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.

 


Regarding aesthetic dim-sightedness

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.


As cores de Lisboa – The colors of Lisbon

A chicklit tearjerker calls Lisbon The White City. It’s authors were blind: Lisbon’s traditional colors are pale but extraordinarily varied. They are also of a kind: they share a certain earthy (say the Portuguese), leaden (a Pole would say) quality, a certain note of gentle, retiring understatement. (No – phulease – NOT sadness). What gives the colors of Lisbon their family resemblance? Poets say: light: in Lisbon’s light a gray note gives color depth. There is something to the claim: the light of Lisbon is indeed very special (see Lawrence Weschler’s essay on Light in LA to understand how and why the visible light can have special characteristics at a particular geographical location).

And, certainly, in Lisbon’s light brighter, more lively colors do jerk the eye uncomfortably. Thus, the addition of the dull note may have been an aesthetic decision. A chemist (like me) might suggest the dull note may rather be due to a paint additive (such as an emulsifying agent or a fixer) used in local paint simply because that is what is available locally. Whatever the reason, the colors of Lisbon are instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time at all looking at them. And so are the new colors. The economic crisis has meant that imported, German paint is cheaper; anti-crisis measures have meant a lot of repainting; as a result one begins to see in Lisbon buildings painted in wrong colors, bright, chearful, Disneylandesque, candied, plasticky reds, peaches, and oranges. The city begins to look like what the mass tourist wants to see, his vision of happy go lucky South. Before the whole city starts looking like a garish Florida suburb, I wanted to record the colors of Lisbon. For posterity. My bit for the archives of history.

The traditional colors of Lisbon come basically in three groups: blush (NOT pink), straw (NOT yellow) and linen (NOT gray).


Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter:  the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?)  Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).  

All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.).  GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well:  starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too:  what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?

Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect.  (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel).  That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.


Readig Soseki: a matter of a single image, a very few words

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

 

Kusa makura 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 disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; 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 at the bottom 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.


Art theories do not fade away, they are overthrown

System instability will set us free

 

We have an entrenched art theory which fails to deliver.

This art theory is buttressed by a lot of sunk cost (“investments” in garbage misunderstood as valuable art, “investment” in reputations based on having promoted the said theory of art); and by the way museums, galleries, and state funding operate (they invest money according to this theory); providing in the process funds to recipients who can use those funds in turn to extract even more on the same principles; and to defend those principles: i.e. to suppress any alternative theory of art since that might see the public and gallery money going elsewhere.

As a result, I am afraid, we are never going to have decent art again — as long as the present system exists.


How success kills the goose

How success kills the goose!

Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.

The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms.  It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.

Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. 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 (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.

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 that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.

Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… 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, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).

This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) 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 enjoying the work 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. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.

Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.


That most people would fail the Turing Test

The Turing Test concerns machine intelligence. The question is: when can it be said about a machine that it is “intelligent”? Answer: when we cannot tell from observing its conversation that the machine is a machine.

Trying to think about this test, I have identified three areas that seem essential to me personally in any human interaction – three features of personality which I look for in every human encounter. All three are readily tested through conversation.

Perception

To some extent perception can be trained. For instance, looking at lots of song birds and comparing one’s findings with entries in ornithological guides trains the “mind’s” eye: it teaches the looker to look for features such as “rump” and “wing coverts” which an untrained looker might not notice (having no clue what he is looking at/for); or: looking at lots of very fine details (say, magnitude +6 stars with one’s naked eye) teaches one the trick of looking at things by not looking at them directly but rather by focusing one’s sight just to the right or left of the object (in order to engage one’s peripheral vision); and: smelling lots of roses teaches one not only that roses of different colors smell differently, but that a rose cannot be smelled too long before the brain no longer detects the smell (usually about 20-40 seconds), after which the nose must be “washed”; and that one can improve one’s sense of smell by pouting one’s lips (so that the upper lip creates a kind of “funnel” under one’s nostrils).

But all of these are techniques; and are useless if their owner is not interested to look/ smell/ taste/ observe; and then interested/able to reflect on what s/he sees. This kind of curiosity for the world around us is linked to something Konrad Lorenz called “exploratory instinct” and ascribed to all mammals (mice and hamsters in particular). But it is clear that not all mammals possess it: a great number of human beings are perfectly uninterested in observing and learning. And when they do (as tourists in my city do, for instance) they are perfectly happy to follow a manual (notice only what is pointed out to them).

Yet, to be in any way interesting a person must be able to tell us something new about the world, something they have not read in a book, or heard on TV, but something they saw and realized themselves. Otherwise, why listen to them in the first place? (And without listening The Turing Test cannot be performed).

