aesthetics

How difficult it is to conceptualize aesthetics

Dr Tsay’s research has run the globe.  Sadly, it doesn’t deliver anything new:  musicians have known her results for years; Charles Rosen writes about it in his Piano Notes (2002).

But Dr Tsay’s research is an interesting case of how good science can be polluted by poor interpretation:  her interpretation appears to be that “we don’t judge musical performance by the music and therefore no independent judgment of music is possible”, while she should have concluded that “any judgment of music is liable to become polluted by visual clues and therefore special care must be taken to exclude that possibility”.  To exclude just this possibility, early Chopin competitions were judged by judges sitting behind a curtain.  (To be entirely fair, competitions aren’t set up to judge music but to judge musical performance, which is why Chopin competition does not do the curtain trick anymore).

A more interesting research would be to try to separate those judges who can judge the music independently of the visual clues and those who cannot and see what other differences exist between them.  The former is a rare skill – normally a hallmark of inborn trait — a mutation, if you like — but is, at least to some extent, trainable.  Judging music, like judging paintings and all art, is like playing the piano:  some measure of talent and lots and lots of work.

Perhaps it is a related note to observe that I usually find myself closing my eyes during piano performances.  I seem to hear better when my visual cortex is not busy.


Rodzina Brueghlów – The Brueghel Family Show in Wroclaw (Vratislavia, Breslau)

Pieter-Brueghel-Jr - Bird Trap

I went to see this show.  It consisted of about 100 paintings, most from private collections (and therefore unlikely to be shown again anywhere soon, unless… they go auction – private pictures are often put in a show prior to sale, it helps prices).  (Well, not quite:  from Wroclaw the show goes to Paris, so you still have a chance).

I was not allowed to photograph any of the paintings, but the organizers put a few videos on youtube for you – every video on this page (except the first one) features a good painting in the exhibition – the best among the featured are without doubt this (Bird Trap by Pieter Brueghel, Jr) and this (Mountain Landscape with Travelers by Jan Bueghel Jr with Joost de Momper) with and this (Landscape with Ruins of a Temple, by Jan Brueghel Jr).  (Bear with the lady talking in Polish, the camera soon enough switches to the piece at hand).

(Btw, there is a problem with attribution in the videos – they are not the same as in the show and catalog, I refer to them according to the catalog attributions).

The best paintings are, of course, not featured.  They were four miniatures by Jan Brueghel Senior (one of them showing the same scene as The Bird Trap, above, but in summer) — all classic Jan Seniors:  oil on copper plate (which preserves unusually vivid colors) done in that famous “velvet” or “feather” technique so smooth you could not tell a single brushstroke, even with a magnifying glass.  I spent half my day going between these four; and a slightly damaged, beautiful Joost de Momper (not the one featured on the youtube video) which, because of the way it was hung and lit, could be seen up-close.  (On the fruits of which momentarily).  All of these paintings were features in the exhibition catalog but suffered from the usual reproduction problem:  I won’t post photos of them here because they will only give you wrong impression of their absolutely amazing greatness.

Perhaps the biggest deal in the show were the two videos by Haltadefinizione – an Italian imagining outfit – of the two allegories by Jan Brueghel, Sr, in the possession of The Ambrosiana:  this and this.  Yes, I know, it is ridiculous, Ambrosiana’s pictures, like those of every other Italian museum, are NOT to be seen, NOT to be photographed, and NOT to be approached too closely when you actually go there to see them.  (The reason why public collections acquire pictures is to make sure that nobody look at them, right?)  Which means that the best place to see these two pictures was, this week, to see them by proxy — via video — in Wroclaw.  The video was the view of an up-close camera gradually moving over the painting in an elliptical motion.

While this motion did not cover many of the features that I would love to have seen, it did cover some things I probably would not have looked at too carefully: ordinary “background” elements, such as soil, or the unclear jumble of lines and shadows inside shadowy thicket, or the texture of clouds.  And this was a revelation:  I realized that the Brueghels (from Pieter Sr to Jan Jr to Mompers, who was a distant relative and therefore also a member of the dynasty) painted this background detail with great attention, varied brush strokes, lots of lines, some in parallel, some intersecting, places where it seemed they used very thick paint and spread it using a wooden pin (perhaps the end of the brush-handle) and others where it seemed they perhaps smeared it with fingers.  This texture makes for a fascinating, interesting picture with a profound sensation of depth and is missing from the mass-market production turned out by Jan Junior workshop for lesser/less important/less-well paying clients – which last line made up most of the show.

