Friday, April 27, 2012

Kantian Aesthetics

Upon reflection on my previous post, I realized that it not only posed more questions than answers, whatever answers it provided were rather unsatisfactory, and there were further distinctions of taste that needed to be made. So, of course, I consulted my favorite philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to get some further explanation.

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant distinguishes three (or perhaps four) kinds of reflective judgements of taste, all having pleasure or delight as their end: the agreeable, the beautiful (the sublime), and the good. The agreeable is purely based on sensations: In other words, things that feel good, taste good, smell good, and in general are related to sensory gratification are agreeable and, what's more, they are purely subjective. So properly speaking, when I say, "This steak tastes good," I really mean, "This steak tastes good to me." The good is essentially related to moral judgments possible through the faculty of reason, and, according to Kant, completely objective. For Kant, things are either moral or immoral, in accordance with the categorical imperative. Both of these judgments are coupled with interest: the agreeable is the object of sensation and the good is the object of the will: one is determined by feelings, the other is rationally determined. They both refer to the faculty of desire: the agreeable gratifies and the good provides approval. The beautiful, on the other hand, is disinterested: it simply pleases. It is a delight that is completely free from desire. And, most importantly for Kant, it offers proof that freedom of the will exists after all. Since freedom is a noumenal (rather than phenomenal) concept, it does not have a corresponding empirical existence: it cannot be intuited through the senses.

But to go back to our question of the objectivity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgements, Kant enigmatically says that as the agreeable has only subjective validity and the good has only objective validity, the beautiful is subjectively universal. A what? Stay with me, my patient reader. What he means by that apparent oxymoron is that all judgments of beauty are indeed subjective but universally agreed upon. Even though these aesthetic judgments are singular, they are universally valid. What Kant is doing is redefining the term "beautiful" to have a very particular meaning, which means that under his definition we normally use the term too freely.

So how does Kant's explanation inform our inquiry? Well, it satisfies our conclusive statement that aesthetic judgments are subjective and that beauty is not a necessary quality of a work of art. Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses, and Bob Ross are certainly artists and their works belong to the category of art, but their paintings are not beautiful because they inspire no universal approval. They are merely agreeable to some, delight only some. By the same token, works of art do not need to be good or morally correct. But some art can be beautiful. Kant supports my idea that some aesthetic judgments have universal validity even though they are purely subjective. It also implicates that relishing in beauty or sublimity of nature brings us farther away from the evil influence of our own will and egotistical desire (which according to later German philosophers, such as Schopenhauer) towards a disinterested and free existence.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kalymnos Primer

Ahh... back from vacation. Good thing about vacations--no matter how lovely--is that they eventually end, and you return home to your own comfortable bed, your faithful dog, your routine. Now that I've been home for a day or two, I had some time to reflect on the trip.

In retrospect, the trip was a complete success. However, I must add that it was not for the light of heart. We booked our trip a few months in advance choosing April as the ideal month: just a few weeks before climbing high season but warm enough to guarantee good climbing. Our flight took us through Dallas, Texas and Madrid, Spain. With all the gear--rope, shoes, quickdraws--we made some packing decisions: take the gear on the plane as carry-on luggage and check in clothes and such. The logic behind the decision? If they lost our luggage, at least we'd have our gear, which is infinitely more expensive. All was well, until we arrived at the security checkpoint in Madrid. The security guards were not sympathetic to our climbing endeavors and wouldn't allow so much metal to go on the plane, because surely all those quickdraws could become dangerous weapons in the right hands. With little time to spare, we checked the bag in, and continued onto Athens. Luckily, we arrived without any adventures, picked up our luggage and gear and headed for the ferry.

Getting to the port of Piraeus was the easiest and cheapest on a bus that skirted the city and an hour and a half later deposited us at the terminal.  As we were cruising through the streets, we couldn't help noticing all the graffiti, vandalized buildings, and general disarray. Perhaps, it didn't look like a city after an apocalypse, but it was surprisingly unsavory. The dark-skinned peddlers at intersections and at the port did not add glamor to the city. Let's just say that the Greek economic crisis manifested itself in more than one way.

Because of the questionable infrastructure of the ferry booking system(s) in Greece, we chose to purchase the tickets once we got there. We figured there would not be that much traffic and hoped for plenty of availability. Alas, it worked out just fine. Word of advice: they only take cash! We purchased our tickets to Kos, an island neighboring Kalymnos, at the port a few hours before departure. The Blue Star Ferry did not stop at Kalymnos on the day we were traveling. Having killed some time refusing to purchase various nick-knacks from peddlers, avoiding stray dogs, and discussing politics with a disgruntled citizen of the Netherlands, who had his driver's license revoked because he (a.) was driving drunk, (b.) argued with the policewoman who pulled him over, and (c.) failed to convince the judge that women should not enter into police service, we boarded the ship. A lost iPhone, random bomb threat, and pirate boat episode later we finally arrived on Kalymnos.

