Fountain Pen Aesthetics (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of five posts on the aesthetics of fountain pens. In the first post of the series, I came across a problem in trying to explain why I was disappointed with my new M805 and being completely unable to understand or explain why. In the second post, I argued that part of the problem was our community’s aesthetic illiteracy: the lack of concepts and vocabulary to identify, comprehend, communicate aesthetic ideas, as well as the effect that they have on us. In today's post, we’ll look at whether fountain pens are actually art or simply aesthetic experiences, and then begin to explore the foundations of developing literacy. 

Before we can apply any of these concepts, we need to consider if it is meaningful to apply ideas developed to study art to a functional object: is a fountain part really a work of art? This is a difficult question to answer when there are so many competing definitions of ‘art’, and we must be careful not to choose a definitely only because it suits our purposes. 

Perhaps the first definition was offered by Plato, who claimed that the arts were representative: that they attempted to show us something else which existed. So a painting of a forest was art because it sought to represent a real forest. Later work expanded Plato’s definitions to incorporate the idea of expression: something could be a work of art if it sought to express an emotion or an experience. A play of fictional events might not be representative, but it could be considered art if it expressed something of the human experience. Kant additionally claimed art is ‘purposive without purpose’: that is to say, when an artwork is complete, it seems to have a purpose, but it is not always possible to discern what exactly that purpose is (therefore allowing our mind and consider the possibilities). By these definitions, fountain pens are certainly not art: they do not represent something else (even though they may evoke associations with other things) and they cannot express emotions or experiences (though we may idiosyncratically project such expressions onto them). 

Modern definitions of art stray considerably from the traditional, and make claims about the projection of an idea onto the public. Alternatively, an artwork is anything that the maker intends to be considered as art. Personally, I find these claims rather meaningless (do they actually communicate anything about what is or is not art?) and do not feel that fountain pens satisfy either claim. The final category of definitions are those which are purely functional: art is anything which contains aesthetic properties or conveys an aesthetic experience. Such definitions can be criticised for being too broad, or too subjective, and I do not find myself convinced. This is the closest that a fountain pen can come to being described as art and, seeing as though the definition is not convincing, I think we need to conclude that our pens are not art. 

But what does it mean when we describe a pen as a work of art? It’s a somewhat common phrase and so it must have some meaning, even if that meaning not the literal one. It seems to mean that something is beautiful and intricate, that it rises beyond the purely functional and appeals to us — or satisfies us — on some deeper level. This broadly fits with the idea of an aesthetic experience: a feeling of pleasure that is not purely sensory but also comes from contemplation. That is to say, it is not just a pleasing in a visual or tactile sense — like looking at a sunset or feeling a soft blanket — but also because we think about it and can immerse ourselves in the experience. It is an experience that is both significant and valuable to us. (I think all of us who are engaged enough to read a piece as long as this post have had such an experience, and know that it drives their commitment to fountain pens). 

This leads me to conclude that our appreciation is not the same as we would respond to a work of art, although they both convey an aesthetic experience. Therefore, the ideas of art criticism are not necessarily a good fit for developing our aesthetic literacy. Fortunately, we can turn to the philosophy of aesthetics to develop such literacy.

The philosophy of aesthetics is an old field, with both Plato and Aristotle making claims about what constitutes beauty, how we should appreciate it, and how beauty (then closely linked with moral goodness) should influence the way we live our lives. An abundance of ideas have since emerged to address these questions, and I want to draw on some of them to get us thinking about how we can build foundations for aesthetic literacy. I should make a point here that I am not an aesthetic philosopher; I’ve never taken a full class in it and certainly haven’t studied it in depth. I will certainly make errors and omissions from ignorance, it is unavoidable. The ideas shared in this series are to provide some foundations for you to think about aesthetics.  

The first idea I want to explore is William Bullough’s idea of distance, from 1912. The idea itself is not widely accepted but it has been influential and I think it is useful for our purposes. Aesthetic distance can take several forms, most obviously spatial (like when you stand back to look at a painting in a different way) or temporal (observing a play from another age, separated from the political or sociological context). Bullough suggested another form of distance, psychical distance, which refers to our ability to separate our emotional or mental selves from an aesthetic object. That is to say, we want to achieve an appropriate balance between thinking about the content of the object — the story of a play, the subject of a painting, the colours of a pen — and the technical nature — the creativity and innovation, the difficulty in its construction. 