Authentic aesthetic and/or emotional response

Another thing I look for in people is their ability to surprise me with original, novel, and authentic responses to the world. By authentic I don’t mean heartfelt, but – their own. i.e. ones not borrowed from others (Mom, friends, teachers, TV). I do not only ask them their opinions of things or love stories (or “art stories”), but also look at their clothing, accessories, apartments and furniture. By this measure most people are unoriginal in every way: they furnish their homes at IKEA and paint the walls white; they dress like they see others dress; their professional life is dictated to them by the market (“plastics”); and their emotional life is a copy of what they have seen on TV and read in romantic novels. If you ask them why they do this, or feel that, they shrug: as far as they are concerned, that’s how it is and there is nothing they can (or care to) do about it. Generally, my interlocutors are surprised when they are told they could do something/feel about something differently; prodded to say why not they can’t say why not, merely resist in a kind of panicky, animal, unthinking refulal: it is simply unthinkable. If you think about it, this is how computer generated characters in fantasy action games behave: they behave in some way and you cannot argue with it.

Independent planning

I am interested to talk to people who live their lives “differently” – who do not marry, or reproduce, for instance; or who do not live all their lives where they were born; or who do not buy a 42 inch flat screen TV when everyone else does – and generally do not buy anything when everyone else does; or who do not take a mortgage; or who opt out of the state pension program; or who do not own a car; or who wake up before daybreak; or who do not go to the beach on Labor Day; or who, during rush hour, when all traffic goes zig, drive the only car in the opposite lane, zagging; or who don’t know who won last night on penalty shots and genuinely don’t care; or who marry a woman twice their age, or live with two.

But this in itself is not interesting: a lot of non-conformist behavior is hard-wired – and hard-wired actors can’t tell you why they are doing what they are doing. These are not so interesting, no matter how odd their course of life.

The really interesting people are the ones who are doing odd things – or normal things, but oddly – because of a calculation: people who have thought about their objectives and then plotted their own course because that is what they wanted to do and this was the best way to get there. (They are called “autotelic”).

Conclusion

I can safely say that on these three measures, a very large majority of human beings would fail the Turing Test. Indeed, to an observer applying these three measures to his test, most of us would appear to be automata engaged in an elaborate deception to produce the (false) impressions that we are independently observant, sensitive and autotelic, that we have a taste, or emotions, or cunning; that we are, in other words, actually human. But this deception is easily exposed: put your ear to their forehead and listen carefully: you will distinctly hear the low murmur of the cooling fan.


Concerning the female ankle and… the rise of a new species of man

[an essay on ankles, part 3 of 3]

The chief breakthrough of evolutionary psychology in the field of aesthetics is the concept of inherited taste preference. This is the idea that a preference is to some extent inborn: which you know from first hand experience: there are some preferences that you just can’t do anything about. I happen not to like guys – and no amount of persuasion has been able to change that in the past. I also don’t like konyaku and although through adventurous experimentation I have been able to overcome initial resistance to many other unfamiliar foods, no amount of experimentation has been able to change the fact that the very sight of konyaku makes me retch. The truth is that when you really don’t like something, sometimes you just cannot change your mind about it no matter how hard you try.

Ev-psychs explain that the way such a fixed taste arises is this: first, a totally random mutation (basically, copying mistake) in the DNA of a new fetus allows a new structure to arise in the brain of the child and thereby creates a new, previously unheard of taste preference; and then, selection (i.e. the vicissitudes of subsequent life) makes sure that if the mutation is beneficial (e.g. preference for some kind of safe food), it gets passed on to the offspring (because its owner lives long and prospers eating that food); but if the mutation is harmful (e.g. preference for red, white-spotted mushrooms), it does not (i.e. the person with the preference dies without issue).

The two corollaries of this theory are 1) that mutation has not stopped happening: our reproductive system has not changed in millennia and it still makes mistakes as it always has; and therefore people with odd preferences continue to be born everyday (you might know some of them personally: think of all those Bon Jovi fans); and 2) that the complexity of the human environment and its frequent change allow for a number of different life-strategies to function side by side (and therefore a number of different preferences); hence some like it hot and others cold. (And each can thrive: one in the tropics, the other in the Arctic).

And this is fine: we live in a world in which different folks like different things and that only makes the world more interesting (and my favorite sections of the museum uncrowded).

The situation gets complicated when the preference in question has to do with what ev-psychs call “mate selection” (“love”). The ankle is the case in point: a lot of people with an anke-hang up (like yours truly) actually have a good ankle themselves. They don’t like a good ankle because they have it; rather, they like a good ankle because their ancestors have liked a good ankle and have passed on the preference to them; and they have a good ankle because their ancestors, liking a good ankle, have been able to “acquire it” through breeding. In other words: the ancestors passed on the preference (taste) along with the feature (ankle). (Spare a thought for those of us who inherit a preference but not the corresponding feature and have to look in the mirror every day when they shave).

This phenomenon – that preference for a feature leads to its acquisition – is the source of a lot of “speciation”. A species is defined as category of animals (or plants) who are able to breed with each other (i.e. produce viable offspring) and “speciation” is the process by which a new species appears.  Horses and donkeys can breed but the resulting cross, the mule, is sexually inert, so horses and donkeys are different species.

