That goodness is determined by the technical limitations of the art

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have recently published an article on the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy; the point was to help my western friends enjoy something they otherwise would not; and, at the same time, to summarize for my own benefit the various ways in which I have enjoyed it, using naturally inborn and trained perception skills, only some of which are specific to Asia. I thought the article might be an interesting prolegomena to a cognitive study of the art.

Alas, the article has suffered the usual criticism from the usual quarter whose point appeared to be that these were just my impressions and those of others may well be otherwise.  I thought the criticism missed the point — i.e. that my observations about just how one could appreciate the art were precise and specific; that if there are other ways in which the art in question could be enjoyed, I am not aware of them; and that it would have been interesting to hear what those ways are.  Merely to say that some other ways may exist is an unsubstantiated claim, somewhat like saying that upon the tip of my pin other devils may well exist:  it expresses an ideological belief in the infinite possibilities of the human mind, which it is my contention — aren’t.

I have suffered the same criticism before when trying to explain to an otherwise intelligent person the specific features one looks for in mordant died textiles.  Oh, but these things are culturally determined, he ejaculated, not realizing, clearly, that mordant dying is a very specific, limited technique, capable of only a narrow range of effects; and that some of these are more difficult to produce than others, are therefore more rare, and therefore more prized than those others which are more easily achieved.  These factors are determined by the technique and the current state of the art and not by cultural notions of the sort my interlocutor imagined (i.e. currently popular theories of criticism).

In the case of mordant dies, it is clear that goodness/ quality/ value /(beauty?) are determined by the technical limitations of the art and are not really culturally debatable; I think the same is true of Chinese calligraphy; and many other arts.  Optimistic theories of the blank-slate/limitless mental possibilities variety aren’t helping us see this.



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