Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is There an Aesthetics of Broken Things?

What about the aesthetics of broken things?  We can bring some sources to bear here.  Robert Ginsberg in his book The Aesthetics of Ruins observes that children like to break things as part of their learning process.  "They discover the unbroken within the broken, and take pleasure at the exposure of surprising shapes."  Similarly adults can take pleasure in the structural forms revealed within ruins.  I like the way Ginsberg observes that ruins can make us aware of the structural role played by individual elements:  we wonder, for example, how a pillar is still able to hold up this load, for example.  

The broken is also a theme of a talk given by David Doris at Stanford last May titled "All These Broken, Useless Things: On the Possibility of a Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics."  (This is presumably based on his book Vigilant Things: On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and the Strange Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria.)
He writes, in the description of his project on the Stanford web site 

"Yet in the making and reception of these objects—which in the Yoruba language of southwestern Nigeria are called ààlè—the ordinary is rendered extraordinary; broken and seemingly useless things are transformed into powerful machines for the establishment and protection of properties."

We, of course, as potential tourists viewing this, will not immediately see these broken objects  "burnt corn cob suspended on a wire in a garden, a rusted piece of metal dangling from a tree in a farm, an old shoe tied with a rag to a worn-out broom and a broken comb" according to their function, but rather as something visually interesting, worthy of a photograph.  

He goes on: "The objects deployed in ààlè are often stripped of surface, broken apart, rendered useless. In that breakage resides a hermeneutical rupture, in which would-be thieves are warned of the consequences of transgression."   I take it that "hemeneutical rupture" means that the ordinary way of interpreting is suspended and that instead of seeing these objects as decoration we see them as a warning. 

"The power to enact those consequences lies not in richly ornamented surfaces, nor in any sort of 'magical' processes, but in the very actions that have re-situated objects in space and in social context as vehicles of meaning. In their display, ààlè are descriptive portraits of 'the thief' as a non-person, an inversion of a set of moral, ethical and aesthetic ideals. Ààlè, in short, comprise a Yoruba anti-aesthetic."

Doris seems to be saying that the Yoruba are not doing anything aesthetic here because they are not using richly ornamented surfaces.  This seems odd since re-situating "objects in space and in social context as vehicles of meaning" is a common way to achieve something aesthetic.  Alternatively, Doris may be thinking that portraying a person as a non-person is anti-aesthetic insofar as the person is not portrayed as ideal (which, I remember from my anthropology readings, is characteristic of Yoruba culture.)  Again, however, portraying a person as a non-person, if this is the intention of the use of broken objects here, is not obviously non-aesthetic, given that portraying a person as ugly does something similar, and this is not non-aesthetic.  Still, it is interesting to see an anthropologist's take on the aesthetics of everyday life, i.e. in a relatively non-familiar culture.

Another, very different, location for the aesthetic of the broken is in Japanese aesthetics.  Graham Parkes, in his Stanford Encyclopedia article on this, writes  "Implements with minor imperfections are often valued more highly, on the wabi aesthetic, than ones that are ostensibly perfect; and broken or cracked utensils, as long as they have been well repaired, more highly than the intact."  Here, the broken, and then repaired, object is seen as highly valued.

Christy Bartlett, in "A Tearoom View of Mended Ceramics" in The Aesthetics of Modern Japanese Ceramics, (Flickwerk) tells a story about a bowl that was broken and then mended, and then a poem was written about the event, and the mended bowel gained a name: "What can be made of this story regarding a fascination with mended objects? A bowl was greatly loved for its material qualities, described as a commanding presence, thick walls, generous round mouth, deep interior space, and loquat-colored glaze. Then the incident occurred, which could have been its demise yet was not. Mending gave the bowl new life, and in so doing forever immured a neophyte’s awkward hands, a warrior’s quick temper, a poet-scholar’s brilliant mind in its sturdy body."  

Bartlett goes on "Furthermore the bowl stood as talismanic proof that imagination and language had the power to make ill fortune good. Instead of the altered physical appearance of the bowl diminishing its appeal, a new sense of its vitality and resilience raised appreciation to even greater heights. Immaterial factors assumed a material presence through the lines of its mending and became an inextricable part of the bowl’s appeal. One might almost
say the true life of the bowl Tsutsui Zutsu began the moment it was dropped, or perhaps it was from the moment the poem was uttered."

Here, the appeal is influenced by the visibly mended parts.  Another blog, Tango Philosophy, has something interesting things to say about his and more on Barlett's article. 
Another approach can be found in the Urban Dictionary where the term "Destruction Aesthetics" is defined as  

Noun. Finding beauty or appeal in broken, destroyed, or collapsing things. "People think I'm strange for liking old, beat-up cars and collapsing buildings, but I just really enjoy destruction aesthetics."  This reminds me of my own work on the aesthetics of junkyards.

Here is also a website by Cynthia Korzekwa called Art for Housewives:  Live from Paros which goes into "The Aesthetics of Mending" (May, 2013):  no theory, but some great examples of unusual and aesthetically interesting mends.  

Also, try this youtube video from the PBS Idea Channel (my new source for fun philosophy) which discusses "Glitch" i.e. media busted on purpose.  "How Does Glitchy Art Show Us That Broken and Beautiful." by Tyler Dickey. This stuff may have something to do with nostalgia.  The interesting unpredictability seems to be part of the interest. 


Anonymous said...

Nice post!

Unknown said...

Greetings to you, Dr. Leddy!

While searching to see if there have been any recent review of my book, Vigilant Things: On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and the Strange Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria, I chanced upon your blogpost. I'm so glad you were able to make it to my talk at Stanford---which I suppose happened quite a long time ago---and glad, too, that you wrote about my talk in such a probing and sensitive manner. I tip my hat to you, sir!

Since I'm in the midst of prepping for the coming week's classes, I don't have time to really write a response to your post. But I've sent you a few salient pages from the book, which I hope will address more fully some of your questions. It is the final section of a fairly large chapter that slowly builds to the notion of a "Yoruba anti-aesthetics." Which is to say, there's much more afoot than what appears in the text snippet I'm sending (and certainly, much more than I could include in a 40-minute talk). That said, I hope it makes a compelling argument.

Many Thanks, and may All Good Things be yours,