But some animal species turn out not to be species at all: all North American songbirds are perfectly capable of breeding with each other and producing perfectly viable offspring. Such birds (say a gold-finch/nut-hatch cross) have been produced by mad/evil scientists. But they do not happen in nature. Why? Because the preference for a gold breast is passed on along with the feature: a gold-finch female looks at a house-finch male and simply does not see him. Or perhaps, like you and me, she does see him and thinks that his chest is a pretty good shade of red. But she just will not “do” him. So gold-finches and house-finches are still a single “species” in fact, but not in practice. Which means that mutations might appear and spread in the gold-finch which will never “transfer” to house-finches and vice-versa; give it a few hundred thousand – or perhaps a million – years and enough such mutations can arise and spread to actually create two different species: two types of song-birds which can no longer mate with each other to produce viable offspring.

What happens here is that at first you have a preference; then the preference and the feature begin to correspond; then they become a kind of barrier to breeding outside of the feature; and eventually, they become a basis for the rise of a new species.

Think about it next time someone whose ankle you don’t like all that much is trying to sleep with you.


How a visit to your local potter proves that art history is bunk

[I seem unable to stop interrupting myself]

At least the grand-sweep art history in which one style emerges out of another and artists are forever breaking, surpassing, and overthrowing.  The potter’s work was what is usually termed “interesting” — “inept” would be impolite; perhaps “naif” would be a good word; though certainly “ugly” would still apply.  In short, it was like the rest of the “searching”, “exploring”, “overthrowing” and “challenging””work” out there.  The sort of work whose technical ineptitude is explained away by gushing reviewers as due to it being so very new — “in early stages of development”.

Curious to know why she makes what she makes, I engaged her in conversation about her work and discovered that she had never been to the local museums to look at the pottery there (the city sports one of the best tile museums in the world); has never heard of of Izniks (one of the world’s top three museum for Iznik pottery is only five kilometers away from her studio); and had a vague notion that Chinese export-porcelain had been made by the Portuguese.

I had a strong sense of a deja vu:  a piano teacher had once confessed to me at the Suvarnabhumi airport — confessed without the slightest suggestion of embarrassment — that she had never heard of Domenico Scarlatti.

Conclusion:  if it looks like the work of an ignoramus, it probably is.  If you don’t know the past, you aren’t overthrowing it, are you? 

(Corollary 1:  And if you knew it, you probably wouldn’t be).

(Corollary 2:  If you don’t remember the past, you can’t even repeat it).


That it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes

(Nothing vaguely cultural going on there for five minutes)

[We interrupt our interrupted programing again [programmus interruptus is our specialty] to bring you this newsflash]

I have been planning to write an essay on Jerzy Stempowski — in my book, the literatus par excellence — the only man I have ever read whose writing style matches that of Russell – not a single spare, wasted word; a prose so stripped of fluff — so full of meaning — as to appear skeletal (burgeoning); the argument races so fast through the text, one has to read slowly, for fear of falling behind — and meaning to begin the essay with the observation that he was a kind of fruit typical of his climatic zone — Podolia.

Like Korzeniowski (“Conrad”), Szymanowski, Lechon, Iwaszkiewicz, Neuhaus — the A list — the B list is an arm long — he grew up on a largish property whose owners, idle and isolated as they were from the rest of the world, were want to beat the blahs with… culture. Multilingual (Polish, Russian, French, German), classically trained (Greek and Latin), they read voraciously, wrote extensively (mainly letters and memoirs, but also manuals, chronicles, genealogies, dramas in the Greek style, novels in the French), composed and performed music (piano played well enough to handle Chopin and Beethoven was de rigeur, amateur opera performances with neighbors not an unusual pastime), and spoke and thought of the world in a manner reflecting their deep reading: off the cuff quotes from Marcialis, or Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy — not meant to impress but a natural turn of mind — the way some of you might refer to Saturday Night Live (or whatever else you refer to). (They had no television in Podolia). They were also well traveled — mainly in the Romance South — between which and Podolia they often divided the year; and they imagined themselves a Mediterranean people accidentally cast in the North of the continent (ego Romanus sum, wrote their sixteenth century ancestors). Sicilia and Podolia are much alike, wrote one of them, meaning great geographical beauty, fabulous fertility, long history, changing political fortunes, layers of historical influences, a baffling (and fertile) mix of languages and religions (in Podolia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Karaites, Tartars, Germans).

Which is why Wyspa Montresor, a book about Montrésor, a Polish feudal fief in France (Indre-et-Loire) is such a profound surprise: it is a kind of collage of voices of three-dozen different people — mostly family members — associated with the property, documenting the life of its half-Podolian owners in the 19th and 20th centuries. That life is colorful (the family was related by marriage to both Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy, lived east and west, participated in French politics as well as Polish, etc.); tragic (it is hard not to see the twentieth century as a plot to eradicate them — everyone robs them — Russian revolutionaries, Ukraininan freedom fighters, German conquerors, their own domestics, the Soviet regime, the Polish People’s Republic, even Giscard d’Estaing’s farm policies); but above all — shocking: the family — in the 19th century among the richest in Russia, certainly among the most landed in Europe — appear to have been… cultural idiots: there is not a single mention of any book, any opera, any museum, any painting. It’s all about hunting — and mostly of the dumb French variety in which the beaters drive the animals towards stationary shooters who spend the whole day shooting — thousands of animals — without the least expenditure of energy or brain-power (but develop a pretty strong forefinger).

