Regarding aesthetic dim-sightedness

October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Writes Rebecca Willis:

Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—”what a hideous lamp”, for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: “I love that lamp, I wonder where it’s from?” It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department.

Rebecca Willis is no dummy. It takes well demonstrated brains even to write for The Economist; presumably more better brains to reach the associate editorship of The More Intelligent Life (as the title clearly states). Yet, for what is probably the most important decision in her life – the choice of life partner – she was prepared to compromise her tastes:  she went ahead and… married him.

It’s not clear from the article how she makes that work. Is her husband allowed to express his tastes at home, forcing Rebecca to live with wall colors she hates, night-lights and bathroom towels which make her go YUCK? Or have the two decided for the functional neutrality in the house, living permanently in some sort of hotel-lcum-trainstation-like off-white/stainless steel dullity which does nothing for the eye? Since neither decision means living in a home which does not provide the comfort of pleasure, can either decision truly be said to be intelligent life, let alone more intelligent?

As Rebecca observes, plenty of people make the same decision – opt for a life with a person whose tastes they do not share, with, presumably the same consequence: in other words, they do violence to their own tastes for the sake of a relationship. Personally, I could never ever do this: I feel too strongly about my tastes; their violation offends me too much and their satisfaction is too rewarding to countenance giving them up. I could never have my living room wall-papered in a way I did not care for: I spend too much time there. The wallpaper I do have gives me a sense of pleasure and contentment, it turns my living room into an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise pretty ugly world.

Yet, it would appear, other people do not think that way: they are perfectly willing to compromise their wallpaper (and aesthetic pleasure in general) for other values (Sex? Companionship? The increased purchasing power of double income?). Perhaps their tastes aren’t especially strong i.e. aesthetic appreciation does not actually give them any meaningful/detectable pleasure. This would explain why they can go on writing the sort of garbage they write about art – because if not entirely aesthetically blind they are, at a minimum, aesthetically dim-sighted. If so, here is the central reason why one cannot discuss art with some/most people. If they do not possess a strong aesthetic sense themselves, I can never explain to them what I mean anymore than a bat could explain to them echolocation.


Nastume Soseki, Kusamakura: matter of a single image, a very few words

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41

Kusamakura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disappointing effects of the lack of training in rigorous thinking in all humanist curriculae; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere deep in the bowels of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.

How success kills the goose

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

How success kills the goose.  Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio, proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art (in this case, recordings of classical music).  The format was brilliant:  three musicologists discussed recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  (Unsurprisingly, they usually chose my favorites.  The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised:  some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest).

For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste:  it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but even they face the barrier of personal taste.

The public probably just liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, they heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not).  But the public liking was the program’s undoing:  the organizers decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and killed it.  The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

This — the perversion of the performer is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another.  A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped producing it the moment his ratings went over 5%.  “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”.  His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited.  As the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, dumbed down, and eventually the host asked us to take it off air.

Dear KSNB:  for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in.

More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners.  Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook:  does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)?  That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item?  (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests:  yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group?  Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics?  And if not — are there any features they share?  And significantly:  not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or:  “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at?  Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from courses in marketing research.  For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor they prefer;

b) that the populations of those groups are spread across the globe — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily:  for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth:  Poland and the UK;  not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, and one large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment);  the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like:  people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way:  many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences; and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own; and swimming within that sea are — “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, understood by the blind who see less and, in a sense, baffled by everything.

[Next lecture:  taste as a speciating factor]

The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them.  And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female’s leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, or the pachyderm support column.  Can this be possible?  To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing.  (Unbelievable, but true).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone:  he remembers others  commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist.  Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make?  Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping?  (Desirable for one’s offspring).  Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health?  (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects:  those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves.

[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that female ankles unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo appear to have gone extinct; closer inspection shows all those photos sport non-ankles; presumably the tattoo is there as a form of disguise].

On choosing colors and that less isn’t always more

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am repainting my apartment.  With 7 rooms facing three cardinal directions, I have color options and have been discussing them with Zenobia.  Our discussions have usually ended in her stated objection to my recommended color on the grounds that it was “too strong”.  I am familiar with her objection — when I first began experimenting with color 15 years ago, I too tended to timid whites and off-whites.  Only subsequent experience has shown that strong colors do not disturb the dweller as long as they are good.  In other words, it isn’t the intensity or saturation of the color that determines the resident’s comfort.  Something else does.  I was reminded of this fact last night while watching a film with richly colored, yet absolutely gorgeous Italian Renaissance interiors.

