An Alternative View

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Posted by Steve Price on January 27, 1999 at 08:19:07:

Dear Friends,

It appears to me that we are approaching an impasse. On the one hand, there is what I will call the Alexanderist view: there is some set of criteria by which all visual aesthetics can be judged, and this is intrinsic to the human brain. We don't know what all those criteria are, but a beginning toward defining them has been made and is manifested in the set of rules presented to us by John Howe and Nikos Salingaros. At least, this is my understanding of that position.

One opposing point of view is that aesthetic criteria are so uniquely individual and mysterious that there is no point in even trying to figure them out. I note that in conversations with some of these people in the presence of rugs that they admire, they were able to verbalize what it was about those rugs that they liked. This convinces me that there are some criteria that they use.

A third viewpoint is that our aesthetics are highly culturally and experientially influenced. This seems undeniable to me, and even Alexander believes that modern mass-population tastes reflect the fact that we have, in Nikos Salingaros's words (1/26/99, post at 14:54:35 headed "Re: A Comment"), "...20th century society numbed the instinctive criteria we all have for beauty and structure." That, it seems to me, is the crux of the Alexanderist position. If it's true, everything else follows. But it does not seem proven, probably is not even provable in principle. That is, unless assumed it may be an impossible conclusion.

So, here we are, in a quandary. I think it is self-evident that we apply criteria when we make aesthetic judgments. Therefore, in principle at least, those criteria are potentially knowable. I think it is equally self-evident that not everybody uses the same criteria, and that the criteria change with experience (certainly, with time) within an individual.

It seems obvious to me that the criteria are different for different classes of things, and from some of the discussion to now it appears that others see this, too. The criteria by which I judge a Turkmen textile to be beautiful and/or important (those are related, but not identical) are very different than those by which I judge Caucasian rugs or Laotian skirts. This doesn't distrurb me any more than it does to realize that I judge the quality of Beethoven's symphonies by different criteria than those that I use for Bach, for instance.

I think the suggestion that the rules presented here be applied to narrow groups of textiles to see the extent to which they are useful in the different categories is a good one. This could give us a fighting chance at making progress in understanding our reactions.

Steve Price

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