Monday, October 24, 2005

Aesthetic taste and maturity

Preface to my dear, gentle readers:

I feel the need to give a warning to any who would dare to enter the twisted labyrinth that this post is. It was written mostly in 5 minute spurts over the course of a week… and it reads just like you imagine it would. Were I a professional writer with an intended audience wider than myself and my mom, I would go over this again and completely rewrite it. It starts with an issue that has been rolling around in my head for some time, but addressing it took me on so many side-tracks that it fails to present any sort of cogent argument. Rather, it's a record of my thought process when fragmented by the constraints of a job and an inadequate art education.

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I'm 30 now, and sometimes I wonder why I still like some of the stuff I did when I was in high school, or even younger. My dad told me I would grow out of the heavy metal growling music. Never happened. I still watch almost every movie that comes out regardless of quality if it has monsters, magic or spaceships in it. My love of video games has only diminished as a result of forcing myself off of them to deal with more important things.

So I'm wondering… How does maturity affect aesthetic taste? And why hasn't my maturation in other areas affected mine? One thing I have noticed is that most of my generation seems to be experiencing a similar phenomenon. Kitsch and toy collecting is bigger than ever. Everything referencing the 80's is huge right now, from the toys we played with to the movies we watched as kids. I don't know how long it took my parent's generation to stop collecting their childhood trash. But maybe I'm sidetracking myself a bit here by talking about nostalgia induced appreciation. Yes. I'm quite sure I am. Because appreciation of a style that is simply appreciated because it summons fond childhood memories is a totally different thing than general aesthetic cultivation. One can enjoy The Monkeys or K.I.S.S. because they evoke childhood, but still recognize their inherent trashiness; and when offered an identical aesthetic package, but in a new wrapper, reject it utterly because it sucks. I have a certain fondness for the old Star Wars action figures, but if the new line of Lord of the Rings action figures were made in the same style I wouldn't own 3 versions of Gollum like I do now.

But before I bemoan a total lack of progress this front I will do a little self analysis. The big categories I'm thinking of and measuring are music, fashion, movies, art, and literature. And I can see that I have changed in some of these categories. For example, I used to think that airbrushed art was about the coolest thing ever done. Now, I look at the books and images that so inspired me and shiver with revulsion. Well… not literally. But I see that what appealed to me was eye-candy. It was a shtick. A one-trick pony. And it covered for a multitude of poor artistic decisions and bad taste because… look! It looks like REAL chrome!

So I have become more selective in my appreciation of art over the years. And I anticipated that I would. That's why I still haven't gotten a tattoo yet. I'm not sure how much my taste has advanced though, as I have yet to experience the epiphany that unlocks appreciation for splatters on canvas and most other modern art. But that could be an entirely different matter than aesthetic sophistication. After all, I reject the world's concept of sophistication in other areas such as philosophy, religion and morality based on their failure to line up to the revealed word of God, or to work as logical whole. So I don't feel real bad about hating modern art right now.

Ok. So I established that my taste in art has changed. How much, and which direction is unknown. Another area in which I have matured a bit would be in fashion. Which is funny, because I still consider myself hopelessly lost when it comes to this. But what I can say, is that I now realize how geeky many of the things I used to think were cool really are. Things like trench coats. You see, I've always wanted to project that fantasy warrior image. Well, I used to. So fashion that resembled that look appealed to me. Now I see what a laughably pathetic endeavor that is. And I don't mean that in a fashion police sort of way. I'm not looking down my nose at those who know less about what is "in" than I do. That would be particularly silly in my case since I don't follow fashion at all. I just mean that any one who attempts to project what they are not is being a fool. I'm not a warrior. The chubby computer geeks who wear Indiana Jones looking fedoras are not international men of action. The white suburban kid who dresses in oversized matching sweats is not a gangster. So while I don't care at all what the fashion conscious think of what I wear, I do care about being phony. Is that sophistication or progress? I think so.

Now how about movies. Well not a whole lot has changed. Perhaps I can identify crap easier. But that doesn’t make me less likely to watch it if there are any elements I like in it. And the same can be said for music. The same things that got me excited back in childhood still do now. One case in point is the distorted vocals in a lot of the music I like. I can easily see how they could be seen as obnoxious or cheesy. But I love 'em. They sound powerful and passion-filled to me. Like a lion roar or battle cry. But I'm sure that almost any musical sophisticate will tell you that it's pure garbage. And here is where it gets interesting to me. I see the vast majority of comic book art as crap. Immature drivel. The figures are stylized and proportioned to appeal to teen-age males. I've always been turned off to them because of this, yet I readily enjoy the testosterone induced sub-vocal delivery of lyrics in frantically paced jackhammer-like music. So why does one juvenile aesthetic strike me as cheesy and stupid, but another one get me going? Perhaps the answer lies in the social construct that pervasively shapes all our attitudes.

