am a millennial, having only existed in the twenty-first century. I am studying sociology, entrepreneurship, and design. I even lack Latinx and Cuban friends! In essence, I know nothing and have no connection to bolero and the reality in which it was conceived.

This lack of connection creates a mental distance between me and bolero. This distance is what freezes me in my affective state. The source of most affects come from within our realities. This is no illogical fact—most experiences derive from affective forces propagated by interactions between us and the things in our immediate surroundings. Thus in these instances, as mentioned earlier, the mind takes the abstract, uncategorizable, affect and estimates its equivalent translation to one of the various emotional responses. However, trouble arises when that affective force originates from a different culture, a different place, and a different time. In these instances, the mind has no reference from which to draw. The mind cannot easily metaphorically put the incoming affective force into one of its various emotional boxes (portrayed in the illustration at the beginning of the essay).

This is in part because these emotional boxes are culture-, place-, and time-specific and dependent. They are not universal. For example, for me, happiness derives from seeing a dog walking on the streets of New York City because in much of the United States, in 2019, dogs have been societally constructed to signify cuteness and happiness. However, when I visited a small village in Ghana a few years back, I noticed that dogs were not viewed so much as subordinate to humans but more so companions. They were not seen as cute so much as they were seen as having the practical skills of speed, agility, and smell for hunting. “Happiness” then, for these Ghanaians, might not come from the act of viewing a dog, but perhaps more so from when the dog successfully executes a kill. This is all to say that how emotions are defined is dependent on the realities in which they exist.

Now we may understand why bolero’s affective forces remain intact for a listener with my life experiences. Bolero’s affective forces, which are created when the music itself was created, originates from a reality that is completely removed from mine. This, in turn, creates such mental distance as to make the affective force untranslatable into the structured realm of emotion and trap it within the realm of automatic, bodily, affect. It is why I freeze when listening to bolero.

The Nostalgic Experience

Bolero music reminds me of something—not something I have forgotten but rather something I have never thought. There is most definitely a nostalgic element to it. However, I am not using “nostalgia” in the traditional sense of the word here, but rather in its affective quality, that is, in describing the deep, bodily feeling of searching for something which cannot be found. A nostalgic experience, then, is an experience in which this process happens.

When I listen to bolero music, I have a nostalgic experience. There is a sense that the music I am listening to is a remnant, a relic, a memory of somewhere unknown to me. As I mentioned, the prolonged existence of the affective state is contingent on the mental distance between the artistic medium and the receiver of it. While there are many dimensions of this distance—culture, place, collective identity, and language among them—I believe that there is something special to the dimension of time. Time, more than any other dimension, removes the receiver of the artistic medium further away than any other dimension because inherent in the progression of time is also the progression of all other elements.

The nostalgic experience is contingent on a mental distance between the artistic medium and the receiver in the dimension of time. The art, hailing from a different era altogether, comes from such a different reality as to trap the receiver in their affective state. It is why so many people visit the Maoi in Easter Island, the cave paintings in France, the Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Stonehenge in England, and the like. Viewers of these ancient structures have nostalgic experiences. They are trapped in their affective state, their body automatically reacting to the immense distance between their present reality and the reality in which the artistic medium was created.

Some Not-So-Scientific Data

Over the past few weeks when developing this thesis, I have come across a number of examples that point to its legitimacy. In this section, I wanted to share some of these informal findings to show the scope of my thesis in an attempt to raise it beyond its theoretical skeleton and ground it.

First, I want to begin with my own affective reaction to two versions of the very well-known bolero song “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” written in 1929. The original song operates in the same way as described by my thesis; it traps me in my affective state. However, years after the original recording, Nat King Cole recorded the same song with his band in 1959. It is very beautiful indeed but seems not to have the same affective quality on me. I am a jazz musician, I am familiar with jazz music and Nat King Cole’s work and voice. Furthermore, Nat King Cole remains a familiar icon in the United States in 2019 (i.e. in my reality). Thus, in spite of the fact that these two songs share the same melodies and lyrics, the lack of mental distance between me and Nat King Cole is too small for me to have a nostalgic experience and thus be trapped in the affective state.

Now, I will draw from perhaps the least of scholarly sources: YouTube comments. Though this may seem ridiculous to some, YouTube comments are the voice and opinion of those who feel strongly enough to comment. A cursory look through the comments of one the many iterations of “Sabor A Mí” posted on the platform, a post with over 3.3 million views, reveals evidence of the nostalgic experience. In fact, the very top comment of this song is a good place to start: “My son recorded ‘Sabor a Mi’ before he deployed to Afghanistan. Eydie [the singer of this song] lost a son at a very tender age. My son died a year ago. I know Eydie and my son are sharing this song in heaven.”3 This very moving comment shows the power of the nostalgic experience. Though the commenter’s reality was far removed from that in which the song was created, the song not only reminds her of her son, but more so of someone with whom she has never, and could never have interacted: Eydie, the singer of the song who existed in a completely different generation and place. Another commenter on this song writes that “It’s 2019 and it is still a beautiful song.” While she is certainly correct, this commenter misses that not only is this song still beautiful in 2019, but it is beautiful because it’s 2019.

We may begin to realize the scope of this phenomenon by venturing into different genres of art and music. Ghazal is an ancient Indian tradition of singing poems in a sort of meditative state. Looking through the comments of one of the most popular ghazal songs revealed this comment which was, in fact, the top one: “Im [sic] from Somalia, but I can swear I was Indian in another life.”4 Little explanation is necessary to show how mental distance produced this commenter’s reaction.

Last Thoughts

Distance forms closeness. Ignorance forms appreciation. The lack of connection forms connections. One can, and should, experience without understanding. Perhaps it is paradoxically the art historian who has the weakest reaction to art. The art historian, who has dedicated their life to translating affective forces into the structured realm of emotion -which manifest in art criticism and discourse-, who has attempted to see through the eyes of those who viewed the art at the time of its creation, has lost the ability to remain in the affective state.

To find, and stay in, the ever-so-elusive affective state, one must search. One must venture far outside their place and time in pursuit of something they previously did not know existed. It must be a continual pursuit. Though I have found Bolero, over the course of researching and writing this essay the affective quality has diminished slightly. I will never be able to remain in the affective state for as long as I did, and for as deep as I did the very first time I heard it in Havana. The search must continue.

While all of the examples I provided in this essay have been backward-looking in terms of time, I believe that one can achieve a forward-looking nostalgic experience. British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarke’s three laws, of which the third law is the best known and most widely cited: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic, which could easily be a synonym for the affective state, can be achieved from looking forward as well as backward.

Wherever you look, look far. Look backward, look forward, and look across the planet. Find that which resonates with you and resist the urge to deconstruct. Do not think. Experience.

  1. This essay will be interactive. I encourage you to click the links to get a better sense of my descriptions. Although, as I will argue, music and art are dependent on who is listening, I still encourage you to listen to the songs linked.
  2. Before reading this section I would encourage the reader to listen to two of my favorite bolero Songs, “Sabor a Mí” and “Estoy Perdido.” Though the reader may not have the same visceral reaction as the ones that will be subsequently described, listening to them will give color to my descriptions.
  3. Julia Alaniz, “My son recorded ‘Sabor a Mi’ before he deployed…,” comment on “Sabor A Mi By Eydie Gormé & Trio Los Panchos,” texpaco, November 23, 2008.
  4. Selma Jama, “Im from Somalia…,” comment on “Nina Burmi sings Thumri | Vocal & Tabla | Indian Classical Music,” darbarfestival, November 8, 2013.
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