Fountain Pen Aesthetics (Part 4)

Today’s post is the fourth in a series of five looking at aesthetics in the fountain pen world. The first post identified a problem: we might have a satisfying or dissatisfying experience of a pen and be wholly unable to understand why. The second post argued that this was a problem of our ‘aesthetic illiteracy’ and we have not yet developed language to properly comprehend our experiences. The third post demonstrated this problem and showed that it is not a problem shared by other communities. So today, we will start to explore a deeper understanding of the aesthetic experience, before tomorrow's post moves into applying aesthetic tools to the fountain pen world. 

Although this series might make you think otherwise, I am a complete novice when it comes to art. I have some idea of what I like but my experience is quite limited and I’m certain my taste is not particularly sophisticated. It’s an entirely foreign world to me — as it might also be to you — but one thing I have picked up on is that the idea of art as an ‘experience’ seems to be widely accepted within the art community but far less so outside of it.

This may be a product of history. For most of the time we have had ideas of aesthetics, art was recognised as having an effect on the observer — it was a representation or an expression that provoked a reaction in us — but the subject of analysis was the aesthetic object: the painting, sculpture, play, song, etc. The idea that we should focus on the experience rather than the object was most powerfully articulated by John Dewey in 1934. Over the years, his ideas have taken a beating and been attacked in virtually every way imaginable, but they have remained deeply influential.

He argued that we should focus on the experience because this was the actual work of art, not the physical object. The aesthetic object was merely the tool used to evoke the experience in us. In trying to understand what makes us appreciate beauty, what is important is not so much the design or the materials but the way in which they interact to create an experience in us.

Dewey distinguished between an aesthetic experience from an ordinary experience on the basis of unity: our ordinary experiences are confused and inchoate, a mess of emotional, intellectual, and sensory elements. An aesthetic experience transcends these elements and unifies them into a singular entity, one which we anticipate and savour. This transcendence is beauty. Our appreciation comes not from the object itself but from the experience of transcendence. Maurice Beardsley contributes to this understanding, explaining that we are released from our prior concerns — our stresses and worries — and feel a sense of harmony and exhilaration as the stimuli cohere into an integrated sense of wholeness. 

The idea of aesthetic experience may be controversial but, to me, it is utterly convincing — and even more convincing when applied to fountain pens than it does to traditional art forms, yet it is not without controversy of its own. It would mean that the aesthetic value of a pen — the beauty of it — comes from our experience of it. Unlike a painting, this experience is not only shaped by the effect that the object has on us when we engage it visually but also when we engage with it physically: when we hold the pen and when we begin writing with it. 

One of the implications of Dewey’s argument was that the aesthetic value of an artwork would change over time, as the experience or observers changed. He noted observers of the Parthenon would have had a radically different experience of it in ancient times than it has on tourists today. This corresponds with the experience of using a fountain pen, which changes as we change the ink and paper, as the pen changes with use, and as the pen becomes older and recognised as ‘vintage’. Even if you were to keep a pen uninked, in a pristine condition in a glass case somewhere, and only appreciated it through the visual experience, your appreciation still would change with time; it would become more familiar to you and you would experience more things in life. Our aesthetic appreciation undoubtedly changes as the experience itself changes: sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in negative ways.

A further implication is that our aesthetic appreciation is unavoidably subjective. If you agree with the claim that beauty lies in the experience, then there is no possibility of an objective statement about a pen’s aesthetic value because each experience is unique. To make this claim in a different way, the idea of something being objective is to say that it is a fact entirely independent of our own minds. If you or I had never existed, that thing would be nonetheless true. As it is independent, it is possible for us to compile data on the thing and develop an understanding of it. Obviously, this is not the case with beauty: it is never, and can never be, independent of our minds as it is a product of our minds. Your experience of any object will be unique and incomparable with anyone else’s experience.

But that is not to say that there is no value in sharing the experience and your appreciation with others; in fact, the opposite is true. Understanding the experience of others can make us reflect on aspects that might not have been central to our own experience, this contemplation might deepen our own and enhance our appreciation. There is enormous value in discussing the things that we find powerful or transcendent, but this needs to be a open, qualitative discussion. Reducing the discussion to numbers — trying to quantify on a scale of 1-5 your feelings about the shape of the pen, and weighted equally with all other factors — destroys any nuance, any possibility of someone else understanding what you appreciate. Such discussions are meaningless, and yet they proliferate online because we simply lack the literacy to discuss our pens — our experiences — in any other terms. 

I see this behaviour in the wine community as well and find it equally meaningless. As a wine drinker, I am not interested in only drinking wines that score beyond a certain subjective threshold (eg 90/100) but am interested in finding wines that match my tastes, or wines that move me in some way. It is much the same with pens. Quantification gives us the illusion of objectivity (and, coincidentally, the illusion of precision) but it is a meaningless measurement when applied to a subjective phenomenon. 

While his theories may be controversial within the traditional arts, I believe that Dewey’s idea of the aesthetic experience is quite convincing (and useful) for our community: although this is how we discuss it, our appreciation does not actually seem to come from the object itself but from our experience of the object. In tomorrow’s final post, we will move on to consider some of the tools that have emerged from this subjective, empirical tradition of aesthetics and how we might apply those to our own community.

Links to the series: