Aesthetic Preference is a Recognition of Craftsmanship
Something David Ryan wrote about dark art and wanna-be-sophistos has had me thinking for a while – first about whether valuing civility and the desire not to offend keep us all trapped in a glass fortress (they do, but there’s a trade-off, of course) – then about why we like the things we do. In terms of the latter, after considerable thought and up until recently, I had embraced some species of nihilism; the idea that aesthetic preferences are merely expressions of political power seemed a bit too Marxist for my sensibilities but still close to my then default position. I remain fascinated yet skeptical of neurophysiological attempts to explain aesthetic preferences.
For some time I continued to believe that building a coherent, simple aesthetic was impossible. I knew I had no good reason to like the things I did and that the various things I liked seemed to be connected in no objectively-meaningful way; but something I saw a few days ago on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations provided the ah-ha moment I’ve been needing.
Bourdain was set to dine at a small shop in Tokyo that served only old-style unagi (eel). The restaurant had made no changes to its one-item menu for sixty-some-odd years: the eels are sliced-up nose-to-tail, folded on themselves, skewered, covered in sauce, and grilled yakitori-style. Before he had even tasted the unagi, master chef and seasoned world traveler Bourdain commented that he greatly appreciated that that establishment did exactly that one thing – based on the experiences of thousands of years times many more thousands of diners – so exceptionally well that it could remain open continuously without any significant changes for so long. That is to say, Bourdain recognized that restaurant’s craftsmanship and took the weight of all of that into account before sensuously experiencing the food, judging, and being satisfied.
Recently, I have seen my tastes in many things go through some dramatic changes. I’ve been getting into red wine – something I never, ever saw myself doing. A knowledgeable friend recommended I start with Bordeaux, and I’ve since gone on to enjoy a wide range of Pinot noir, Spanish and Sardinian reds, Napa Valley Cabernet, and Chianti. My musical tastes are changing too: I’m actually starting to like some pop and R&B. I’m no longer too cynical to honestly evaluate American Idol contestants, but I have just enough cynicism remaining to continue to honestly evaluate the judges. Finally, in my adult life I hated fantasy up until I started watching Game of Thrones (don’t worry, no spoilers), but if I had more free time at this stage of my life I’d seriously consider locking myself in my room and reading the kinds of fantasy series Erik has been recommending, which took up a large chunk of my childhood.
Some of my preferences, like some of your preferences, derive from the fact that our society is supersaturated with art, combined with some random set of botched or stellar (first) impressions. Humans this day and age are bombarded with information, and we rarely have enough time to process it all. We tend to make quick judgments about entire categories of things before moving on to make more quick judgments.
The first few times I drank red wine were at weddings and other large functions, which tend to serve cheap wine that’s there for only one reason. Up until recently, I thought the language sommeliers used to talk to each other was a form of conspicuous consumption or bourgeois signalling or even bullshit*, until I realized it was a shorthand not dissimilar from that of the ancient scribes who gave birth to written language itself: “cherry” and “tobacco” do not actually signify “cherry” and “tobacco”, just as the letter “a” does not signify “ox“. Sommeliers spend years training their noses and palates to recognize hundreds or thousands of unique tasting notes, just as pianists spend years training their eyes and fingers to recognize written musical notes. And just as expert musicians can just look at a piece of sheet music and hear the harmonies and timbres, sommeliers can just speak to each other and experience flavors, aromas, growing conditions, yields, sunlight, and rain from all over the world. It’s amazing what sublime complexity and subtlety thousands of years of a culture has brought us.
Likewise, one of the major problems I have with most fantasy literature is that “magic” is often evoked licentiously as a cure-all to both pander to readers and cover plot holes. Things looking down? Well, hey, there’re these ghosts who owe like the hero’s ancestors and stuff a huge favor, and they’re ghosts so like they like can’t be killed and stuff so at the very end they just come in and kill all the bad guys just at the right time and everyone lives like happily ever after and stuff and wizards and dragons. The end.
Thrones doesn’t do that. The series continues to surprise and horrify me, and as much as I despise infant murder and prostitute torture and the constant deaths of characters I care about, I keep watching because George R.R. Martin has created something beautiful and complex in Arya Stark and Jon Snow and even Cersei Lannister. They are not senseless archetypes but something new entirely. For me and for my aesthetic, appreciation for Game of Thrones, the performances of Jessica Sanchez, and the tastes of certain red wines comes from their craftsmanship. And just as sommeliers communicate with each other through the currency of tasting notes, so too do artists communicate with their audiences through the currency of thoughtful creation.
* My favorite so far: “A banal sloppy joe flavor and mild albuterol overtones are mixed in the 1776 Semillon from Mussolini Bros Vineyards.”