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 decision to sail up the Golden Horn

August 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

The decision to sail up the Golden Horn on a Saturday morning in August was very bad:  there turned out to be no boats before 11 — and thus my plan to be on an empty boat was nuked.

(People on holiday all follow the same manual which states clearly, rule 11.16, that even when on holiday one must sleep in on Saturday; Saturday mornings are therefore the best time to be alone in public in August; though, obviously, not if the boat company refuses to cooperate.  I was checkmated).

So, I ended up with a bunch of people on a Saturday morning, which really was too bad.

And even worse: either because by the emergence of some strange eddy in the principles of chance (which brought out more ugly people onto my boat than would otherwise have been the case — and well in excess of the usual statistics);  or because by the power of chemistry which alters one’s perception according to where one is in his menstrual cycle (hey, who says men do not experience menstrual cycles?) I was rendered more acutely sensitive to what may in fact have been ordinary levels of ugliness; or both.

Whatever the reason, I found myself suffering from visual abuse:

I have found myself surrounded by a multitude of people who gave the impression of having been shaped out of some kind of primordial green goo with several brutal blows of the blunt end of a stone axe.

Is it really possible for people to look like this?  Can nature really produce such misfits? Isn’t there some kind of a quality control mechanism which might prevent such cases from arising and put them to the hammer before they see the light of day?  Cannot a mother, having taken a peek at her newborn, take it back to Customer Service and ask to exchange it for something better?

And should such people be allowed to walk openly in daylight?  Should there not be out there some sort of licensing or permitting mechanism which says, no, Mr Jones, no, you are not allowed out into the street with your face, not on Saturday.  Please go right back in and rethink it.

There really should, shouldn’t there.

Fifteen days in the company of my heirs

August 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fifteen days in the company of my heirs has taught me some interesting things about them:

1.  They like stuffy, damp rooms. (Windows remain closed, a/c unused).  It’s as if they did not notice the stink.

2.  Plastic clothes do not bother them.  Patting their back makes a smacking sound — like slapping a super-market shopping bag — yet, they feel neither itchy, nor scratchy, nor sweaty in their shopping bags — er, clothes.  Incredible.

3.  They do not want to try any strange or unusual foods.  They came to Europe not in order to try anything new, but because everyone is going to Europe.  It’s not an exercise in exploring the unexplored, but of doing more of what everyone else already does.

4.  The opportunity to see the sunrise over the sea from my living room window did not tempt them once to get up a little earlier during their entire 15 day stay.

5.  It is possible to walk through this beautiful city and not notice its beauty.

6.  A good-looking man and a average-passable woman — their parents — can give birth to three extraordinarily ugly children.  Their feet in particular fascinated me:  I have never seen such ugly, misshapen, flat, huge feet in my life.  They had no ankles:  the leg, as massive and as straight as a Byzantine malachite column just runs directly into the broad, flat foot without any attempt at forming anything resembling a joint.  With feet like that, they ought to be good swimmers, but — none can swim.

7.  Although interaction with older siblings can raise the apparent age and mental maturity of the younger children, apparently the opposite is also possible.  The two girls are respectively 15 and 18, but speak and behave as if they were 12.

8.  They have no interests.  They have nothing interesting to tell and when one tries to tell them something, they quickly telegraph lack of interest by switching the topic.  The interaction is all at a level of dumb jokes and constant mutual teasing.

9.  Hearing their mother tell me her life story was edifying:  she married in a hurry the first man who proposed, in order to get away from her nasty mother; for all that, she remains in constant touch with her mother (now that they no longer live together, she seems less nasty) and says she’s important in her life (“a mother is a mother”) — possibly because the marriage has turned out a failure.

10.  The overall impression of the life-story is one of an uninterrupted sequence of bad decisions, one after another, relentlessly.  It reminds me of a certain comedian who once observed about a certain national leader that he consequently erred every day of his life for ten years straight.

11.  Most advice I give her, elicits disbelief that such a course of action can even be possible.

They seem badly made:  both physically and mentally.  I don’t recognize anything of myself in these people.  How can it be possible that we are the same species?