We stayed at Hotel Plaza, right on the beach. It was a pleasant place, with a beautiful marble-covered lobby, friendly service, free WiFi and breakfast, and a climbing shop with reasonably priced gear inside. The rooms were small but pleasant. The television set was the size of a postage stamp and offered virtually no programming, which did not bother us a bit since we had neither the time nor the inclination to watch the tube anyway. Our little balcony looked over the main street (as if there were any other) and at the rock bar, The Scorpion, that played fantastic music all the time. The owner of the bar had a strange and wondrous fascination with Native Americans and decorated the place accordingly with portraits of Indians, bows and arrows, and peace pipes. At this time of the year, there was plenty of availability of accommodations for climbers--hotels, rooms, and studios--all reasonably priced.

The weather proved to be good although uncharacteristically windy and cool for the time of year. This did not prevent us from having a wonderful time both on the crags and off. The first day, after a rather later breakfast, we headed up to a crag closest to our hotel, White Shark and The Poets, about 30 minutes walking distance. We climbed a few easy 5c routes to get a feel for the rock. The rock, a sharp, porous limestone was super sticky and provided excellent feet. The texture offered divot, finger pockets, little sharp spikes, and cracks. The routes were well protected and most often provided a stationary carabiner for the anchor, which saved us from cleaning.  On the following days, we ended up climbing at the Spartacus, Odyssey, Iliada, Grande Grota, Jurassic Park, Panorama, and Afternoon. As we changed crags, the nature of the rock changed as well: from slab to overhanging, from huge stalactites to hand pockets, from sharp limestone to wet tufa. The variety was delightful.

The food on the island was awesome! We usually ate in tavernas close to our hotel. We especially enjoyed one in particular, The Aegean Tavern--a family owned establishment, where we met all the family members, were always greeted with sincere smiles, and enjoyed fantastic saganaki flambe and a sweet dessert of honey and cinnamon topped donuts, lovingly dubbed, "honey balls." With dinner, we drank mostly red wine and Greek beer, Mythos. Their white wine is nothing to write home about.

The climbing community, wherever we went, was very friendly, respectful, and fun. Everyone seemed to speak at least a bit of English, which made it easy for us to communicate. We made some excellent friends that proved great company throughout our stay on the island and, more impressively, were living proof that there is climbing after having children.

The couple of days went by quickly and soon enough we were looking for a way to get back to Athens to catch our flight back to the US. I was not particularly keen on spending another 12 hours on boats, so we purchased plane tickets. We were to fly out of Kalymnos, change planes on Leros, and finally end up in Athens. We were two out of three passengers flying out of Kalymnos. The airport did not open until about an hour before departure, and the minimal staff--one lady and a security guard--hilariously performed all duties, from ticketing, to baggage check-in, to walking us onto the plane.  Next time, we would probably purchase all plane tickets in advance to ensure best availability, less hassle, and more direct routes.

Our final adventure was spending a few hours in the capital. I wanted to walk the city and  visit some of the historic sites. But to our utter surprise and disappointment, the center of town looked as bad as the outskirts--vandalized, filled with peddlers and the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks, and hooligans occupying spray-painted statues. It was painful to see. I'm glad we could not get an earlier flight out of Kalymnos because I would have been rather upset that I missed a good day of climbing to visit Greek slums.

All in all, we had a wonderful time! Until next time, Kalymnos. Γειά σου!

Monday, April 9, 2012

In Good Taste

Judging by a certain infrequency of blog posts in the last couple of months, I have been busy. Indeed, I have been working on the house, at the art school, web design projects, and on myself--stressing over bills and things. And suddenly it was Easter, the end of the semester, and time to pack for my imminent vacation in Greece.

So let's see... as a way of summarizing the last couple of months it would make sense to pick a common denominator of all the activities I've been involved in that I would have liked to have written about (and will soon). What do the following have in common?
  • Working on the house: spring is here and that means gardening, yard work, and landscape design;
  • Teaching aesthetics: trying to instill in my art students the practical value of the philosophy of art;
  • Web design projects: working with cranky, picky, and utterly tasteless clients;
All of these involve aesthetic judgments. Disputing or--as Oscar Wilde would prefer it "quarreling"--over aesthetics is something I do on a daily basis. Should the stone fire pit be in the center of the back yard or on the patio? Can Bob Ross be considered an artist? Can Jackson Pollock? Does cheesy clip art reminiscent of the 80s really belong on a modern webpage? And, more importantly, can aesthetic judgments ever be objective?