From the 4 or 5 good Jan Juniors at the show I was able to tell what I had never known before, btw:  that he was not a lesser painter than his father, Jan Senior, as everyone seems to think, but that he ran, in parallel to his superb autograph line, a cheaper, mass-market line of products, and that these products are the ones most readily available in the public domain and from which art historians get their silly view of his artistic powers.  All these mass market products feature well painted details – ducks, fish, pots, glasses, armor, etc. – but on a dull, workaday background with any depth; and are therefore… boring.

After I made this realization, I went back to look at the paintings and discovered, with my nose about 2 cm from the surface of the painting, that Momper painted in the same manner:  vast swathes of what appears to be vaguely hazy sky – or just dull, dirty mud – are in fact immensely complex-textured work and this is perhaps the greatest pleasure one derives from looking at these paintings.

One last comment:  art historians are by and large fools.  One of the authors of the catalog claimed something along the lines that “the picture above introduces a sense of foreboding:  here is a happy village, with everyone disporting themselves on ice and crows flying around happily unaware that they are about to be trapped”.  The Polish art historian, closer in time to bad communist days of shortage, understands the painting better:  it is winter, it is cold, and people are hungry.  The trap is to capture some crow to make broth.  “May you eat crow” is a familiar expression in English, but one no one seems to understand anymore.  In short, the message (if there is a message at all) is this:  winter sucks.


Other lamps, other minds – some reflections on modern interior design

Lampa Arnolfinich

A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).

To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it?  “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190.  I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt:  serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.

Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft).  But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer.  Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller!  (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).

Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else:  pleasure.  For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object.  Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?

This is the crucial point of this post. 

I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:

1) Yes, they like it.  It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic. 

2)  They don’t care either way.  They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort.  They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno.  They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.

3)  Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort:  the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps?  Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it?  It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure:  enjoying oneself through the eyes of others?  (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)

Whether you accept the former or the latter theory,  you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place:  they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.


The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain

Forgive the poor quality of the photo – I’m not posting it for appreciation, but — as a document. What you see are gulls flying at night between the minarets of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul. They do this for hours. They are clearly not hunting or courting, but — enjoying themselves. They find the scene as beautiful as the men down below do, and, like some of the men down below, they, too, just can’t stop admiring it.

In a related phenomenon, the deer of Cape Cod are known to come out on the beach at dawn and at sunset and “nobody knows why”. In fact, why they come out is very clear to anyone who observes them and suspends for the moment the Judeo-Christian belief that animals are “just soul-less machines”: like everyone else, deer come out to the beach to see the colors of the sky.

The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain, one we share with many lower species – some of them (birds) much more ancient than we.


Why do great artists allow their failed works to be published?

Some nice interiors, though.
(Of course, an Italian director who fails to show you a good interior must be mentally retarded).

The usual story is Orhan Pamuk: one reads two of his books (Red, Snow), gets excited (wow!), goes out and buys everything the man has ever written only to discover that… nothing beyond the first two (or three — White was OK, too) – books are worth reading. Marco Bellocchio recently delivered the same bait-and-switch: hooked me with Buon Giorno, Notte, and L’Ora di Religione, only to let me seriously down with Il Regista di Matrimoni. Why does this happen?

Partly, the problem is the production system: a novelist is expected to produce a novel a year; a film-maker, a film a year – because “the market expects it: if you do not, you drop out from public view, become forgotten and have to start from scratch”. This is actually not true, but this is the official industry party-line pushed heavily by agents and promoters who live on the stream of new works and artists come to believe it. But this annual procreation adds up to something like 40 works over a lifetime. And no one – not even Michelangelo – can possibly have in him enough material for 40 masterpieces, especially if his life becomes reduced to turning out novels (or films). (To write a novel, just like making a film, takes a lot of time). To make an interesting novel (or film) one has to live, experience, and reflect, i.e. get away from his desk/camera; and there is just no time for any of it if you are “successful”. Truly great film directors (e.g. Kubrick) and great novelists (e.g. di Lampedusa) know it and go slow – that is, they shuddup when they have nothing to say.

I would be prepared to pay serious money to know the truth behind works like Bellocchio’s Il Regista or Pamuk’s Black. Did they get published/released because the author has come to believe in his own infallibility (“yes, it does seem weak when I look at it, but perhaps my eyesight has gone weak, how can I possibly turn out a bad work, surely, if it is by me, it must be great, and perhaps one day I will see it”) or did they get published because the author/director decided that the public was stupid (“not a great film, I know, but they can’t tell anyway, why worry about it too much”).

Why worry about it? A Chinese proverb explains why: a tiger dies and leaves its skin, a man dies and leaves his reputation.

 


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