- The study of beauty and art.
Among the different branches of philosophy, aesthetics often seems like the forgotten child. Not to those who study beauty, but oftentimes when people settle in for philosophical discussions the conversation tends towards purpose, morality, and the search for meaning. This omission is regrettable as conversations about aesthetics can really lend themselves to a deeper understanding about alternative philosophical explorations, including purpose, morality, and the search for meaning.
One personal peeve about aesthetic-based conversations is the immediate reduction of beauty to subjective interpretation, or the notion that judgements about beauty are in the end simply matters of opinion. Now it may very well be that beauty is wholly subjective but drawing that conclusion would require a tedious logical progression that most just don’t take.
Drawing conclusions in philosophy, like many aspects of life is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. To say beauty or art is subjective is one thing but to conclude it is something altogether different. Drawing conclusions takes time, thought, exploration, and is helped by accepting the likelihood that you may be wrong.
While acknowledging this tenuous starting point, I wonder what conditions would allow us to accept rock climbing as a form of art?
Under the most general conditions of art, you’ll find things like form, expression of emotion, skill, and affecting others. If art is limited to some combination of these conditions, then it would be hard to deny that climbing is an artform. There is no doubt that climbing can be beautiful, the movement up a rock can achieve a striking flow and at times climbing can almost look like a vertical ballet. It’s often very easy to experience the mood of a climber as well, just watch someone finally send a project after years of work. It’s impossible to misinterpret the reaction.
This combination of conditions however is really just too general. In other words, this combination of conditions would let too many uninvited guests into the party. With this combination of conditions, it would be tough to draw the line between what is and what is not art. So, based simply on these conditions, I don’t think we can qualify climbing as art any more than we could qualify building a wall as art.
This is not to say that climbing is not art or that building is not art, but only to say that living up to the general conditions suggested above is not sufficient for determining whether or not something is art.
I’ve always been a fan of Leo Tolstoy’s proposal that art is transmitting a feeling through a particular medium which affects/infects those who experience the piece with the same feeling. In this sense, art is a means by which we can communicate our feelings to others. Not to suggest that Tolstoy is right, but if art is an emotional correspondence, then it would be hard to see how climbing could be considered art.
Although climbing can resemble a ballet, there is a great aesthetic chasm that separates the two. I’d also add that this same chasm is what separates dancing in general from ballet. Although watching someone like Alex Honnold free soloing Freerider may be a thing of beauty and also chockfull of emotion, there is something very different between what Honnold did and what someone like Rudolph Nureyev did with Swan Lake. Specifically, one has an intention to communicate emotion and the other doesn’t.
This is not to say that Tolstoy’s definition is correct. In fact, his definition may be no better than the general conditions laid out above. And maybe things like art and beauty are subjective, maybe it’s up to each of us to determine whether or not climbing is a form of art? But independent of what art or beauty actually mean there are a wealth of conversations we can have and probably should have along the way.