I won’t repeat the cliché that language is debased by over- and misuse—there, I repeated it anyway—but it is a pity that one can no longer say that anything is ‘astonishing’ in the wake of Hillary’s I’m-not-dead-yet-but-other-people-could-end-up-that-way remark. In the last ten days I’ve seen the word pop up so often that it now runs a close second to the phrase ‘four-dollars-a-gallon.’
Every arts critic in print suddenly thinks they have to call whatever they like ‘astonishing’. The word’s latinate origins (attonare) link it to hearing thunder and metaphorically to being struck by lightning, which suggests something very intense that doesn’t happen very often, i.e., not every time you go to a museum, see a play or hear a piece of music.
When we’re constantly told that an artwork should make us feel like a million volts have passed through our bodies, one of two things happen: we either dismiss the hyperbole as more hustle from a culture suffering from commercial dementia—not an inappropriate reaction when a painting like Bacon’s triptych sells for $80 million at Sotheby’s. (That’s not a typo.)
Or we unconsciously conclude that artistic events or objects that merely amuse, entertain, inspire, please or instruct are second-rate. Why do they all have to astonish us as if merely being alive is a second-rate experience and we need instead to seek to be blasted with adrenalin?
No wonder people are attracted to crystal meth. They say the high is—well, you know.