Why is it a shock?

It is a shock because, in my generosity, I have always imagined the present (apparent) decline in cultural interest among the higher echelons to the disappearance of the economic class who in the past embodied cultural life: by which I meant the economic class with 1) the free time to engage in culture and 2) the financial resources to pay for it — in short, Veblen’s “leisure class”: land aristocracy, the agrarian rentier class. (Stempowski himself, in his bibliophilic La Terre Bernoise, makes a similar claim regarding the cultural lives of Swiss peasants who used to engage in folk art until, suddenly, cities began to grow thus creating a demand for village products, and thereby robbing the peasant of his free time).

I am now made to realize that for a cultured class to arise a third element must be present: an interest. Without it, it turns out, it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes; a free, rich person can remain a cultural idiot all one’s life.

Incroyable.


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

Part 2 of 3

[With Sir C's forebearance]

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 a course or two 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 each group prefers;

b) that members of those groups are found all over the world — 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 (strong stuff, eh?); not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1″; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, one usually 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 (“Ankles!” “Boobs!”); 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 (“I used to like candy but now like booze”); and swimming within this sea: “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, baffled by it all, and never understood by anyone else who cannot imagine what it is like to know more than they do.


The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

Part 1 of 3

[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read'em variety]

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 leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious 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, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying 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).  (See above).

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; deftly-brushed 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 the category of photo which could be described as "a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo" appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].

*

[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP):  among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call "amateur BBW" (big-beautiful-woman); "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it - I can't be bothered to remember which; and wrongly:  the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the  fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].


Literature as a fight against vertical barbarian invasions: Literature in the Polish mind

“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”

Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.

*

There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.

In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.

The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.

*

Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.

Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.

Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.

This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.


Sensitive days

Any man who’s ever tried a regular work-out regime understands that there are mysterious cycles to male bodies, better and worse days for exercise, days on which things go smoothly (if that is the word for satisfactory bench-press) and days on which a 25-minute bike-ride is an unbearable chore.

The same is true about men’s aesthetic sensitivity.  Although it does not appear to affect the general value judgment — what seems good to us on Monday usually seems good to us on Tuesday — on some days our ability to enjoy good things suddenly shoots up.  It is a single wave and affects all pleasures:  on days on which I am especially sensitive to the daybreak I am also unusually sensitive to Ravel’s piano concerto, the feel of the cool of the lake, the dry smoothness of the hands of my masseuse.  Such days happen rarely, more frequently when I am undistracted by work, and blessedly freed of unnecessary human contact.  They happen more frequently in the countryside than they do in the city.

Such days are not a uniform blessing because on such days negative perceptions are also stronger:  the ho-hum ugliness of outside world suddenly borders on the unbearable.  That awful orange awning on my way to town, which I manage on most days to edit out, on sensitive days causes me to avert my gaze in pain.  It is best to say indoors on such days.

An especially dramatic experience many years ago — several sensitive days in a row — has made me think for a long time, falsely, that sensitivity it caused by exposure to beauty:  I was reading at home A Passage to India and very moved by its beautiful prose and the fine emotions of the heroes;  and when time came to step out and head out into an especially ugly Asian city to face the traffic, the air, the ugly streets, and — human contact, I found that I could not.  I ended up holed up in my penthouse for three days until a workmate, alarmed by my absence, turned up on my doorstep to retrieve me.

My guess of the direction of the arrow of causality — that exposure to beauty causes unmanly weakness — was in line with the traditional thinking on these matters:  Spartan youth were not allowed to take interest in poetry as this was considered to detract from their battle worthiness.  Only years of careful observations and note-taking have convinced me that this is not the case.  Something else happens to us — the cause of it uncertain — diet; hormones; something in the environment — perhaps the quality of light; and suddenly we are more sensitive to everything, both pleasure and pain.


Kinds of minds — that new taste is not the taste of a new age, but the taste of new men

The expression Kinds of Minds appears frequently in this blog — usually in connection with aesthetic musings — reflections on the the subject of why some people like what others do not.

It is as frequently objected to by my readers who generously — and in keeping with their very good democratic instincts — object to the idea that human beings might somehow be born unequal.

My respect to them, and my assurance that I, too, share in their belief that all humans MUST BE EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW.

In other ways, of course, we are all profoundly unequal and all of us, the most committed democrats included, recognize this fact:  we all know that some of us are born extro- and others introvert, some homo- and some hetero- ahem – vert, that some are thrill-seekers and others prefer afternoons at home with a book, etc. (And this is as it must be: if the human mind is a result of evolution and if evolution is still continuing then different kinds of minds — different genetic mutations in the structure of the brain — simply must be present in the population competing with each other — because this is the only way evolution can ever work).

In our everyday life, we all accept this as a simple fact of life without attaching any special ideological value judgment to it. Yet, somehow, when it comes to discussion of aesthetics — perhaps because to so many people it seems to lie so close to politics — many of us feel obliged to pretend that we are all equally free to like anything at all; that there is only one kind of human mind; and only one art to match it.