Publicly stated preference for timid wall colors, wide-spread as it is, has three possible sources:

1.  Poverty of experience, a.k.a. “the poor Richard’s habit”.  Poor people — and socialism has made nearly all of us poor — tend to spend a lot of time in spaces whose color is “public” (i.e. not determined by their studied likes and dislikes).  And public colors — such as colors of rental units or shops or offices — are utilitarian.  The person choosing the color determines that the walls don’t have to be liked, but they must not offend.  Whites and off-whites are unnoticeable, can be counted upon not to offend, and are therefore preferred by owners/decision makers interested in crowd-control.  Most of us spend most of our time in such interiors.  We don’t know any other color schemes and assume that the status quo must somehow have been proven superior — because it is wide-spread.  (Cf:  “Fiat Punto must be the best car in the world because it is most widely owned”).

2.  French-historical-ideological.  The best-known rule of thumb concerning taste is “less is more” (and its opposite, meant as a scathing criticism, that “more is more” — i.e. “more is bad”).  It is the programmatic summation of Marie-Antoinette’s neoclassicism, associated with Louis XVI and Empire epochs.  (It is ironic that this queen — the mother of what she thought was virtuous return to simplicity in style — has become in the public mind, falsely and only as a result of maliciously mendacious revolutionary pamphleteering, the symbol of decorative excess).  The classical style is not a bad style in itself — pearly grey, white, baby-blue with occasional, sparing gold or silver accent is a color scheme that works reasonably well and in many climes.  (It was Chopin’s favorite scheme and some find it in his music). Its success therefore may not be entirely due to the terrifying success of other French ideas of the turn of the eighteenth century.

But it isn’t a rule:  anyone who has spent any time at all in Italy, Turkey, India, China or South East Asia would have had the opportunity to see other, richer, more intense color schemes which also work well.  Some — not all — are outright gaudy, dripping with intense color and ornament without being in the least disturbing. Much gaudy design does fail, but certainly not all of it.  It appears therefore that some gaudy colors, or some combinations of colors, or combination of color and decoration, do work, and therefore whether much, or little, more or less, is not a reliable aesthetic rule.  One is certainly not wrong in identifying some gaudy decoration as a failure, but in light of all those gaudy schemes that work — anyone who doubts it ought to visit a few Roman palaces — it is a theoretical failure to ascribe the aesthetic failure of those designs which do fail to the intensity of their colors.

The French neoclassical color-scheme, adopted later by much northern Europe, has remained in force in France until present day.  One can usually tell a Frenchman by the color of his tie or his scarf:  the colors are “French” — they are “understated” — i.e. tend towards the pale — but studiedly beautiful.  French TV and French internet pages are instantly and unmistakeably recognizable as French and are generally very pleasing to the eye.  Costumes in films like Princesse de Montpensier are a feast for the eye.

Compared to the French, other practitioners of color-classicism are not as successful:  in Germany, French neoclassicism mutates into a kind of institutionalism (dull navies, dark browns and steel greys) — which are not so much a choice of color (one cannot possibly choose those colors out of preference) as an avoidance of color.  It strikes one as a kind of helplessness.  It is as if, not knowing what to choose, but strictly told to avoid “more”, the poor German chose the least he could find, eliminating, in his search for refinement, all pleasure.  Don’t blame the poor German layman:  at one point architects began to make the same mistake, declaring all decoration a sin.

All is not well with the human race:  we are susceptible to glib formulas (“quantity becomes quality”, etc.); it is easier to parse a sentence than to introspect and see how we really feel; a catchy phrase can easily override any clear evidence of sensory input.  And introspecting about sensory input — looking at things and taking stock of how they make us feel — is actually very difficult.  It is a skill which requires both a talent (totally absent in some) and practice:  a connoisseur is only as good as the sum total of everything he has seen.

Having said all this in the interest of disproving the “less is more formula”, I now hasten to add that there may be a strong objective reason for the strength of the neoclassical color scheme in northern Europe and it is:

3.  Natural light.  Although many people whom I tell this refuse to believe me, there is a marked difference in quality of light between the temperate and the more southerly climes.  Paris looks fine in its beige and grey because it is where it is; it would look awful in Tuscany where one has to paint himself like Siena in order to look good (and like Naples even further south).  Roman walls in Poland would no doubt look dark and depressing on most days when there is so little light; but Polish walls in Istanbul would look washed out.

This effect isn’t limited to sunlight.  Years spent as a fashion consultant on international scale — and looking at women of all shades and colors — has taught me that pinko-greys like myself look better in French pale colors with finer patterns; while women and men of more decisive hue look better in more saturated colors and bolder patterns.  That pale Frenchmen reside where the sun is lukewarm and darker Italians where the sun is stronger is a lucky historical accident:  it makes it possible for each to choose a color and pattern scheme which suits him and his native sunlight simultaneously.

Having said all which, my apartment lies south; it is surrounded by lemon trees and rosemary bushes; it looks out over the glittering sea called, on account of its color, The Sea of Straw; in a city whose light was best described in an article by Lawrence Weschler in an essay on another city, one located in exactly the same climate and nearly the same geographical conditions, an essay entitled “Light in LA”.  My apartment’s walls can afford a little color.

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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