A very short history of ugliness (3)

June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

After Courbet, deluge

Courbet was the equivalent of an unrestrained fart in a fashionable drawing room: it didn’t merely expand the realm of the possible (by allowing farts/red hands, say); it damaged any and all notion of limit. To paraphrase a Russian novelist, if farting in the salon is allowed, then everything is allowed: Schiele, Kokoschka, and Munch. The fairly mild action of introducing some ungainly looking people into salon paintings turns out to have opened the the flood-gates, letting in full-length celebrations of sickness and mental disease.

This alone wouldn’t be so bad:  after all, it is easy enough to avoid modern art galleries (by and large coterminous with ugliness), the Horror of War galleries, and books on nineteenth century art — as many right-thinking people do.  But there was a more sinister consequence:  the flood of ugliness did not come without a public fight, and the fight was both vocal (and therefore highly visible) and — perverse.  Instead of turning around the topic of what is beautiful, it turned around the nihilist argument that there is no such thing as beauty.  Both concepts — of beauty and of ugliness were willfully misrepresented in the debates, undermining the usefulness of the language to a point where, today, it appears totally broken, unable to carry any meaning at all.

The debate over Klimt’s paintings for the Great Hall of the Vienna University was typical of the intentional — and damaging — misuse of language in the nineteenth century beauty debates. The Univesity, objecting to the paintings, called them ugly, which they in truth weren’t — to the extent what we can say (the paintings do not survive):  they merely allegorized the university project in a way the professors objected to.  So the professors were lying about beauty (Klimt’s paintings weren’t ugly) in order to deny the facts (that they hated science to be represented as uncertain).

Their opponents were guilty of dishonest misrepresentation of beauty also:  whereas in order to defend Klimt it would have been simplest to speak the truth:  you professors are mistaken, these paintings aren’t ugly, they chose instead to argue the nihilist point:  who’s to say Klimt’s paintings aren’t beautiful?

Why did the defenders of Klimt choose not to defend these paintings but instead attack the very notion of beauty (and thereby defend the right of ugliness to coexist)?  Perhaps because that was the anti-authoritarian spirit of the revolutionary times (we’re at the height of the anarchist movement) — and Klimt’s defenders wanted to challenge authority more than they wanted to defend beauty; or perhaps because the argument of “who’s to say” seems like the killer argument (it seems impossible to reply to); or perhaps also, because in their debate they hoped to secure the support of all those who had defended the ugliness of Courbet and Kokoschka.  This is the dynamic of public debates:  arguments transform as new alliances are made.  As in all debates, what matters is winning, and the arguments themselves become unimportant.  End — in this case, winning – justifies the means — in this case, argument.  Argument and logic, become victims of politics.

The principal casualty of this — and all other nineteenth century debates — about ugliness and beauty was the language used to speak about them.  Today we live with the consequence of its perversion.  We are unable to speak coherently about the topics of beauty and ugliness today because our thoughts about them have been confused by the dishonest arguments of the past.  This perversion of language has made it possible for otherwise very intelligent people to say things like there is no such thing as beautiful or ugly but thinking makes it so.  Indeed, the proof of the effects of the past arguments lies in the fact that the more educated they are on the topic, the more likely they are to say it.

Recently, voices have risen from Evolutionary Psychology against this interpretation — with powerful arguments (that the apparatus for the recognition of ugly and pretty is nature-given for better selection of mates, food, and environment, and therefore that the concepts of beauty and ugliness reflect something real in the psyche of man — and, more importantly, something objective in nature), but good arguments don’t ever win a thing; this whole generation will have to die before it will be possible to speak again of ugliness and beauty with the unspoiled clarity of times preceding the calamitous nineteenth century.

A very short history of ugliness (2)

June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

Nineteenth-century’s adventure with ugliness may have begun with Goya — not a terribly talented painter (a euphemism), but one who felicitously did in the end find a fit outlet for his “ungifts” — in the Horrors of War.

(Ugly is rather good for horror.  Goya wasn’t exactly inventing its use for the purpose:  Donatello already did that with his Mary Magdalene.  But spare a thought for poor artists:  it is difficult to do something truly original in any field of life:  it’s all mostly been done).

Although one wishes Goya had been more immediately successful in finding an appropriate employment for his skills — and had spared us his Mayas (equally ugly whether dressed or undressed); and all those portraits of frightened little people against threatening, dirty nondescript backgrounds; for all that, one is happy for him to have arrived home in the end.