This ideological commitment to an obviously false theory of mind leads to a series of failures in theoretical consideration of art: theorists fail to see, for instance, that two different kinds of art may well have been designed to appeal to two different kinds of minds and that therefore they need not have anything in common at all. So, while — surely — it must be apparent that the sort of painting found at this show in Warsaw has — aesthetically speaking — practically nothing in common with the kind of painting found in this room, and that therefore any attempt to say something — anything — true about both kinds of painting simultaneously must end up in banalities (“painting is the application of pigment to a surface”) or gibberish (“painting is a way of being absorbing the universe and of being absorbed it”); yet such “theories of art” and “theories of painting” continue to be generated. 

Predictably, we are drowned in theoretical banalities and nonsense.

It also leads to a false perception of history. And thus, for instance, the great change in European visual arts which took place in the early twentieth century, and which has been ceaselessly praised by some as revolutionary and equally ceaselessly derided by others as a perverse embrace of ugliness, is commonly interpreted by theorists as either a natural progression (e.g. “cubism” somehow — by some sort of inevitable law — follows from “expressionism”); or as reflecting ideological changes in the European society (e.g. “awareness of quantum mechanics causes cubism”); while the true cause for that change in art may simply have been demographic: the economic transformation of the West has brought to the fore new demographic groups which have heretofore not had the opportunity to engage in high art and have therefore not been seen in it.

Seen in this light, new taste is not the taste of the new age but the taste of new men. 

Consider how much more sense this statement makes!


Professor Stephane on tea-pot appreciation

An intellectual once asked me point blank (and with an expression suggesting the question was honest and a source of a soul-searching heart-ache) whether I thought some things really could be said to be better than others. His search for the answer was Platonic – it concerned “Big Issues” — which is why he did not appreciate the weight of the answer I gave him. “Yes,” I said, in some arts it is possible to say this definitely. In those cases the goodness resides either in the art objects’ purpose (my example were tea-cups); or in the technique (in matmee weaving small circles are about the hardest to weave, which is why tight, well formed, regular, small circles are better than large, or uneven, or malformed ones).

Now, as recollections for failed Platonists, Stephane runs a good series on tea-pot appreciation:

How to appreciate a teapot from a tea drinker’s perspective 

and

How to appreciate a teapot. The basic and the potter perspectives.


How personal is the aesthetic experience?

Huang Tinjian, image swiped from Xinblog

Sir C, who hates theory, writes me that my articles on art appreciation are useless.  “Above all”, he says, “an aesthetic experience is personal: specific to a time, place, family, and body of experience. “

Is it, though? If I find myself appreciating the art of a man from the other side of the planet dead these one thousand years — isn’t there something universal at work?  If I read today Mi Fu’s thousand-year old commentary on Su Shi’s calligraphy and it strikes a deep cord with me — indeed, I am struck with the impression that Mi Fu’s is in fact putting into words my own experience isn’t there something un-Polish/Chinese, un-20th/11th-century, un-my/his-family, un-this/that-place about it?  Is this not… fascinating?  Does this not fly in the face of the established theories of art and culture?  Does this not tell us something about human nature and the nature of art — moreover, something under-noticed and undiscussed?  Given the cultural-construct nature of current art theories, is this not a refreshingly novel point of view?


How to appreciate Chinese calligraphy – A primer

(This is a thoroughly reworked version of an old article).

Chinese calligraphy finds fewer western admirers than it deserves. This is largely because, informed by the 19th and 20th century art theories which define art as a system of symbols conveying a meaning, they naturally assume that as the object of calligraphy is a text, understanding the text and being able to read it is essential to any appreciation of the art. When faced with a work of Chinese calligraphy, therefore, most non-Chinese/non-Japanese/non-Koreans simply do not afford the work the attention necessary to realize that this assumption is wrong.

But it is.

Like all art, Chinese calligraphy can be appreciated on many levels of perception, from the level of inborn cognitive mechanisms shared by all human beings, through the levels of trained mechanisms of perception which do not require sinological training and those which do require it, to trained mechanisms which require training in Chinese calligraphy specifically.

I will now discuss some of these mechanisms in that order.

1. Inborn mechanisms of perception

As current brain researchers will tell you, the human mind is a kludge – a more or less haphazardly (in the order in which they evolved, rather than according to any central plan) lashed-together collection of more or less independent devices each of which serves well a very specific purpose. What we experience as mentation (thinking, reflection, meditation) is a process by which we try to make sense of the often incongruous outputs generated by these independent mechanisms. This often involves using those mechanisms for a purpose for which they were not designed (“misusing them”).

