aesthetic ontology

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!

Two kinds of Hou Hsiao hsien

The title of an aesthetico-ontological post should typically contain the phrase “two kinds”:  e.g. Two Kinds of Art, Two Kinds of Beauty, Two Kinds of Painting.  So this is how you know what this is:  this one proposes Two Kinds of Hou Hsiao hsien.

The best thing to happen to me in 2010 was, without the shadow of a doubt, the discovery of the films of Uncle Hou.  (OK, body surfing at Guincho at dawn was a close tie).

Of course, the main reason why I like Ho Hsiao hsien has nothing to do with his art, and everything with my nostalgia for Old Taiwan:  his City of Sadness documents Jiufen the way it was before the first tower block went up (over twenty years ago now, I used to skip class in order to spend an afternoon staring at the ocean from there):

Then, The Puppet Master documents an artist whose troupe and students I know personally.  And the bike ride in Good-Bye, South, Good-Bye, on winding mountain roads between rows of betel trees, through intense, dark tropical greenery, after rain — the out-take at the top of this post — well, it might have been my own.  I cry every time I see it.

But I like his technique, too:  the beautiful camera work, the sparse dialogue, the long silences, the story told mostly without telling, the long stretches of silence.  I like that the story is laid out without words, without unnecessary explanation, and that the heroes’ inner life has to be guessed at from scraps of dialogue and the sort of clues we are likely to get in real life:  subtle, barely perceptible, often masked: silences, sidelong glances, hesitations.  It’s not accidental that HHH is the only modern director I know who has made a conventional silent film, and that it is his most gorgeous.  (It is the first story of the three featured in Three Times).

One is tempted to say that the technique is Asian (Kiarostami, another great exponent of it, explains it in his Ten), except that it is also common in a certain kind of European movie as well.  It is, essentially, the Old World story-telling technique.  It’s what gives Americans most trouble with Old World cinema, what puzzles them most about it.  It, too, reveals a kind of ontological division between two different kinds of minds.

Besides being his most beautiful film, Three Times also exemplifies the divide between another set of two kinds:  the two kinds of Ho Hsiao hsien which are the subject of this post.  The films’ third part, set in present-day Taipei, unlike part one and two set in the past (1911, 1960’s respectively), escapes me.  I literally do not get it.  Which is, for a connoisseur of the Old World story-telling technique, very puzzling. If I get HHH’s technique, what is it about this film’s third part that I do not get?

Interestingly, I do not get his other films set in the present — Millenium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere.  I simply have no idea what is going on in them; or rather, what is going on in the minds of their young heroes. The decoding technique which works so well with the minds of the heroes of HHH films set in the past, here fails me utterly.  It is — to my mind — as if these young people– say, those under the age of 30 today — had radically different brains.

I am assuming this means either one of two things:  either HHH understands modern Asians (by which I mean people under 30 today) as well as he understands the Older Folk; and portrays them accurately using the same technique; and it is me who is somehow unable to penetrate the modern Asian mind.  Or else, there is something about the modern Asian mind that HHH does not understand and therefore, when he makes films about them, the result is… Bhogi.

Either argument supports the interpretation that something has happened in Asia 30 years ago:  a kind of discontinuity in culture.  Putative causes one could list here are plenty:  onset of compulsory mass education on a vast scale — going from 4 hours a day to what is often twelve — thus severely limiting contact between the young and the family’s older generations;  the appearance of TV with its powerful (and novel) life-style models; a transition in the parenting model from children-as-assets to children-as-our-future; who knows — even diet.

None of this changes the fact that Hou’s films are incredibly beautiful.  See Three Times if you see nothing else; Flowers of Shanghai if you are into gorgeous costume historical dramas.  And, if you are fond of nostalgic childhood memory thinggies, Summer at Grandpa’s.  Or, better yet, see everything.

And then let me know if you get the modern bits.  (Scientifically, we’ll run age-regression analysis on your inputs).

Kawabata, the Unfortunaeid, and a serendipitously discarded plot

(This is an essay in “Aesthetic Ontology”.  Aesthetic Ontology is a inquiry into the “sorts of aesthetic and art objects that exist”.  One hopes for it to be useful, but will be happy if it’s just fun).


Alas, my fifth Kawabata — Beauty and Sadness — turns out a disappointment.

