Friday, December 30, 2016

The Assault On Aesthetic Sensibility

     I’m a former – i.e., retired – engineer. These days, engineers come in a multitude of varieties, but there are nevertheless commonalities among us. One of those commonalities, perhaps the most important of them all, is this one:

Form Follows Function

     Aesthetic considerations cannot be permitted to eclipse functional considerations. If the device won’t perform according to its assigned function and specifications, it’s useless no matter how pretty it is. That much, at least, is easy to grasp.

     What’s harder to grasp is this: That which is functionally effective and efficient will also be aesthetically pleasing. Behind the human eye stands the human mind. It qualifies what the eye sees according to its comprehension of what lies within surface form. Thus many an object one would dismiss on purely aesthetic grounds becomes attractive, even beautiful, when one comes to grips with what it’s intended to do.

     An example: Just yesterday, the C.S.O. commented that in every science fiction movie we’ve seen that features a deep-space vessel, the ships have all possessed certain visible characteristic. She couldn’t imagine why that would be so. So I gave her the short course in interstellar vessel design – “Colony Starships 101,” with prerequisites in nuclear fusion and special relativity – proceeding from the absolute requirements of the undertaking:

  • Must gather its fuel from space;
  • Capable of attaining near-lightspeed velocity;
  • Supports living spaces and functions that must not impede one another;
  • Must endure continuous bombardment by tiny particles impacting at near-lightspeed.

     I did so as concisely as possible. The C.S.O. being bright, she grasped the requirements and what they mandated at once...and began to see the design of the starship in Passengers as inherently beautiful.

     The late, much lamented Steven Den Beste once wrote of how, once he penetrated to the functional requirements and design of even the most mundane device, it would appear beautiful to him. I submit that this is inherent in the mind’s aesthetic judgments – that an object with an assigned function will impress aesthetically in proportion to its efficacy and efficiency at that function. Inversely, an object without any function must stand on its form alone.

     Much of what we call “pop culture” offends me. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Nor ought we to wave the matter aside with a grunt, mutter “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and pass on. Ugliness that pervades a society, displacing what men have cherished for ages as beautiful, isn’t a transient thing but a destructive force: an invasion of our minds and sensibilities.

     So when I happen upon a display such as this, my commentator’s side rears up on its hind legs with the need to emit a denunciation. Were those...persons really clothed? Not by any standard for clothing that I can imagine. For what, after all, are the possible functions of clothing?

  • It can keep the wearer warm, or acceptably within the “blue laws;”
  • It can conceal his sex characteristics;
  • Alternately, it can emphasize those characteristics;
  • It can enhance physical attractiveness;
  • It can convey an allegiance, an intention, or a desire.

     (Note that I omit consideration of costumes, whose function is to evoke a story or story-setting, and of armor, whose function is to prevent or mitigate wounds. Those are quite separate categories and must not be judged according to the requirements of clothing.)

     Do the “garments” in the pictures at the linked site fulfill any of the possible functions for clothing? If your answer is no, then what are they intended to do?

     Take a few moments over it.

     I’m a curmudgeon, which is a subspecies of crank. Accordingly, it’s commonplace for me to compare current events and trends that offend me with ones from my experiences that I find more acceptable. That’s also an aspect of the conservative disposition: to prefer that to which one has become accustomed to that which is shriekingly new. When I write about aesthetic matters I try to quell my natural crankiness in favor of objectivity. Sometimes I even succeed.

     This time around, I consider the obligation to run in the opposite direction. For what you saw in the piece linked above illustrates something I’ve grown to regard as insidiously dangerous: the cumulative assault on what Camille Paglia calls “the Western Eye:” the aesthetic sensibility that has accompanied and perfused Western thinking for two centuries at least, and which is inseparable from our convictions about individual worth and dignity. The apostles of our hideously vulgar pop culture hate that sensibility and are engaged in a wide-spectrum effort to destroy it: with ugly, pointless “clothing,” “music,” “art,” “sculpture,” “fiction,” “movies,” and trends in locution.

     Why? Because Western thought supports and is supported by Western aesthetics. Because the ongoing assault on Western precepts:

  • the sanctity of human life;
  • the rights and dignity of the individual;
  • the appropriate constraints on public conduct;
  • the suspicion and limitation of power and those who seek it;
  • the foundation of all that is truly beautiful on Truth Itself;

     ...cannot succeed unless the Western aesthetic sensibility is destroyed in tandem.