There are a couple of ways that people's opinions on things change. One would be peer pressure. It works at an almost subconscious level, driving us to fit in with those around us. The fashion industry clearly takes full advantage of this, and thus, like Oscar Wilde said: "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." And so we continue to buy new clothes that we don't need because if we don't we appear out of touch. Here is another quote to segue into the next mechanism for personal change: "Fashion is the science of appearances, and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be." --Edwin Hubbel Chapin

To seem rather than be. No one likes that idea, so they will try to change themselves into whatever it is that they admire. Some like artists, some the cognoscenti. Many people want to be rich, and do everything in their power to become so. Strong, funny, clever, beautiful… whatever. People try to mold themselves into these things. But the really important question is: who is defining the mold? When I say smart, who or what do you think of? Our perception of these ideals are so shaped by our culture that it's hard to step outside of it and ask why we are working so hard to attain a transient impression of a trait, rather than the trait itself. We rely on icons to help us become what we desire. You have Marilyn Monroe as an icon of beauty and sexual appeal. You have John Wayne as an icon for rugged masculinity. Einstein for intelligence, Andy Warhol for artistic, etc. And yet, really, these icons are being surpassed by new ones. I'm sure more people in my generation and younger wouldn't finger John Wayne as a man's man. But rather someone like "The Rock" or Vin Diesel. Marilyn Monroe is downright fat by today's standards. You get the picture. What or whoever the current icon is, people will emulate hoping to become more of what they love.

So what does this have to do with aesthetic standards and me liking death metal but not superheros? Well, like most standards, our aesthetic standards change with time as well. On the big scale, and in society at large; and therefore trickling down to the individual. Think about what sophisticates in France during the 1700s admired and adorned themselves with. But ugly fashion is not what I'm after here. If you peel that back you will see a philosophy at work, driving the public consciousness. And I believe that this zeitgeist is powered by the underlying spiritual climate. The spirituality of an age is what really informs its standards in all areas. And if that spirituality is wrong, then the standards are wrong as well. Of course life is not as neat and compartmentalized as that, since cultures bleed into each other through time and distance. For instance the romantic period of the late 1800s and early 1900s was a revival of an earlier period (at least conceptually) in world history. The architecture of the 1700s in Europe and America was celebrating the aesthetic of the ancient Greeks. So how, exactly is aesthetic maturity measured when it is so tied into ever-shifting opinions of the day? The only answer I can come up with is that sophistication is an abstract concept that is built on cobbled-together ideals from a variety of times and places. This monstrous construct is somehow kept together through inculcation from a variety of sources such as parent-to-child, teacher-to-student, and media-to-consumer.

Maybe it sounds like I'm saying the concept of standards is meaningless, but I'm not. The reason that the concept of sophistication works is because it is ingrained in the heart of every human to want to be more. To desire better. I believe this is a remnant of our past: a time when God and man walked in gardens together. So if we want more and better, we have to define what more and better are. That's easy at the beginning of any art form. Anyone can tell the difference between a grade school painting and a Rembrandt. A 3-key baby piano and Mozart. But at some point the difference between good and excellent become much harder to read and more subjective. That's where experts come in. I can't tell the difference between a $7 bottle of wine and a $700 bottle. But a big difference exists none-the-less. The big question in my mind is how much faith should we put in these experts? Art experts tell us that stuff that is clearly, utterly, horrible crap is excellent. So how can I trust them? Science experts tell us that if something doesn’t have a natural explanation it can't be science, and they make up naturalistic answers that lead to dead ends. I can't trust them. These are examples of industries with a unified front. "Experts say…" apply to them. Not so with fields like politics, religion and philosophy, so it's harder to gauge what sophistication in these areas is. But I'm just trying to deal with aesthetic sophistication, so let's not worry about those right now.

What I want to know is… How do I know that my taste is progressing when the end result of that progression – according to the intelligentsia's standards – end up with admiration for fecal matter in a can, and crucifixes in urine. Is there an older standard I can look to? One that hasn't been tainted by the burning modern desire to defy every standard that ever existed? If there is I don't know what it is. All I have to go on is my innate sensibilities. But it's ridiculous to presume that they aren't informed by my culture and its canned-crap influences. I can see the spirit of this age and it's ugly. And it's hard to tell how much of that ugliness has rubbed off on me.

It is therefore difficult to say what is immature art and what is mature. I'd love to say that I could just look at Biblical standards to define that sort of thing, but the Bible is not an art criticism textbook. It says things like Philippians 4:

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Good things to keep in mind, and usually oversimplified to mean that Christians should never make dark art. But that's because they take some of the words in the verse and not others. Lovely and gracious seem to be the ones that stick out to those people. But then there is 'true'. And often truth is ugly and dark. The film, The Passion of the Christ, was ugly and dark and true. It showed what was 'just', but from an eternal, godly perspective while being incredibly unjust from a human perspective. The Bible is filled with ugliness, ungraciousness, impurity, dishonor, etc. But it is all valid because it points to God.

