Fountain Pen Aesthetics (Part 5)

In this final post of the series, I want to consider the contributions of two influential thinkers from the philosophy of aesthetics and explore how they might be used to develop a framework which can provide insights into our individual experiences. These ideas are certainly not the only ones that we can use — indeed, the field has many valuable ideas and there are more to be written about — but hopefully they will be building blocks in developing our aesthetic literacy, and will provide you with an insight into how we can use such ideas to understand and communicate our aesthetic experiences. 

There’s a question here about whether it’s better to adapt existing ideas from aesthetics or to develop original ideas which are tailor-made for our community. On the one hand, original ideas can be more useful and more precise; on the other hand, it seems sensible to learn from previous work and save ourselves from trying to reinvent the wheel. More importantly, the key challenge in developing a new framework is that our judgement might be influenced by what we already find desirable, rather than an appeal to general principles. Overall, it seems more appropriate to draw on the aesthetic tradition for the beginning of this conversation, but move to see original ideas emerge in later discussion. 

Our first framework was proposed by Monroe Beardsley in the 1950s. He built on the idea of aesthetic experience (covered in Part IV) and claimed that the value of an aesthetic experience could be evaluated on the basis of three common factors: intensity, complexity, unity. 

The first of these qualities, intensity, is what strikes us when we first see, hold, or use a pen: how strongly it grabs and holds our attention, and the emotional force that it commands. For FPs, intensity can take several forms: visual (how the pen looks), physical (how it feels to hold), and performative intensity (how it feels in use). Regardless of the dimension, intensity differs from simply being pleasant or nice; it is that moment when we say ‘whoa!’ and we are pulled away from everything else and concentrate entirely on the aesthetic experience. The stronger that intensity, the more valuable the aesthetic experience is. A disposable Pilot Varsity is a (surprisingly) pleasant experience to use but the experience is not visually or physically intense, and the performance is only intense very temporarily. A Visconti Opera Master demonstrator is a superior experience because it is far more visually and performatively intense: it can grab and hold our attention in a way the Varsity simply cannot, and on this basis, we could conclude that the Opera provides us with a more valuable aesthetic experience.

The next factor is the complexity of the experience: that is to say, whether we feel that the experience is imaginative, surprising, and interesting. A pen that is subtle and rich in contrasts — an intricate arrangement of many diverse and varied parts — will be far more interesting than one that is plain and predictable. And an interesting experience is no doubt more valuable than an experience which fails to surprise us or get us thinking. This may be why so few FP enthusiasts sustain any interest in modern Parker, Sheaffer or Waterman: there is no real complexity in the experience. Nothing about these pens is all that surprising or imaginative, and so the value of those aesthetic experiences is much lower than we might experience from a cheaper brand like Twsbi, which is far more creative and interesting. 

The final factor, unity, can be expressed in the ideas of coherence and completeness. Coherence is the visual rhythm that is achieved from the reiteration of a single or a few compatible colours, features, or motifs in a way that feels harmonious, even natural. If everything is nicely tied together, the aesthetic experience will be unified; if the different elements conflict — if our visual attention to one element is interrupted by other elements — the experience will be unpleasant, even distressing. Coherence might appear to be in conflict with complexity and, at a basic level, this is probably true. But true artistry is able to provide an experience that is rich in subtle contrasts while maintaining overall harmony, in such a way that our overall experience is much deeper and more meaningful: a more valuable aesthetic experience. Alongside coherence is completeness, the feeling of finality that emerges from each part, the sense that nothing has been omitted and an overall equilibrium has been attained and can be enjoyed. The implication of this sense of completeness is that the experience could not be improved by the addition (or refinement) of any other element. When the elements are both coherent and complete, we feel a sense of pleasure at its unity, and the aesthetic experience becomes more valuable to us. When we look at a platinum Montblanc 146, it is impossible not to be struck by the unity of its elements: the colours (black, silver, and white) are in perfect harmony, the shine of the resin matches the shine of the silver plating, the symmetry, the way the piston knob is integrated with the shape and form of the rest of the pen. Although some feel underwhelmed by the lack of complexity, each of the visual elements are coherent with each other and feel complete, and our aesthetic experience is much deeper and richer for it.

Beardsley’s ideas can be contrasted with those of George Santayana. His 1896 book, A Sense of Beauty, was the definitive account of aesthetics for much of the 20th century and was built around the idea of beauty (which took the form of objectified pleasure) as emotion. Santayana’s three factors — material, form, expression — did not originate with him but he is perhaps the most influential proponent of them being central to our aesthetic experience.