Since the back-cover blurb promised a  “twenty-years-later” reunion in Kyoto (while listening to the Chionin bells, no less) of two former lovers — a writer and a painter, I expected more of the same-old-same-old I had come to love:  intelligent and sensitive reflection on the past, passage of time, memory, etc., with an occasional pearl of aesthetic insight.

Alas, Beauty and Sadness isn’t about any of that.  Instead, it is about an emotionally disturbed young woman with whom both protagonists become  inexplicably involved, instead of doing what every healthy person would in their case:  reversing as far and as fast as the wheels will spin.

(Why don’t they?!)


Beauty and Sadness strays thereby from the high (perhaps unique) Kawabata standard (who else writes convincing novels about very intelligent healthy people?) into a very common sort of art — think Munch, Schiele — which does not touch upon our persons at all. Stories of affairs with the mentally disturbed, and mental disease in general, of retardation, self-mutilation, psychopathy, panic attacks, alcoholism, wife-beating — it is, as far as we normals are concerned, stuff that might as well be happening in the cracks the my bathroom floor; or in the heads of cats.

I mean, yes, we know that such people exist.  Mental disease is human, no doubt.  We are certainly sorry for such fellows; I personally have a at least a somewhat academic interest in mental malfunction (and have once read extensively in the Encyclopedia of Psychiatry); and we do our bit for the unfortunates, when we can.  But Afer’s dictum — humo sum, etc. — does not describe us and I must wonder whether it actually described Afer:  plenty of what is human is and shall remain wholly foreign to us.

And well it should.  What gain is there for me in dwelling on the fact that some people bite their nails?  To know that they do has some epistemological value. To dwell on it — none.

For, here’s the thing:  no amount of exposition of the inner workings and plight of, say, psychopaths, or wife-beaters, or indeed, beaten wives, will do a damn thing for my own internal life.  It can at most elicit a relieved sigh of “Thank God, it’s not me”.  Though usually it only elicits — “Yuck!”  (Name this quote:  “One does not refute disease, one rejects it”).

Indeed, old friends, can you perhaps see how this kind of stuff is supposed to enrich our own internal lives?


For all its uselessness to us, normals, the “Unfortunaeid” (as in “Aeneid”) – the story of the plight of the unfortunate — has been an awfully common sort of art since (round-about) Zola.  Indeed, on my last visit to NYC, which, for precisely this reason, shall forever remain the last, I found myself scanning theater listings for something to see and discovered that absolutely every single non-musical production was an “Unfortunaeid”.  And a good deal of the musical productions, too. (How else would you classify La Traviata?)

Somehow, Unfortunaeids are deemed “socially engaged art”.  Yet, the Unfortunaeid does not usually tell its story honestly, preferring to prettify its victim-heroes for greater heart-rending effect:  we’re made to think that the endangered Blue Fin Tuna aren’t all that carnivore, they only gently harvest the smaller fry, etc., the psychopath is a brilliant aesthete, etc.  But lying means that the deemed “engagement” is not there: we are not made to engage the plight of the unfortunates; rather, we’re made to engage the author’s lies.  And if so, then what is this kind of art but attention-mongering through shock and revulsion, while simultaneously morally check-mating any criticism into silence:  “What?! Are you against the [put your topical unfortunate demographic here]?!”

There are two answers to give here:  the first is that if you lie about the facts, you’re not educating, you’re just lying; and, second, and more relevant to me: no, we do not have anything against the unfortunate demographics; but it’s not doing us any good personally to dwell upon their plight.


Was Kawabata attention-mongering when he set out to write his Beauty and Sadness?  That seems unlikely:  it was written towards the end of his career, when he was already a Nobelist, and could really have written anything at all — and gotten it published and talked about.

So…  perhaps that is exactly what he did:  spent, gone barren with age and drink, he did just write anything?  (The literary equivalent of Dali signing indifferent doodles).  A small thing and yet, how it embarrasses!

I suppose the good news in all this is that, since Kawabata has not done justice to the plot of two intelligent, sensitive lovers meeting after twenty years’ separation, the plot is, as it were, “available”, and I am free to use it in my Wurzubrg project.

(Kate:  don’t ask the provenance of the painting, for I do not know it: it’s just something the cat dragged in.  The brushwork looks modern to me; but, hey, whaddayaknow?)