Lincoln Tunnel, NYC
I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem. If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.
We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.
Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.
Not NYC, but Close Enough
And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.
How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?
Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.
Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.
A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo
I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically. This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).
If, as Kant claims, taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.