And I guess that would be my straightest measurement of aesthetic achievement. Unfortunately, that can't be the only one. Because there is a lot of really bad art out there that points at God. But how do I know it's bad? Well, there is a set of rules for art. Modern art is all about breaking them as much as possible. But they still teach them in art classes. They seem to pass the test of time and apply to all eras in art. Rules like contrast, balance, unity, etc. Then there is the Golden Mean or Golden Section. That little trick of proportion that is seen so often in nature that humans just respond positively to it. So I could certainly look to nature to inform my aesthetic. There does seem to be a lot of uniformity in the way people respond to natural forms. I don't know anyone who thinks sunsets, mountains and waterfalls are ugly. But I don't think that's enough, because at some point that unity breaks down. Why is it that some people think rats are cute and others think they are disgusting? Same with certain body types and body parts, the microscopic world, insects, and lots of natural processes like decomposition. Some people find beauty in these and others think they are ugly. So nature can't be the template for guiding me to any answer about artistic maturity.

But let me go back to the 'rules' of art. Where did those come from? If you look at the evolution of art you can see them develop a little bit, but for the most part, the oldest art we have is following those rules. There are exceptions for sure, (Like cave paintings and a lot of medieval art.) but looking at ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, Chinese pottery and Renascence painting, it seems clear that there is a unifying artistic ethic at work that must have been around from the beginning. As a Christian who believes in a God that made us the way we are, I assume that ethic is embedded in us. And like all things, the fall of man corrupted the aesthetic ethic so that it can be perverted to our hearts desire. But when we view art that is transcendent or sublime, that feeling is one of realigning our corrupted heart with the image of God and what He finds beautiful. That glimpse of redemption must be the most profound and important goal of art. If you look at the modern art world you will see a very different goal. They seek to shock, offend, and mock all traditional sensibilities in the name of open-mindedness. The role of the artist has been perverted from the servant who points towards God, to the prophet who points to nothing. But now I'm getting derailed into a modern art tirade.

So if it is true that the 'art rules' that the great art of history has followed is a remnant of the buried template for beauty that God put in all of us; the secret to aesthetic maturity would be in excavating that template and recognizing goodness in art that utilizes it. So when I see a stupid comic book illustration with poor proportions, immature design sensibilities, and horrible color choices, (even if it's in a Bible Man comic) I can say that it's bad art. And that should be OK. Yet I'm hesitant to say that because I have been so inculcated with the modern art ethos that demands to be free of all constraints and rules. A questioning so profound that it challenges the very definition of art. And yet… Somehow they – the artistic community 'they' – somehow still determine what is good and what isn't. Because not every artist in the world gets gallery shows, wins awards, etc. The new criteria for excellence seems to be who can question what art is, or offend traditions the best. So I have somehow been made to feel ashamed for judging art by old fashioned rules by a community that is just as quick to force their own impositions with their new rules. So I'll go ahead and call foul on that right now, and go back to the old ways. (Dadaism is nearly a hundred years old now, and sure to die soon anyway.) The old ways that still resonate with the general public because of that artifact of aesthetic appreciation that we all share. And I can say that those who love kitsch like plastic flamingos and velvet Elvis's are not as 'in touch' with that artifact as I am. And they in turn may be very much more 'in touch' with other spiritual remnants of goodness about which I am not as advanced.

So these art principles, (better word than 'rules') are worth checking out and seeing why they work. What they appeal to in us humans. And why they can bring us closer to understanding God and His aesthetic.

A cursory search online reveals that these principles are elusive and hotly debated, but I found a decent list on Wikipedia…

"These include, tonal variation, juxtaposition, repetition, field effects, symmetry/asymmetry, perceived mass, subliminal structure, linear dynamics, tension and repose, pattern, contrast, perspective, 3 dimensionality, movement, rhythm, unity/Gestalt, matrixiality and proportion."

This is by no means a complete list. And it's more of a list of specific aesthetic effects than it is a set of principles that can guide criticism. But it is useful in examining what it is about these effects that helps them bring 'goodness' to art. Actually doing that would be quite an accomplishment, and I don't think I ready to tackle that at this point in my life. But I'm going to start thinking more about it now. And I'm going to stop feeling guilty for being old-fashioned when it comes to my assessment of art.

Unfortunately I never got around to addressing my original issue. Am I immature for enjoying death metal? Comming up soon… an unintentionally humorous attempt to aesthetically justify heavy metal as a valid form of art using traditional standards!

2 Comments:

Anonymous Luke Burcell said...

Quote
"My dad told me I would grow out of the heavy metal growling music. Never happened."

Your dad told me the same thing = )
I also have not. Though to be fair my tastes have expanded.

4:06 PM  
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11:33 AM  

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