May 14, 2010

Unchosen aesthetics

The old men sorted themselves out by inclination, aesthetic taste and preference. It wasn't like anyone told them what to carve or like they talked about it extensively, theorizing or writing manifestos. They just knew what they wanted to do.

Some men carved ducks, some songbirds. It wasn't necessarily that they liked or had liked birds, but when they began working with wood, their retirement hobby, this is what they did. Because birds required something -- precision and practice, delicate, detailed work -- and because there were standards and a way to know if you'd done it right. They were careful men, patient and perfectionist, and this mimetic aesthetic appealed to them and meant some certainty, some standard, and their art was the art of reaching for that perfect reproduction of the way the feathers lay on a folded wing.

Others, retired engineers or those with a mathematician's sense of beauty, chose chip carving, all clean cuts, straight lines and geometric patterns.

There were jokers, too, old men with knives who mostly guffawed and carved what they called characters, their jokes and cuts somewhat crude. There were would-be sculptors carving women meant to be tastefully nude, and Lutherans and Catholics careful with v-tools and finely-sharpened skews carving Christs or St. James or John. There were trick carvers, working on whittling tricks like wooden chains and balls in cages, and those who carved spirit faces in stumps and driftwood, or Indians and mountain men with beards that flowed in descending circles around a walking stick.

They all carved what they carved. They never acted like it was a choice. There aesthetic was what it was, and came from who they were, and their life and their work and what they didn't feel like they had. Or what they wanted more of. How they saw the world or would have wanted it to be. It was like it was an outworking of who they were.

Normally, we think of aesthetics like creeds, like something chosen and held, something believed. I'm not so sure it works like that.