I consider myself a woman of good taste. By the same token, I believe there are people of bad taste in the world and those of mediocre taste. In fact, for the most part I can recognize them, label them, if you will, which inevitably places me in some imaginary elitist club. This notion, of course, reeks of  snobbery, pretension, and arrogance, and it offends me because, after all, I'm a woman of good taste.

If you recognize a certain paradox here, my patient reader, we are surely on a crash course towards circular reasoning. The problem is that as much as I would like to believe that there is no such thing as good or bad taste only individual tastes, I cannot bring myself to shut my eyes to the obvious examples of bad taste. But as soon as I admit that I can recognize bad taste or no taste at all, I am already attempting to make objective aesthetic judgments, which I would like to deny exist.

Are you still with me? So which one is it? Are aesthetic judgments subjective or objective?

Let's pick a starting point. . . something that we know or that would be difficult to dispute: there are certain things that are indisputably in bad taste (for example, showing up to your church wedding in an all too revealing dress, making fun of another who is disabled, challenged, or of a different race, or gaudy, red and gold rooms with velvet walls and furnishings). By "in bad taste" I mean unsuitable, inappropriate for a particular occasion, unrefined, uncouth, exhibiting a lack of or bad judgment.

What does it mean "to have taste"? "To have taste" and "to have good taste" are synonymous, which implies that the faculty of "taste" or judgment must be present among the catalog of your other mental faculties. If it is there, it must be good; in other words, once you possess "taste," it cannot be bad. There does not seem to be any room for a range in "taste." Yet we do say that some people "have bad taste," which implies that even if you have "taste," it can be faulty in its discernment of aesthetic or moral judgments. "Having no taste" can be synonymous with "having bad taste," but it can also mean having no opinion whatsoever--either possessing no faculty to provide the judgment or possessing no inclination to make any judgment. The first suggests an absence of the faculty of "taste" altogether, but the latter its presence but inactivity. So the semantics associated with the word "taste" are confusing and further muddle the issue: do some people simply lack the ability or is everyone equally endowed? If we all have "taste," can some have a better quality or quantity of it? Is it genetically predisposed? Or does your environment condition how well your "taste" develops?

We forget about an important distinction in "taste": it seems some "taste" relates to obeying certain standards accepted by a society and some doesn't. For example, wearing a swimsuit size 6 to a beach by a woman of size 16 signifies "bad taste:" she shows impropriety in exhibiting too much skin breaking standards of decency. This kind of "bad taste" is most often associated with moral judgments. But what about purely aesthetic judgments? Is bad art possible? Or is it merely a matter of personal choice, like ice cream flavors? If that's so, are art critics bogus?

I know that certain art I admire or I find pleasing, and some I consider repulsive and ugly. However, I am also confident that there must be others who will wholeheartedly disagree with me. For example, I find Bob Ross's painting style questionable: his paintings may be pretty, but they are not art because they lack expression. Jackson Pollock's paintings I find pleasant to look at, but I question their artistic quality based on an apparent lack of technique and intention. Grandma Moses may be admired for making a career despite her advanced age and her paintings may be postage stamp material, but in the lack of perspective I see a poor style and little technique. Yet Bob Ross, Jackson Pollock, and Grandma Moses are loved, respected, admired, and prolific artists.

I recognize shortcomings in all three artists and can describe them, but their admirers would beg to differ. In fact, just to play devil's advocate, I am capable of defending their "art" as well and, further, be equally convincing. Bob Ross's paintings create wonderfully peaceful, tranquil natural scenes with little brush movement, which accounts for the paintings' being light and tranquil, rather than emotionally charged and overworked. Jackson Pollock splotches represent a rebellion against traditional definitions of art as being imitations of reality. Instead, they imitate reality but not in the visible spectrum but instead are reflections of the soul, feelings, and emotions--the invisible that is equally, if not more, significant. And Grandma Moses's flat landscapes representing rustic, simple, American lifestyles contrast with the intellectual, highly-refined, fast-paced life in the urban centers; her art accentuates the simple by its lack of perspective by suggesting the depth of the population to be existent in the hearts of the people rather than in their stereotypical roles.

What does it all mean? It seems to point on one hand to the subjectivity of art, but also to the enterprise of the critic (or a woman of good taste) of describing in detail the elements that he/she finds admirable and that he/she finds unpleasant. In other words, the difference between a person of good taste and a person of bad taste is in the fact that the person of good taste can explain why a certain piece of art is good or bad, while the person of bad taste (or no taste) will not be able to provide such an explanation. In other words, it all comes down to educated, literate, eloquent snobbery, and has nothing whatsoever to do with some formal quality of the artwork.