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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

"Beauty" Determined: A Look at
Christopher Alexander's Rug Aesthetics
Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros and R. John Howe

This will be the first salon so far with homework. HOMEWORK?!?!? Yes, homework. Are we getting too complicated, too technical? Perhaps. We'll see.

The pursuit of beauty is likely the central urge that moves most rug collectors. And a large portion of collectors are confident that they can recognize beauty when they see it.

But difficulties concerning the recognition/evaluation of aesthetic quality are signaled by the fact that collectors rather frequently disagree in their assessments of the beauty of given weavings.

And curiously, despite the apparent importance of aesthetic judgments to our collecting disease, and in the face of these often visible disagreements about what is aesthetically superior, there has been little interest in investigating what justifying "ground" we are standing on when we make these presumably central aesthetic assessments.

In fact, not a little impatience is expressed whenever the question is raised of why any of us should treat seriously the aesthetic judgments of any of the rest of us.

There are those who feel that aesthetic disagreements are easily resolved if one merely chooses one's comparisons appropriately. For example, you should simply avoid comparing city rugs which need to be "perfect" with tribal rugs of various sorts, which do not.

A second group is impatient with the question of justifying aesthetic judgments because they see it as a hopeless enterprise. Unless, they say, some "a priori" categories in the human mind can be demonstrated, all aesthetic judgments are "a posteriori" and therefore always the product of experience and that there is no way to adjudicate the paradigm debates between members of different experiential cultures.

There is, in fact, some ammunition for certain species of this latter argument in the state of the debate among philosophers about the character of aesthetic judgments. To oversimplify a bit at least three positions are visible.

First, is the view that human experience is highly idiosyncratic, that the aesthetic choices a person makes are a variety of individual value judgments, and that there is no agreed way to determine whose value judgments are correct. The most extreme versions of this position doubt, with the mature Henry James, that there is much
accurate inter-subjective communication at all. That one of the most insulting things you can say to another human being is, "I understand." "I experience what you do." (You couldn't possibly.)

Although many rug collectors act as if this latter view is their position, I know of no one who collects in the kind of isolation that the consistent adherence to it would require. Most of us are interested in having our aesthetic judgments admired by others.

A second position concerning the character of aesthetic assessments is the kind of cultural relativism that we referred to above. This anthropological view suggests that the recognition of a beautiful rug is a matter of learning and of applying correctly a set of "rules" that have grown up as conventions among rug collectors and rug scholars. Although factual evidence may be employed at points in rule-following, this is not a world of truth versus falsity. It is, rather, one in which the central errors are the result of either incomplete socialization (a novice collector may not yet have learned the rules) or of making mistakes in applying them. Since the rules that govern the recognition of beauty are socially-determined, moves can be, and are, made by important rug collectors and scholars to influence the character of the rules used by the community.

This is at least one source of the sorrowing one encounters among rug collectors about the aesthetic judgments of others. When someone confides in you that such and such a collector has a "dead eye," he/she is signaling their view that not only is this person incompletely socialized into the conventions that govern aesthetic judgments about rugs, but that he/she (the person being sorrowed about) may well not ever be capable of reaching this pitch of discernment. This also reveals that there is a mechanism in the rule-following position concerning aesthetics that permits elitism. The rules may in principle be learn-able by anyone but (sadly) some never do.

A third position concerning the character of aesthetic judgments about rugs (and about estimating the aesthetic merit of a great many other things as well) is both rarer and more daring. It is the view that there are objective criteria that govern assessments of aesthetic quality, that these are discoverable (perhaps to an extent, have been discovered) and that aesthetic quality can, therefore, be demonstrated objectively.

This third view seems to hold that there ARE some common "a priori" conditions that guide human perception and that not only can the questions of which is the most beautiful rug be established with objective evidence but that, properly interrogated, people outside the community of rug collectors/scholars will make the same choices as those within it. Those who hold this third position concerning the nature of aesthetic choices are described by art historians and philosophers as "formalists."

Some time back, when Turkotek's discussion board was unmoderated, the question of aesthetic quality came up and Robert Torchia encouraged us to examine some of the formalist writings.

