Perhaps the greatest enemy of learning is knowledge. Once we learn something, our ability to learn new – and perhaps contradictory – information is compromised. This is usually a worthwhile trade-off: It may be harder to learn new and contradicting information, but that’s fine if the information we already have is useful. When we learn misinformation, though, it makes it that much harder to approach the truth.
This is the key to deception, to illusion, to sleight-of-hand: Give them something to believe, and often as not they’ll never even get as far as asking the question that you don’t want them to find the answer to. In fact, the more outlandish the thing you’ve already made them believe, the less likely they are to make the concessions that would be necessary for them to shift their beliefs.
This process doesn’t require an intentional deception, though: We do a fine job of making mistakes on our own, of sticking to our guns long after the battle has proven Pyrrhic. Thus it is said that science advances one funeral at a time, as the old guard of the old theories die out and new unencumbered minds replace them. How can we overcome this boundary to learning? How can we hear new ideas without them being internally shouted down by the old, without being predisposed to favor the understood solution? This, too, is a skill, a rare and precious one. The ability to look past the known in order to find new ideas is one that is extremely difficult to train, since all of the normal reward mechanisms of the human mind turn in on themselves, all of the pleasurable rewards of learning become suspect. Passing those impulses requires maintaining a form of humility, of knowing only that you know nothing, alongside the ability to function on the premise that what you believe is, if not true, at least useful enough to be getting on with. This idea is the core of scientific inquiry, and is an incredibly difficult ideal to live up to.
The conflict between knowledge and learning manifests differently when it comes to art, though, where it’s more often presented as an injunction against cliché. When creating, obvious solutions will occur to us because we have seen them used before – and, once this phenomenon has repeated itself enough for a given idea, that idea becomes cliché, its use expected, its impact on the audience negligible. Easy enough, at first, to avoid ideas like this. However, as we grow in experience, both as consumers and creators of art, it becomes more difficult. It starts to seem like we’ve seen everything before, like everything is a cliché. Even ideas we originated become trite to us and, even if our audience wants more of the same, to produce those same ideas would be creatively empty.
Another challenge to fighting against cliché in art is that many people want cliché. They crave the familiar, and read any attempt to break out of what they understand as the ‘right’ way for a game to play, or for a book to tell a story, as incompetence on the part of its creator. It’s not really the audience’s fault for wanting this: The tensions between familiarity and unfamiliarity, comfort and discovery, challenge and encouragement, is a core part of what makes art appealing. The artist has to straddle those lines, and it becomes easy to lose track of how familiar or unfamiliar what you’re creating really is, whether it’s a revolutionary idea, something so out there that it’s just gibberish to most people, or actually just so hackneyed and obvious no one else would bother with it.
In order to be able to appreciate art that breaks from convention, audiences, too, need to look past their first and most immediate reactions. Some audiences are more willing to do that, and more interested in following artists who pursue work that works against the expectations of cliché, that strives to find new ways to solve old problems. But having an open mind, as we’ve explored, isn’t merely a matter of attitude, but a matter of aptitude: Learning how to approach a kind of art that you already consider yourself an expert in in a new way is beyond the boundaries of many people. And, as the gulf between these new experiences and their understanding of what comprises their beloved form widens, they get angry and resentful.
But, even though I know we don’t generally acknowledge these forces of openness vs convention in discussing the art we love, I wonder if we haven’t made subtle tacit concessions to the idea. Given how compulsively the cultures of media consumption respects and enforces rules like spoiler warnings, it’s hard not to see the shadow of the destructive effects of knowledge. Perhaps part of the reason we’re afraid to know too much too soon is, not because we will enjoy the work less, but because we will be waylaid into enjoying it the way someone else has – that the work will become part of their story rather than part of ours, circumscribed forever by the bounds of their enjoyment, unable to be discovered for oneself.