     A dear friend once pointed out to me that among the barbarizations inflicted upon us by contemporary television is a habituation to seeing a human body defiled in some fashion. Perhaps the best example is the regular use of autopsy scenes by shows such as CSI. The reduction of what was once a living, breathing person with rights, ideas, emotions, and aspirations to a bag of battered organs and leaking fluids does harm to our sensibilities in ways we hardly even notice as it occurs. Yet the harm is real. It goes horribly deep.

     Look for the parallels in “music” that lacks melody and harmony but is replete with obscenities and calls for violence; with “art” that depicts nothing and requires no skill to produce; with “fashionable” clothing that’s often obviously torn and otherwise distorted; and with “fiction” that focuses on humiliation, degradation, pain, and the reduction of the human person to something even the lowest of the animals would disdain.

     I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s infinitely more to be said on the subject. However, I trust that my Gentle Readers, being Gentle Readers, will manage to carry the ideas forward for themselves.

     John Keats once wrote that “What seizes the imagination as beauty must be truth.” That statement has had a profound effect on my considerations of aesthetic matters. But its converse has been no less significant: What is true beyond disputation is inherently beautiful, as nothing that lies, distorts, or mocks the truth can possibly be.

     Just some food for thought for your Friday morning.


Kye said...

" If the device won’t perform according to its assigned function and specifications, it’s useless no matter how pretty it is. "

My father always told me that was the difference between an engineer and an artist. Which is why engineers were highly paid and artists weren't.

Linda Fox said...

I knew I hated the CSI corpse display, but didn't realize why. Part of it is that the actors talk about it in dehumanizing ways. In contrast, the show Rizzoli & Isles has many scenes in the morgue, but the details of dissection are veiled, and the doctor always talks of the dead respectfully.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Linda, I think a great many people who saw those CSIautopsy scenes experienced a formless unease, something they couldn't quite articulate. That's part of what makes the danger so great: you can't quite pin it down. Degradations that act directly on your aesthetic sensibility bypass the rational centers, which makes them hard to conceptualize, and thus hard to fight off.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the 'Objectivity Room' in That Hideous Strength.


Unknown said...

And the thing I disliked most about the CSI episodes (after the first few, of course) was the incremental degradation of values after it was observed how effective the actually "showing" was. So the porn scenes and the debauchery of the human in demise was more intense every week. They kept pushing the envelope with scenery that wasn't really required to tell a great plot or story line, which some episodes did have. I see all of Hollywood that way... like, it could have been so good, if only...'

This was great article, Francis. You do have a heart for value and craftsmanship.

(...Oh, can I make a comment about celebrities and their deceitful voices in politics?)

Dr. Mabuse said...

Good point about the desensitizing caused by autopsy scenes on TV. Wasn't that one of the reasons public executions were done away with - because they had a coarsening effect upon the people who watched them?

These couture exhibitions are simply joke processions now. I remember years ago someone describing this style as 'the Tina Turner recently-assaulted look'.

The function+form aesthetic of the past is one of the reasons I so easily end up collecting things. My latest obsession is sewing machines (much to my husband's dismay - they can take a lot of room!). I started with an early 1960s Singer, and discovered how really superior it was at carrying out its function. Then I began noticing others, and how actually BEAUTIFUL they were. Cheerful colours, shiny chrome, even attractive fonts on the levers. The machines from the 50s are heavy, solid steel machines, with jazzy style details; it's like collecting miniature vintage cars! Modern machines are just blah - they can DO a million more things, they're computerized for efficiency, but they all look the same. And they're half plastic and break down easily. Not like my 1950s Japanese clone machines!

PamiStump said...

Wanda: yes! My grandmother's sewing machine built in 1920 works as well now as when she purchased it for $50 in 1921. A machine made in 1887 has excellent stitch quality, better than machines 100 years younger. I could go on and on. Pre-1970s, they were engineered to last, and to be easily adjusted (rarely needing true "repair" unless neglected).

In the last few decades, the shift has been to "disposable" machines that break down and need a technician with a special tool to open up and service. And, since they are made to poorer tolerances, they do break down - frequently.

I have a sewing student who decided to buy a sewing machine. She ended up getting one just like mine...a 1960s model that has everything the modern machines do except "reverse motion" stitches. (There are machines from the 1950s-60s that *have* these stitches, she just didn’t want to spend that much.)

I am a total advocate of vintage, mafe-to-last, well-engineered sewing machines, as opposed to the flashy plastic junk sold new in the stores today.

Unknown said...

I wonder about the sensibilities of surgeons before I go under the scalpel. The interview before and the doc's bedside manner mean a lot.

Where do Rube Goldberg constructions fit? They seem like motion, cooperation, and imagination in creation of smiles and wonder.