All art appreciation to some extent relies on “misusing” our inborn apparatus of perception. Appreciation of Chinese calligraphy exploits at least three such mechanisms shared by all human beings and used by them for purposes unrelated to art.

a.  Sense of balance

The first is the sense of balance: a mechanism which we all use to balance our bodies and our tools in nature and to predict their movement. A Chinese character is typically composed of several parts and their relationship can be manipulated by the calligrapher: some can be written higher and others lower, they can be closer or further apart, some can be written smaller and others longer, they can be written as of even thickness, or they can be written as either narrowing or flaring out towards the end, horizontal elements can be written horizontal or can be written with a slight variation from the horizontal – rising or falling a little, straight strokes can be written as straight or they can be written with a bit of curvature, etc. As a result of these variations, a written Chinese character appears to be more or less balanced. At a certain level, the appreciation of the balance of the character is open to all healthy human beings: to the extent that we all move and act in nature, we can sense whether a character is in balance or not.

In gross simplification, balanced characters are seen as more visually pleasing; inscriptions consisting of a single character, therefore, will be evaluated for the balance of the way that character is written. A learned reader of the character may notice that some parts of the character are written in a new, unusual way, which requires a balancing act – an unusual writing of another part of the same character so that the end result is still properly balanced; and he may derive an additional pleasure out of the novelty of the solution; but the overall sense of balance and order which he experiences in the end will be the same as the sense of balance and order experienced by a totally illiterate viewer of the same character.

To illustrate the point:  here is how the character Song is “properly” written (or, rather, typed):

And here is how a calligrapher might write it:

Can you see how the calligraphic version is “novel”, “original”, “innovative”, “odd”, “fresh”, “creative”, “off-center”, “odd” and yet appears as balanced as the original version?

Since a calligraphic text usually consists of more than one character, the calligrapher can produce the sense of balance dynamically: i.e. while individual characters may appear out of balance – leaning one way or another – other characters in the same inscription may lean in the equal and opposite manner so that overall a sense of order and balance is achieved. See how this group of characters, each off-kilter, balance each other to make a pleasing, harmonious group:

Again, the perception of overall balance does not require understanding of the script or the text. Any healthy human being can appreciate it in the same manner in which he or she can appreciate a precariously balanced rock or well-shaped tree.  Look at this well-shaped, precariously balanced character: it even looks like a tree.  Or is it — a dancer executing a pirouette?


Or is it an old man with bushy eye-brows pinching his lips in discontentment?

b. Facial recognition

The second universal perception mechanism which can be used in appreciating Chinese calligraphy is the face-recognition apparatus. Reading faces both for recognition and for psychological insight is an ability which all healthy human beings share; its outputs are usually among the most important aspects of cognition and produce powerful emotional responses: some faces or facial expressions appear threatening and others calming, some are mysterious and some beautiful. The fundamental importance of this perception mechanism means that we try to apply it in all situations — as if our minds were trying to make sure that there isn’t a face hiding in the bush, for instance. (This is what happens when you suddenly see a face in the way a cloud has changed its shape: your face recognition apparatus will have “noticed” something).

Our brains attempt to apply the methods of the face-recognition mechanism in all kinds of situations; and therefore it is of fundamental importance in art appreciation – in architecture, for instance, we speak of buildings having “facades” — literally, faces; that some facades are more pleasing than others has a lot to do with our sense of balance, but also a lot to do with impressions derived from the (misapplied) face-recognition apparatus: a human face with similar “features” or “expression” would produce a certain kind of reaction in us. That reaction, or its trace, appears as a an emotional note in the overall impression produced by the work we are admiring. This mechanism works as much in appreciation of Chinese calligraphy as it does in appreciation of facades of buildings or abstract textile patterns. Even illiterate viewers of Chinese characters will note faint emotional responses they have to individual characters.

c.  Rhythm

The third inborn cognitive mechanism shared by all human beings which is used to view Chinese calligraphy is the sense of rhythm. What precise role this plays in our cognitive apparatus remains unclear; but all human beings everywhere respond strongly to rhythm and its variation. The sense of rhythm, like the sense of balance and the face-recognition mechanism, can be (and is routinely) applied to the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy: to the extent that a Chinese text consists of a succession of characters; and each of these ideally fits into an identically-sized square space (as tall as it is wide); a Chinese inscription therefore appears to organize space into a series of lines each consisting of a number of bars or beats. Some inscriptions strive to make all characters appear the same size conveying an overall sense of even-paced, harmonious progression – a mood described in western musical terminology as andante (literally “walking”); while others intentionally set out to vary the size of characters introducing a kind of variation from the usual, which can be constant, introducing a sense of repetitive rising and falling motion, or, on the contrary, varied (or, in musical terms, syncopated).  Here is an inscription varying the size of the characters according to the pattern:  Large – small – large – small – medium:

All of these ways of appreciating Chinese calligraphy are open equally to all healthy human beings. Everyone viewing a Chinese calligraphic inscription is capable of seeing the work simultaneously using all three mental mechanisms; and the interplay of the outputs produced by the three results in a sensation of “depth” (complexity) of the “je ne sais qua” variety: even the most experienced connoisseur of Chinese calligraphy experiences difficulty when trying to describe just what he experiences: our every day life does not train us to analyze and report the way our perceptions of rhythm, balance and facial expression interact; this does not subtract from the power of the experience; and often, on the contrary, the sense of mystery thus awakened only increases it.