The first factor are the materials (or matter), the basic elements that comprise an aesthetic object: the colours, the shapes, the physical material, etc. Santayana argued that it was the materials that had the strongest appeal to those who did not have refined taste. This idea is likely to strike some of you as a rather elitist claim, but Santayana was only trying to distinguish between those who had spent time developing an appreciation for a medium (paintings, poetry, music, pens, etc) — those who had a broad, varied experience and a deep knowledge — and those who had much more limited experience. I am sure that many of you would agree that your judgement about pens has improved as your experience broadened: you have a better sense of what you find beautiful or valuable. In fact, I suspect this is why many of us subscribe to blogs and read reviews of products that we have no intention of ever buying; they are an opportunity for us to broaden our experience and refine our preferences. Arguably, Santayana’s concept is only a negative (or elitist) one when used to exclude or denigrate those who have less experience than we do. (And I am glad to say that this is far less common in our community than many others.) This might explain why many intermediate users idealise the Visconti Homo Sapiens before they have used many premium pens; the appeal is primarily in its physical material (the lava), rather than its form or expression.  

For Santayana, an object’s form is far more important than the materials: this is not just the shape and structure of the object but the relationship of each element to the whole. As we broaden our experience and cultivate our tastes, Santayana claims that form becomes an increasingly important part of our aesthetic experience, and our appreciation. This was certainly true for me; when I started moving into FPs as a hobby, one of my first purchases was an AG Spalding. I didn’t love the form but it appealed to me because of the materials; since then, I still find the material an important part of my appreciation (and still love wood pens) but form has certainly become a much more significant factor. Superior form is one which entices us to contemplate: to sit back, stare, and think about the object and the aesthetic experience that it provokes. I think many of you will know exactly what he means by this and will have had exactly such an experience, where a pen stops being a functional object and, at least temporarily, becomes an object that we simply hold and admire. There is something magical in that moment and it seems right to argue that a pen with such form is superior to one without. 

The final factor, expression, is more subjective than the other terms and harder to pin down. Santayana explains it as the ideas or associations that are conveyed by an object which occur in our minds and the emotional effect that it evokes. So the colours of a particular Edison/Goulet Nouveau Premiere might remind us of summer and those pleasant associations then heighten the experience of using that pen. He makes the point that we can sometimes appreciate an object that expresses something we enjoy, even if the materials and form are somewhat lacking (though, of course, it is preferable that it combine these elements). 

Santayana is quite clear in pointing out that we should separate the price or financial value of an object from our appreciation for it — in fact, he describes those who fixate on price as being of ‘snobbish ambition’ and guilty of bad taste (a wonderful description). In such a case, the associations conveyed from the price of an object are not associations  conveyed by the object itself, but something external to it. In other words, a Pelikan M1000 might evoke certain feelings — in addition to admiration for its materials or its form — but our those feelings should not be swayed by its price. 

Beardsley and Santayana’s frameworks offer a nice contrast in ways we can understand why we find something to be beautiful or why we appreciate it. Beardsley is more prescriptive, but in a way that we can (probably) agree with: intensity, complexity, and unity certainly seem to be important characteristics that shape our appreciation, and the framework is a useful tool. Santayana seems to be more about understanding the different sources of our appreciation and how they influence us, rather than establishing some normative criteria. I think his idea of cultivated or refined taste is insightful, and his framework gives us some valuable insights into the aesthetic experience. 

And that is, of course, the purpose of these tools: to develop a sense of aesthetic literacy and to better discern our personal preferences. While two pens might perform differently against a particular criterion or framework, such performance does not support a claim that one pen is objectively better than another. Better can only ever refer to our own preferences, and so these tools are valuable inasmuch as they help us to think about beauty, appreciation, and enjoyment.

To conclude, I want to return to the problem of the M805 demonstrator and apply what has been learned through researching and writing this series. The first insight is that there is a difference between a pen itself being disappointing (which I would regard as technical failure) and an aesthetic experience being disappointing; in my case, it was certainly the latter, and therefore a subjective disappointment. I cannot claim that others will have the same experience as me (and, indeed, I’ve heard from others who are quite satisfied with their M805s). 

To use the Beardsley framework, I think that the design is almost perfectly unified but that unity seems to have come at the price of complexity. The pen lacked any kind of intensity; the preview pictures appeared visually intense but I did not find the actual pen to be the same. I expected to have that transcendent experience of beauty but it was lacking. To use the Santayana framework, the form is simply beautiful and my disappointed stemmed from expression: the association that the pen conveyed was a Twsbi 580 with a gold nib. The 580 is a wonderful pen (I own two of them) but the size, shape, feeling — even the name! — of the M805 was too similar to the 580 for me. 

Ultimately, I am still not sure that either of these frameworks are able to fully communicate my feelings about the M805 but I think that I am starting to comprehend those feelings a little deeper and I am certainly able to articulate them more clearly. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a process to develop a broader aesthetic literacy and, with time and cultivation, we can achieve a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of our fountain pens. 

Thank you for reading.


Links to the series: