1. 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.


5 Replies to “aes·thet·ics”

  1. This died with subjectivism, “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.” Personally (ha ha) I think subjectivism is a coward’s way out of the conversation about aesthetics in philosophy, as philosophy. I think there’s a distinction between “that’s a beautiful poem/painting” and “I like that poem/painting” that subjectivism kills.

    I have an acquaintance who does collages with the subjectivist philosophy that it doesn’t matter what she does, the viewer is going to see what they see. From my perspective, that art is language, I think that’s bullshit. I LIKE some of her collages for various reasons, but I THINK they’re shit. “liking” isn’t an intellectual/philosophical thing.

    Is any sport aesthetic. Yes. Absolutely, 100% I watched a young man today training on the busiest street in my town. He was a dark skinned guy maybe 18 shadow boxing in front of a parking lot, wearing ear-buds, basketball shorts (black), bare chested (aesthetic physique) ear buds. Completely wrapped up in his actions. It was gorgeous. It was philosophically aesthetic, purposeful, expressive and a little mad. Climbing? Yes. For the climber especially, I think, it has everything.

    Anything truly philosophically aesthetic demands some mastery over technique to allow the inner meaning to reach the participant/viewer/reader. When I was climbing rocks there was for me a huge difference between just getting up something and getting up something difficult well. Running? Running balanced and erect on a trail, running approximating flight is really not the same thing as getting the hell out of the rain. There is in all real art some communication. Tolstoy was right. Kandinsky was right.

    “The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

    It’s not just gluing stuff to a canvas and leaving it to the viewer to “see.”

    Thanks for giving me so many opportunities to rant! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That Kandinsky quote is perfect! I THINK we don’t put enough “burden” on the experiencer of art. Not that all art deserves our full attention or that we should take our time to experience art, but just like being an active listener in a conversation, and not just waiting for the speaker to stop talking so we can start, judgements of art and what counts as art takes some work from the perceivers side.

      Your examples are great…the collage may amount to someone talking shit about a mutual friend, interesting, but not really any depth. While the air boxer has layers the are discovered with attentiveness.

      I also think this is where LIKING something comes in, some people LIKE talking shit, but that won’t ever move the needle on the depth of the conversation.

      Your comment is really thought provoking…thank you Martha!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll be a lot less philosophical but… things don’t need to be art to be aesthetically pleasing. There is this notion that gymnastics is a sport but dance an art form even though sometimes they can look the same. The point seems to be in the intention. Are you trying to accomplish something or are you doing it or the “artistic purposes”. In Climbing there is usually a goal and the movement is not for the sake of movement which would make it non-art. I can see many ways how this can be challenged and I don’t think I even believe in this notion but I though I’d share it anyway 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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