Tom Stacy actually attempted to organize a board-based reading of Wolffinger, an art historian who takes a formalist position. That such a discussion is not everyone's cup of tea is evidenced by the fact that Yon Bard, who is himself sometimes attracted to a fine philosophical distinction or two, invited Stacy, the board owner, to take this discussion elsewhere.

About this same time, Jerry Silverman asked whether anyone had successfully read a book by the Berkeley architect, Christopher Alexander, who had assembled what is generally agreed to be a remarkable collection of very old Turkish village rugs and who used them as a basis for articulating his own formalist position on rug aesthetics. Alexander's book, "A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art," is not easily taken in and Jerry joked about our needing a "translator." Nikos A. Salingaros, a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, overheard our Internet conversation and contacted me offering to supply the requested translation.

Bouyed by Yon Bard's enthusiasm for this subject, I was moved, when we adopted the salon format, to contact Dr. Salingaros and to ask him if we could take him up on his offer to make Alexander's argument clearer to us. He has generously agreed and this is where the homework comes in. Dr. Salingaros has provided us with Internet access to two short papers he has written to make Alexander's ideas more accessible. The first is a piece published in Hali, entitled "In Defense of Alexander."

The second reading is of a paper Dr. Salingaros presented at the 1996 ICOC in Philadelphia. It is entitled "The "Life" of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules."

I encourage you to read these two short articles. They will prepare you to do the tasks that comprise the balance of this salon. If you can, you may find it useful to print them off for reading. They contain color illustrations.

I am going to assume now that you have done your homework and are prepared to move forward.

On page 12 of his "Life of a Carpet…" article, Dr. Salingaros provides a checklist, drawn from Alexander's formalist aesthetics, with which Salingaros says that we should be able to decide "the merits of a carpet design, irrespective of provenance or date." He does not claim that the list as presented is exhaustive nor does he claim that all good carpets must meet all of the rules. But he does hold that "all (ed. aesthetically) successful carpets satisfy at least nine of the…ten rules" provided.

Here is the checklist:

You will notice that these questions are posed dichotomously: they require only a "yes" or a "no" response. I have provided a little "wiggle" room by inserting a short scale with which we can indicate with more gradations the extent to which we feel a carpet may have a given quality. This should help us decide closer cases.

What I propose is that in this salon we use this checklist to evaluate some weavings and then to examine the results. I am going to cater to the "comparisionists" in one of these evaluations by choosing rugs that are very similar. In the other, I am going to take Alexander and Salingaros at their word and offer for assessment carpets that are quite different from one another.

It may be best to print off several copies of the worksheet so that you have one for each rug. If not, simply take a blank sheet of paper, number 1 through 10 down the left side and then make columns for Image 1 (PIC1), Image 2 (PIC2), Image 3 (PIC3), Image 4 (PIC4), Image 5 (PIC5) and Image 6 (PIC6) across the top. Draw a double line between PIC3 and PIC4 to remind yourself that we are making two separate comparisons in each case of three rugs.

PIC1, PIC2 and PIC3 are all Tekke ensis. The task in this first instance is to use the Alexander/Salingaros rules to select the best of these three ensis.

PIC4 is a Bijar, PIC5 is a Caucasian and PIC6 is an East Turkestan rug. The second task is again apply the Alexander/Salingaros checklist rules to determine which of these three quite different rugs is aesthetically superior.

Note: Images are provided in two resolutions. First, the low resolution images:

Tekke ensis: PIC1, PIC2, PIC3

Bijar: PIC4

Caucasian: PIC5

East Turkestan rug: PIC6

Next, the high resolution images

Tekke ensis: PIC1, PIC2, PIC3

Bijar: PIC4,

Caucasian: PIC5

East Turkestan rug: PIC6

Please make your assessments of these six pieces using only the Alexander/Salingaros checklist, then report your results, by factor for each rug, together with any comments you may have on the checklist items and on your experience using these indicators of aesthetic quality. Did your use of these factors help you determine which of these rugs is aesthetically superior? Are you satisfied with the results? Are they different from what your choices would have been unguided by the worksheet? What did you learn from this application effort? What is your view now of the Alexander/Salingaros claim that aesthetic quality can be determined objectively and that they know how to do it?


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