And even, to a small degree, for himself:  can now walk into a room with the Horrors of War, spend three minutes there shuddering, and then promptly leave relieved that the experience is over.

It is difficult to be happy for Delacroix, however. He seems to have never found a home for his special “gifts” since even when he paints horrors of war (e.g. Chios) they aren’t especially horrific, just ugly. One can only conclude that ugliness suited his psyche; that he was — in terms of our simile — a little perverse. That he actually liked what he painted. And that those who liked his work were perverse also.  And why not.  I am a liberal fellow and people turned on by ugliness do not shock me anymore than gays do. De perversibus non est disputandum.

Incidentally, Delacroix worshiped Goya. (Figures).

He also promoted Courbet.

It was Courbet who raised ugliness to the status of aesthetic principle.  He did so consciously and, I believe, out of calculation. Courbet was a master of the technique of success de scandale; quite possibly its inventor. He realized that nothing scandalized people like ugliness and he painted with the intention to be ugly. There are paintings by him which suggest that the problem was not congenital — that he was in fact capable of perceiving and painting pretty things prettily — only chose not to. There was simply more fame and more money in ugly: this was his aesthetic catechism.

Why there should be money in it is in itself interesting: art historians note correctly that there was a socio-economic dimension to this strategy: the wholesale rise of the nouveaux riches — the Don Calogeros — that’s Don Calogero Sedara to you — who recognized themselves in Courbet’s paintings and who accepted that merely being painted — no matter how — elevated them to equality with Old Money. (“A painting is a painting is a painting.”)

Some philosophers today like to argue that this new aesthetic was not ugly, just differently-beautiful, and that the support given Courbet in effect an aesthetic claim that “we find this beautiful, no matter what you old snobs think”. I think the view is mistaken: a practical race, unaffected by useless notions of ought, the nouvris didn’t mind to be painted as they were.  Why, there probably was a pride in that: :I have made my way in the world by virtue of what I am; what I am therefore must be worth admiring. So what if I have short legs, bad breath, and my wife’s hands are red?”

There is a pride in the ugly body parts despite their ugliness; indeed, because of it. (“I have made it despite my disadvantages”).  This attitude denies neither the existence nor nature of ugliness, but takes pride, why, glories in it.

Next:  After Courbet, deluge

A brief outline of the history of ugliness (1)

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ugliness as an uncontrolled experiment

One possible interpretation of the history of European Art in the nineteenth century forces itself upon you as you read its various histories (and look at the illustrations):  that it was an experiment with the aesthetic of ugliness; and that the experiment has gone horribly wrong.

The simile might be to an innocent child learning to stimulate its anus for sexual pleasure.  Just as gentle stroking of the anus can indeed be pleasurable, so limited use of mild ugliness can be effective in art, not perhaps so much for the shudder it gives, but for the way it makes following beauty stand out even more. Some things — like mountain-climbing, or being mercilessly scrubbed down in a Turkish hamam — feel best when they stop; and sometimes, the experience of having them stop is worth having them in the first place:  spending half an hour with Goya’s Horrors of War becomes deeply rewarding the instant we walk out of the room.

But, unchecked, daring experiments develop according to their own dynamic; and some uncontrolled dynamics, like the dynamic of a speeding driverless car on a winding mountain road, can only end one way.  In our metaphor:  gentle stroking leads to probing, probing to penetration, and, before you know it we’re into incontinence, piles, and colonic cancer.  (I.e. start out with a little ugliness in Goya and end up with nothing but in Schiele and Munch).

To guard against the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled experiments, the divine Pythius Lycegenes gave us the commandment μηδέν άγαν:  nothing in excess.  Alas, the nineteenth century, like a bunch of high-schoolers going on strike, embraced Rousseau flattering dicta, and refused to read the classics for instruction.  They went for self-discovery instead.

And there’s the rub:  any discovery is only as valuable as the thing it throws up.  Given the nature of human nature, self-discovery throws up mostly nastiness.  It is perhaps not ignorant but self-knowing of the human race to avoid any closer brush with… self-knowledge.

Next:  The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

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