2. Non-sinological, trained mechanisms of perception

In addition to inborn, more or less automatic mechanisms of perception discussed above, human beings are capable of developing trained responses to repeat experience. The one most applicable to the appreciation of Chinese calligraphy stems from the experience of writing or painting. This comes in at least two varieties: just as a vinyl record records the sounds of an orchestra; and playing it reproduces the sound; so the calligraphic inscription records the movements of the calligrapher’s body and the viewer of the inscription, following the lines left on paper by the calligrapher’s brush, can sense the dynamic of the calligraphers movement. (Indeed, observing viewers of calligraphic inscription suggests this is a very common way of appreciation calligraphy: the viewers bodies often sway gently in response to the perceived movement; and sometimes their hands appear to trace some parts of these movements in the air as if they themselves were holding the brush).

An experienced brush-handler will literally “hear” (with his mind’s ear) the sound produced and feel (with his mind’s hand) the resistance offered by the paper at each point of the inscription. Although both these responses are trained – i.e. they would not be possible in anyone who has never handled a writing implement – they are in no way sinological. Anyone who has ever written anything can appreciate a Chinese inscription in this manner..

The other variety of the experience has to do with the perception of the wetness and/or dryness of the brush. The calligrapher dips his brush in ink and proceeds to write, and as he writes his brush gradually dries resulting in a changing sensation of contact with the underlying paper from smooth to ever more scratchy. How fast his brush dries not only indicates whether his writing is slow or fast; and therefore whether his movement is uniform or speeds up and slows down in turn; but also how much pleasure he is taking at each particular moment form the response of the paper.

Somewhat similar to music, longer inscriptions are thus often divided into “bars”: each “bar” starts with a wet brush and ends when the calligrapher interrupts writing in order to get more ink. Here is an inscription subdivided into such “bars” for you:


3.  Sinologically trained mechanisms of perception

There are however certain aspects of Chinese calligraphy appreciation which do require familiarity with Chinese script. Chinese characters are written in particular order of strokes, generally starting from upper left corner and ending at lower right (with exceptions). And they are written with a large but finite vocabulary of strokes (the horizontal long line called “yi heng” etc.) A person familiar with the practice will be able to appreciate how the calligrapher abbreviates or elides certain movements, or how he varies the appearance of the same strokes, or how he varies the appearance of the same character throughout the text depending where it appears in the phrase, or how he introduces a kind of flowing wave in the straight lines of the character meaning “river”.

4. Chinese-calligraphically trained mechanism of perception

Familiarity with the existing body of calligraphic classics also affects one’s pleasure at viewing an inscription. Knowing that Huang Ting Jian, who was a certain kind of person, wrote in a particular manner, while Mi Fu, who was a different kind of person, wrote in a different manner; affects the way one views a particular inscription if it appears to imitate either one of these writers or the other. Knowing that a particular style of script has been used in the past for religious inscriptions, or magical incantations, or legal documents, or in a particularly famous piece of calligraphy also affects one’s perception of a particular inscription: one wonders, and sometimes thinks he understands, why the calligrapher chose the particular style of script, or shape of paper, or size of brush, or an especially wet or dry ink. This is not different from western painting appreciation when an educated viewer might realize that the painter is making a reference to early Italian renaissance, or to Turner, or to medieval illuminated manuscripts. While this kind of reference-reading enriches one’s experience of Chinese calligraphy, it is neither the only pleasure it affords; nor indeed, the most important one, either.

Final note regarding emotion

Finally, a word about emotion.

One hears constantly the (erroneous, in my view) opinion that art is a way of expressing emotion, that it is an emotional language. This is taken to mean that art is another way of saying “I love you, baby” or “I am sexually frustrated” or “I hate capitalism”; the truth is that very little appreciation of Chinese calligraphy relies on the understanding of these kinds of non-calligraphic content. A very famous work – Su Shih’s Cold Food Observance – a letter in which a political dissident describes his utter poverty and hunger in exile is celebrated for its agitated style, expressive of the writer’s powerful emotion at the time of writing:

but no one considers it an especially good calligraphic work or takes it as an example of good style.

Chinese calligraphy, like all visual art, does manipulate the viewer’s perceptions and emotions, but the feelings and or thoughts which it celebrates or expresses are specific to the art itself: just as a musician suddenly modulating from D-major to B-flat is really interested in the feelings and perceptions related to the modulation itself; so a calligrapher writing an inscription is principally interested in the perceptions and feelings related to a particular gesture, or movement, or sense of balance rather than those having anything to do with the meaning of the underlying text.

By and large, Chinese calligraphy can be – and is – appreciated without any reference to what the words themselves mean. Which is why neither being Chinese, nor speaking Chinese, nor yet being familiar with the Chinese culture are really required to enjoy the art; and why we should all be able to do so.