Bullough claims that distance can lead to problems in our appreciation for an obect, from being too psychically close to an object (under-distance) or too far (over-distance). Under-distance is where the line between object and reality becomes blurred and we fail to separate ourselves; we become excessively focussed on the content of the object. An example is someone who identifies too closely with a character in a movie, and appreciates the movie primarily if that character succeeds. Or perhaps someone who is caught by the colours of a pen and focusses on these at the expense of other features. Over-distance is where we overlook the content of an object and focus excessively on the technical aspects of production, and miss its emotional resonance. It is entirely possible for someone to dismiss a Twsbi purely because it lacks a gold nib and is prone to technical problems, and entirely fail to understand the pleasure that so many people experience. 

I believe aesthetic illiteracy has led us to become over-distanced in our appreciation of FPs. As we lack the vocabulary to have aesthetic conversations, our judgements about these products are often focussed on technicalities, such as operation and functionality. Does anyone in our community understand the emotional appeal of any particular pen? Even if they did have that understanding, would they even be able to communicate it with another person? The lack of intelligible concepts — that is, the lack of concepts that are able to adequately explain such phenomena and be understood by a second party — makes me think that this is unlikely. 

This can be demonstrated most clearly in fountain pen reviews. I’ve previously written of the importance of reviews in helping people make purchase decisions and believe that they make an enormous contribution. But I also think that the aesthetic illiteracy means that these reviews suffer from the problem of over-distance, that they are overly focussed on the technical aspects of fountain pens and there is not nearly enough on the aesthetic aspects.

The Pen Habit is one reviewer who seems especially struck by aesthetic features of a pen. He often seems quite taken with a design but also seems incapable of articulating exactly why he finds a design so moving or explaining the effect that it has on him. More than once, I’ve seen him emphasise the appeal through simple repetition: to him, a pen or ink is, “…really, really nice”. This is not to judge Matt at all; we’ve exchanged a few emails and he seems a genuinely nice guy. The problem is not with him nor with his reviews. He tries to share his feelings but he lacks a vocabulary which allows him to articulate and communicate his appreciation. He lacks the vocabulary, and so do we. This leads to reviews and discussions that focus on the technical aspects, as our aesthetic illiteracy imposes limits on our world.

An interesting counterexample is the wine community, based around an object which also has aesthetic and technical features. There are strong parallels between our communities (perhaps most prominently between wine and ink) but the wine community is far more literate in understanding and expressing the aesthetic experience.

At least from my outsider’s point of view, the type of grape, the vintage, the wine region (or the ‘terroir’) seem to be technical features and are generally easy for a novice (such as myself) to understand and discuss. There are obvious similarities here with the technical features of a fountain pen, the nib size, the type of filling system, etc. 

But the wine community is significantly more sophisticated when it comes to the discussion of aesthetic features. The experience can be reduced to different elements — aroma, acidity, taste — and those elements are layered, in a way that enables incredible specificity. Was the aroma fruity? Woody? Spicy? Was the fruit a berry or a stone fruit? Was the berry closer to a raspberry, a strawberry or a plum? 

I don’t have the ability to participate in these conversations but I have seen others do so, and they are able to intelligibly communicate an experience in extraordinary detail. Imagine trying to explain your enjoyment of a particular wine without having any knowledge of these elements: you would still know what you enjoyed and what you did not, but you would be unable to discern why. Take it a step further and imagine trying to review a delicious bottle of wine, try to articulate the experience without having any tools to describe taste. You would probably end up explaining it much like Matt explains some designs: “really, really nice.” It is hard to imagine that this would not detract from our enjoyment or our ability to find products that match our preferences.

As you may know, my preferences run towards Montblanc and Viscontis. I have used a lot of other brands and found a lot to enjoy, but they don’t speak to me in the same way that these two brands do. When someone asks me what it is like to use one of these pens, the limitations imposed by our aesthetic illiteracy make it difficult for me to understand why I enjoy them, let alone communicate those feelings in a way that would allow someone else to determine if they would enjoy the same experience. So our discussions focus on the things we can explain intelligibly — the smoothness of the nib, the balance, the weight — than the things which are actually meaningful and that create emotional resonance. It is hard to imagine that this doesn't influence manufacturers, too. 

This does not seem to be a problem in the wine community; I see there a community that is aesthetically literate, and it gives me hope that our community can also develop the tools to become literate. We will explore this deeper in tomorrow’s post.

Links to the series: