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].
In my last post wrote:
“From speaking to and watching the weavers at work one can see that their work is a source of happiness to them: 1) it allows them to experience the satisfaction of flow (concentration upon successful execution of a challenging task); 2) it affords them the aesthetic pleasures of a) looking at beautiful colors and surfaces and b) of bringing things into an order (think of the pleasure of reassembling a picture puzzle); and
3) it is perhaps their only activity in which they can earn cash and admiration for something they do: within the silk world, good weavers are famous; outside of it, in the eyes of the world, they’re just ordinary rice farmers.”
In fact, the relationship of matmee weavers to their work is very much typical of the relationship of all traditional artists to their craft.
Likewise, the experience of the end-user of matmee has all the characteristics typical of the way traditional arts are and have been consumed world over: collectors’ appreciation centers around three factors: a) technical evaluation of the quality of the work and b) of its various technical features, both of which require (and display) non-arbitrary expertise (a piece of silk either is a good work or it is not; the dies either are or are not natural; a weave either is or is not typical of Surin, etc.) and c) a kind of experience of rapture when looking at the dazzling patterns and color combinations.
Traditional arts have worked this way universally – from Patancas to Ibaragi, from weaving to fresco painting: the primary concerns are with technique (its development, acquisition, understanding and command); acquisition and display of a large body of lore; and the experience of rapture in appreciation of the end product.
(By rapture I mean a psychological state induced by the way shapes, patterns and colors interact with our cognitive apparatus on a non-verbal, non-theoretical level. A good work confounds and astonishes the consumer, it literally boggles the mind – makes a powerful but incomprehensible impression, providing a kind of out of the mind experience (“je ne se quoi”): a sense of wonder).
Current western theories of art, which have evolved over the last century in response the phenomenon of modern (“conceptual”) art – such as that art is a kind of game (Gadamer), whose rules are negotiated as part of its conduct (Danto), etc. – do not really apply to traditional arts. (Perhaps one could say that they are not specific enough to pick out traditional arts, but it also seems that they are not specific enough to pick out anything: after all, almost any human activity – driving, for instance – consists of negotiating the rules as we go along, etc).
Indeed, traditional arts are best understood in contrast with modern art theory and practice. Main differences lie in two areas, in the area of denotation, and in the area of aesthetic experience.
In terms of denotation, discourse in the traditional arts is
1. specific (type of die-used, say)
(Traditional art does not afford the critic the opportunity to display general erudition or verbal playfulness or intellectual originality. A critic either knows something specific, or he is a fool).
2. non-arbitrary (x is or is not in y technique)
(It is expressly not true that an unlimited number of mutually contradictory judgments and opinions concerning a single work are possible: the technique determines unmistakably what is to be judged as good and or bad).
3. never touches on interpretation
(Artist’s “intention” – “meaning” — if any — is given a priori by the genre: Madonnas are for worship, kris are for stabbing, etc. “Traditional arts means nothing”).
Appreciation of all traditional arts evolves around the work’s ability to spark a mental state which I propose to name rapture – a baffling cognitive response to the work, distinctly non-verbal (“otherwordly”) — indescribable and therefore generally not discussed — but nevertheless essential to any work to be considered of value.
This is not to say that aesthetic rapture is entirely absent from modern art (some pursues it and achieves it) but it does seem that modern art practice is rarely interested in aesthetic rapture; its main interest lies in sparking an altogether different mental state: a kind of intellectual bafflement, i.e. an experience of verbally accessible paradox (e.g. how can there be spiked irons or how can a toilet bowl be an art object, how come 2 + 2 is 4 and not 7, etc.). Traditional arts take no interest in this kind of experience at all.
Indeed, one could say that traditional arts have almost nothing in common with modern art.
Godowsky’s Java Suite in a way misses the point. The pianist/ Chopinist/ composer Godowsky travelled in the 1920’s to Java – and his trip proves the adage: travel does not broaden the mind. A new, exotic environment makes it is easy for an artists to be distracted by the surface phenomena — monkeys, banana trees, white beaches, topless women — the stuff of mass tourism — and try to turn that into art; but this is facile exoticism: there is no new language, no new structure, no new sound — at most a handful of textures, which soon become hackneyed, like the sound of the shamisen in a western movie sundtrack whenever a Japanese character enters the stage: the art itself, the idiom remains unchanged.
Indeed, contact with exotic novelty misleads the traveler: strong impressions help convince him, falsely, that he is actually learning something. It takes more time than most travelers have, and, who knows, perhaps it takes special mental powers, too, to move beyond the surface exoticism and see underneath, deeper: to see the difficult stuff, the the brainy stuff, as a Javanese would say — “the invisible kingdom”: the classical arts of the place.
When I set out looking for Godowsky’s Java Suite I was hoping for something along the lines of McPhee’s Tabu-tabuhan at least — a truly Indonesian composition, which would have told me that Godowsky heard and understood the method; but, really, secretly — dared I hope it? — for more: the Holy Grail: a new synthesis: a new kind of reflection on the nature of classical music as such – now that he has seen it from a new perspective, from a new angle, in a new light. I didn’t find it: the music was essentially the same old Godowsky as always with a few gamelan accents. As per formula: enter the Javanese character — clang! go the gamelan.
Are different classical musics – like different religions are sometimes said to be — different routes to the same end?
Yes. But the end is not a metaphysical entity, only a mental state. Like relaxation is achieved through massage consisting of a set of manipulative techniques executed in a certain order, the classical rapture is achieved through a set of tricks executed in a certain combination — tricks like sonority, melody and its transformations, modulation of keys, variations, structural complexity, development and resolution. Certain combinations of tricks have been found to produce the effect; true classical music is therefore a kind of… methodology. It is not clear that by borrowing elements from different methodologies a new one can be produced — either as effective, or — what is always the great white hope — more so. The possibility of successful fusion of different classical musics is yet to be demonstrated.
An analogy comes to mind: a sensible way for cars to get places is for all to drive on the left; or for all to drive on the right; but not for all to compromise (blend, fuse) by… driving in the middle.
OK, it’s official, we can all now stop reading theoretical books on the high-brow vs low-brow divide: none has anything interesting to add: all repeat — ad infinitum — some French intellectual’s finding (which has got to be more than a century old now) that high-brow art correlates with power and is used to intimidate the poor.
Most certainly true as this is, the authors of the said books then fail at the next step of analysis: they appear unable to find any qualitative difference between the high-brow and low-brow productions; and from this failure they conclude not what they should — that they are blind, but that the difference is arbitrary, by which they mean that no qualitative difference exists between the high and the low except by the ruler’s fiat.
This tells you something, something not very nice: to wit: that the authors in question do not know what has been well-known for centuries (if not millenia: Montaigne knew it): that 1) perception improves with looking and 2) men of leisure who have the time and opportunity to study art see in the objects they see more details and more distinctions than men who lack the time and experience. It’s small surprise that the said authors do not see this, for — why should they? After all, are they not academics, and therefore, by definition, the — ahem — working class, and therefore, not men of leisure, and therefore not equipped to see the fine distinctions between the good and the bad art?
Yet, what could possibly be more obvious than to assume that anyone wishing to use art to buttress his power (a king, say) would choose the best, most difficult, most challenging, most precious art to buttress himself with? And, moreover, that such a person, if he didn’t have the leisure to learn the distinction himself — as he might, being underemployed as kings usually are — would have the sense and the resources to hire those who do? One would expect the art selected by the powerful to buttress their power to be in some ways rarer, more difficult and more expensive to acquire than the art left behind for the plebs to enjoy.
So, yes, it is true that high-brow art has traditionally been used to shore up power and oppress the poor; this finding is mildly interesting and not irrelevant; but it is also true that there is something the high-brow art has that the low-brow art does not — something referred to as quality, though perhaps we could agree to call it value (1); and, from the point of view of us, art-consumers, it is this difference that matters, not the political uses to which it has been put in the past or may be put in the future.
(1): Indeed, perhaps this is the confusion in the scholars’ mind — seeing some socio-economic reasons why some art maybe more expensive than other art, they fail to see that one important reason why it is — is its quality.
This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow. There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues: “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.
The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.
But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity: modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge). Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing: it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents: with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?
Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas: the left-behinds.
This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.