A story about COVID depression, cooking excitement, and then a clam

So I’ve been sinking deeper into a pit of COVID parenting exhaustion and numbness and world nausea and work burnout. One of the signs of depression for me is losing that weird obsessive aesthetic fire that always usually drags me along through my life. Like normally there’s something – some new music or cooking project or book – that I’m simmering with interest in. But that’s been more and more distant. Without that life is a slog.

But last week I pulled out a cookbook and had a glimmer of excitement. It was a Korean cookbook that I’d tried to use and failed with before. Normally when I get into a cuisine, I can figure out the basics in a few weeks and get minimally competent and start to get some instincts. But I’d failed twice with Korean. But I decided: this time I’m going to really do it. I’m going to get better, less arcane cookbooks; I’m going to ferment all kinds of kimchee and panchan. If COVID has me trapped in the house then at least I can go all in and finally learn to cook Korean.

So I indulged my growing sense of excitement. (“Indulged,” in COVID era, means buying a few cookbooks.) I read up. I made a list. I hit the Korean grocery. And yesterday night was going to be the first attempt: I was going to make soontofu – silky tofu stew. One of my favorite dishes. And in my excitement and perhaps hubris, I decided I wasn’t going to make the easiest soontofu. I was going to make the one with clams.

Cooking at first teeters on disaster. I don’t really know the ingredients and the kids are distracting. Mistakes are made. But I compensate a bit and things are looking good, and smelling right, and OMG it suddenly smells exactly like my old favorite soontofu joint in LA, and I suddenly feel awesome and so jazzed.

And then I add the clams.

The clams are supposed to simmer for 10 minutes and open all up. I am supposed to discard the ones that don’t. After 5 minutes, one opens up. At 10 minutes, still there is only one open. The pot is full of tightly closed clams. This seems suspicious. I give it a few more minutes, and decide it’s probably safest to discard all these unopened clams, but this seems weird to me, so I pull out one of the clams and inspect it and – and here is my biggest mistake – I cautiously poke it.

The clam explodes. It falls open and inside is this whole mass of noxious queasy grey molten sludge. The goopy death-mass hangs in the clamshell for a moment and then slides off, down the shell, down my spoon, right into the pot full of stew. It is pure despair.

Most of it is sitting above the liquid on a piece of tofu. I quickly spoon it out and chuck it. I look suspiciously at the rest of the stew. How much clam-death-goop got in? Maybe it’s fine? It could be fine. I cautiously taste it. And for one brief moment, all the spice and savor of the stew make things seem alright. And then, as the spice fades, what’s left in my mouth is the single worst flavor I have ever tasted. It is decay. It is ashes. It is the nightmare tide pool. It is the saddest part of mold. And it won’t go away. I drink booze. I drink the harshest dank amaro I have. Nothing helps. I can taste it after our second improvised dinner. I can taste it in the night. I wake up the next morning and I can still taste it.

And this is when I realize that my emotional arc with Korean cooking and the clam is the exact same shape as my emotional arc with the election and coup.

New article: “The Arts of Action”

My new article The Arts of Action is out now in Philosopher’s Imprint!

This article is kind of intensely personal – perhaps awkwardly so, for an academic article. I realized, while I was writing it, that it was distilling basically all this weird stuff I’ve been thinking about, obsessing over, and floundering to articulate for, like, decades. It’s about all this stuff I love that’s at the margins of Fancy Artistic Life. It’s about why I love them, and why they’ve been marginalized. It’s about “process art”.

So: most traditional arts are what I’m calling “object arts”. An artist makes a thing, you appreciate the thing. Painting, novels, theater. The thing the audience appreciates is some external, distinct object. It’s the painting that’s dramatic, thrilling, moving.

The process arts are where the artist makes a thing, and then you, the audience, interact with that thing, and then *you appreciate your own actions*. The artwork helps make *you* beautiful, or dramatic, or elegant – and helps to shape the form of your beauty. Examples include: games, the act of cooking, social tango, contact improv, rock climbing, cities, the physical movement that surrounds eating, the social life that arises around hot pots and fondues.

In technical language: in object art, the aesthetic qualities are in the artwork. In process art, the artwork calls forth the aesthetic qualities inside the activity of the audience, for the sake of the audience’s appreciation of their own actions.

I think process arts are everywhere, but we often ignore them or misunderstand them, because we’re caught in this object art paradigm. We try to turn process arts into object arts, and in so doing we often drain the life out of them. And we suppress process-art qualities in many of the traditional arts. So the point here is not to force process arts into an object art frame, but to to try to appreciate them for how they do their own thing.

This is my attempt to give a Theory of the Process Arts, and answer a lot of the basic questions. Who’s the artist – the designer of the object or the active appreciator? Why call it an art, and not just freeform everyday aesthetic appreciation? And why have the process arts been so neglected? The answers are variations on a central theme: The object arts typically concentrate aesthetic responsibility in the artist. The process arts often *distribute* them, in a complex way, between artist and audience.

And it’s an attempt to find as broad a variety of examples as I could, and be true to the practitioner’s self-descriptions of those arts. My favorite parts of this aren’t the philosophy, but all the stuff I dug up about how cooks and tango practitioners talk about the inner feeling of their practice.

(PS: the article started its life as a couple of pages in the games book about the core nugget of the idea – the object arts and the process arts – and a bunch of unanswered questions. I wrote those parts of the book 3 years ago. I then spent another couple years trying to expand the theory beyond games and answering those questions, and that’s where this article comes from. It’s much expanded and improved from the original seed in the book.)

The article is online and free and open access to all.