The raw silks of Thailand

Raw silk” is silk woven from “the first spin”.  Silk cocoons are dumped in boiling water, whereupon the glue holding the string together dissolves and the pot becomes full of mingled, endless thread.  One grabs it anywhere and begins to “spin” — rolling it between his fingers while pulling what emerges from one’s hand onto the spinning wheel — trying to get as thin a thread as one can — i.e. one made up of as few fibers as possible.  The first spin is invariably a little rough and bumpy, thicker in places and thinner in others as it is knotted, mottled, and various bits of flotsam adhere to it.  Later re-spinnings eventually work out the kinks, producing very thin, uniform thread; which is used to weave fine cloth like satin; but the first-spin — in places as thin as the real McCoy, elsewhere as thick as hemp string — can also be used to weave cloth.  This is known as Raw Silk. It produces the texture you see above:  rough to the touch, uneven, with pronounced individual threads, a bit like the bark of a tree.

Shot silk is silk woven with contrasting warp and weft colors, resulting in a cloth which appears to gleam and shift colors as you turn it before your eyes.  These four examples are, top to bottom, red and black, orange and blue, orange and red, and blue and red.  Note how they gleam around the fold:  this effect — the unique property of shot silk — is especially strong when the cloth is worn as clothing and the wearer moves:  she appears to shimmer.

Shot silk is especially effective in satin silk, a type of weave which uses the thinnest, finest thread, and leaves long stretches of individual threads unwoven (“floating” along the surface); this makes the cloth easy to damage, but gives it smooth surface (“smooth as silk”) and brilliant sheen:  it seems like the cloth has been woven from pure sunlight reflected on water.

Weaving raw silk as shot silk, on the other hand (as these examples all are) produces a different — and extraordinary — effect:  the seamless shifting of colors between the colors of the warp and the color of the weft — the shimmering of light reflected on water — is interrupted by the rough feel created by the the uneven thread.  As you bring your face closer to the cloth, the liquid smoothness resolves into dry roughness:  it is a lot like a tender kiss suddenly turning into a bite.

The colors of which these four are made up — red, purple, orange — are the basic colors of the Thai language.  Purple (Si Muang) and orange (Si Seet) are the two most popular colors in Thailand, seen everywhere:  in homes, in clothing, in company colors, on official logos. Not for Thais the dullness of less is more:  nature would not allow it; among the intense colors of South East Asia’s nature, “less” really does look like less.

Ten years ago, Kad Luang (“The Old Market”) in Chiang Mai had at least a dozen shops selling silk, both raw and satin, lined along the walls with a fantastic range of colors, starting with white on the left, going through various shades of white (“Monsoon clouds”, “Moon in August”, “Tiger tooth”) to shades of grey to shades of beige to shades of cream, and so on and so on, to umpteen shades of green, umpteen shades of red, umpteen shades of purple, ending, at last, on the far right, at the far end of the store, in several shades of black.

Today only three shops remain and they have, between them, at most 20 meters of linear shelf-space of colored silk;  you’d be lucky to find four reds to choose from.  The shop owners, there day in and night these twelve years, have not noticed the change, it has been so gradual.  But the truth is that silk retail is dying.

Why?

It isn’t the prices:  it costs in Thai Baht what it cost ten years ago, a modest 25% climb in dollar terms (between $12 and $18 per meter today).  Rather the problem is on the demand side:  the government rule that all government employees are required to wear Thai silk on Fridays has been rescinded; marketers have convinced the feeble-minded that denim and spandex are more chic; but, mainly, tailors have gone and closed.

Why do tailors close? 

Who knows? 

Twenty years ago I tried, in vain, to convince an otherwise intelligent and enterprising Polish man, that clothes made to measure will cost him less and fit him better than an off-the-shelf Ferragamo, but he refused to hear good sense.  Perhaps, like many people, he felt helpless in his inability to visualize what he would like for himself. When asked by the master craftsman “Would sir like a double-breasted jacket or a single-breasted one?”  most people reply “Oh, I don’t mind” meaning not that they do not care, but that they don’t have a clue what they want.  (An apt metaphor for the whole of their life).  The store with ready made clothes offers three choices — which has the virtue of being easy to choose from, even if none is especially good; but the tailor offers endless opportunities; which is, despite Hollywood propaganda to the contrary, not what people want.  Don’t ask me what I want.  I don’t know what I want.  I want everything.  I want nothing.

Tracking down my old tailor last month, after three years’ absence, I discovered he had moved to the suburbs and his waiting time is now not three days but — three months.  This is not a measure of his success but a measure of the profession’s failure:  no one else sews anymore; he is the last tailor shop left in town (not counting the fake, tourist “suit and two shirts” shops which do not actually know how to sew, just how to sell).  His prices aren’t up, just like the flat prices of silk, but his waiting times are.  His customers are old timers who had learned in better times how to have things tailored (i.e. how to visualize what they want and then instruct it) but can’t afford a higher price:  they will rather wait three months than pay more.  The younger generation have the money, just no clue what they could tailor, or even that they could.

And yardage — yardage will only sell if you can sew it.  If you don’t know what to do with it, you’re not going to buy it, are you?

This is how the demise of one profession (tailoring) leads to the demise of another (weaving).  But, hey, no loss without compensation:  you can buy 80-dollar T-shirts from LuLu now, mostly in shades of grey, in machine-spun spandex.

I went out and bought four meters of every length of shot raw silk I liked, figuring that, at this rate, in two years’ time when I return again, there won’t be any left.


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