Art 102 - Aesthetics and Criticism - 1993


One way to understand the mind of Kurt von Meier is to examine what and how he taught. He poured himself into his teaching and his students got the real deal; a teacher of vast knowledge and insight unafraid to tell the truth. And he did it in an entertaining way. These course materials are a good example of where the mind of von Meier could, and did, go. Everyone was welcome to hop aboard for the ride.


Kurt'von Meier, Ph.D.

Receptivity and analysis: we human beings talk of our various senses of perception, ways in which we take note of the world around us, prerequisite to making critical judgements or aesthetic evaluations. But we may also consider awareness as a holistic phenomenon of the human organism. Therefore, it is misleading to think of senses as clear-cut subdivisions of our psyche, however practical & useful for analytical purposes. This warns us about taking our modes of analysis to be characteristics of that which we are supposed to be examining. It provides a good caveat, or warning, to bear in mind throughout the course. For many people it is difficult to perform a task while at the same time maintaining self-awareness. Yet, few things could be more important for the serious study of aesthetics and art criticism: awareness of the "still point," clarity & objectivity.

In physics this process of self-awareness is analogous to what is called a recursive function. In mathematics, the analogy is with a self-referential equation. We should become aware of analogies between the sciences and the arts in order to take advantage of the objective power of models or paradigms that science can provide. This practice may help us avoid some of the obvious tendencies toward subjectivity that so frequently accompany discussions about aesthetics and criticism. In the belief system of Western culture--the most powerful contemporary influence on what appears to be a new global culture--the objectivity of science and the universality of mathematics are fundamental. It is worth noting that all of science is based upon drawing distinctions, that is to say, upon counting and measuring. Science is grounded upon mathematics, even though mathematics--in its deepest nature--is not about number at all; it is about formal relationships, only some of which, later, may come to be represented by number. It is further worth emphasizing that mathematics is not considered a science, according to academic tradition, but an art.

We can elucidate the distinction between science and art by looking more carefully at the words themselves. It is science that draws distinctions, severing or slicing what before is an indistinct whole. The word SCIENCE comes to us through the Latin scire which means to know, in the sense of discernment, separating one thing from another. It derives from the Indo-European word root skei that is common to words such as CONSCIOUS and CONSCIENCE, OMNISCIENT and PLEBISCITE; words having the sense to split or to splinter, such as SHEAVE, and in "SHIVER my timbers"; SHEATH and SHED, SCHEDULE, SCHISM, and SHIZO--all indicating something fragmented set apart. Therefore, it comes as not great surprise that in Germanic languages such as Old Norse and Old English the forms skita and skitan respectively should produce the venerable verb meaning to defecate, namely, to SHIT.

Thus, while many artist students may be delighted to learn that, according to the prevailing opinions of etymologists who study the Indo-European languages, there would be a certain rationale for proposing the equation SCIENCE = SHIT, we perhaps add more to our knowledge by noting that skei is an extended root of sek, which means to cut, with cognates at SAW, SCYTHE, SICKLE, SECTION, DISSECT & SKIN.

The word ART also derives from an Indo-European root, in this case ar, which has the basic meaning of "to fit together." Many words derive nom this root, some rather surprisingly, such as ARM, ALARM, ARMADA, ARMADILLO and ARMY. HARMONY and ART are closely related. Also there are words clustered around ORDER, such as ORDAIN, ORDINAL, COORDINATION, ORNAMENT, ADORN. Through the Latin ordiri to begin to weave," comes PRIMORDIAL. From the Latin reri, "to consider, confirm" a variant form in which the order of the A and the R are reversed come RATE, RATION and REASON. Also related are both HATRED and KINDRED, the names ALFRED and RALPH, RIDDLE, RITE, LOGARITHM and ARITHMETIC. So now we see why arithmetic is not a science, but an art: it derives from the same word root, and both practices involve making or fitting together, rather than cutting or splitting apart.

This distinction is not just a matter of word games, but fundamental and real. It provides a valuable clue for understanding at a deep level the meaning of the word ART. We see that ART is not a piece of nature, but rather something made--conventionally, but not according to lexical necessity, by human beings--so that component parts fit together to form the symbol or representation of a whole.

That human beings are able to discuss works of art at all, and how they are made or perceived, is a function of language. Our principal vehicle for communication in the classroom is the modern American English language, more formal as written language, but usually somewhat freer in the spoken mode. This will be, from time to time, injunctive--as when instructions or assignments are given--although more generally the form of speech will be descriptive or discursive, with perhaps an occasional interrogative or expletive.

The student may also expect other sounds such as poetry or music (in addition to discursive language), together with experiencing images, tastes, smells, and qualities of touch such as the feel of certain surfaces and textures. These are modes of perception known as the five senses. In Western culture, there are traditionally these five senses: sight (seeing, the visual sense), sound (hearing, the auditory sense), smell (the olfactory sense), taste (the gustatory sense), and touch (the tactile sense). These are thought of as constituting the primary means by which we perceive works of art. Because this course is neither dedicated to (nor limited to) one particular medium, but rather seeks to understand the underlying nature of aesthetics and the processes of art criticism, we may consider the subject most generally in terms of various senses.

There are other ways of looking at this subject, of course, that recognize more than the traditional five senses. Consider temperature: we all importantly perceive the environment through temperature. It is one of the key perceptions historically leading to the innovation of clothing. Architecture may be criticized because a room or a space is too hot or too cold--or because the design made it too difficult or expensive to do so. Also, we use these terms metaphorically in saying that a color is warm or cool: a hot pink, a cool grey. A reasonable case can be made for including the sense of temperature in aesthetics. In a similar way we might add the perception of equilibrium, the sense of kinesthetic movement so crucial to the dance, and athletics.

Let us keep track by counting: the traditional system of five senses may easily be expanded to eight or nine. Each of these senses of perception is primarily passive, or receptive. All of these senses or modes of perception interacting, considered as "synesthesia" could be counted as a syncretic ninth. As a convenience for the analytical approach, this might also serve as a categorical basket into which the difficult cases and overlaps are relegated.

There are other real and significant modes of perception, of considerable significance for human consciousness, that do not fit neatly into any of the above categories. For example, most human beings are (or at least once were) capable of sensing magnetic polarities much in the same way as do migrating birds or homing pigeons; but it is extraordinarily difficult to see how this might be discussed in relationship to aesthetics, no matter how important the effect magnetic fields might have upon our well-being. We may also consider the issue of vocal expression, although this does not seem to be a "sense" in quite the same way as the rest because it is clearly active. It might be objected that the kinesthetic sense also is active, as even the sense of smell maybe when one exudes garlic, or pheromones. And here we encounter a deep difficulty with the distinction to be drawn between passive and active, or perceptual and expressive. This is just the sort of problem we hope to identify and articulate; and it is not necessary for the student to arrive at definitive answers to such problems in order to arrive at a preliminary understanding of the general parameters of our subject.

But we should ask if we have left out anything--any perceptual, sensory mode--of major importance? One speaks of the sense of imagination, and the sense of humor. But upon analysis, it will be seen that these are almost always functions of--or their subjects perceived through the agency of--the other senses. Perhaps this is also true for dreams, and for the so-called sixth sense, or telepathy. In our approach this might be included in with the syncretic sense. But it is not yet clear how we could discuss the esthetics of such complex or ethereal perceptions in any case without depending fundamentally upon the more conventional modes of perception.

How then, in terms of a worked example, might we proceed to study these senses? Clearly, the linguistic approach may provide a helpful beginning, since we should pay careful attention to the range of various meanings these sometimes vague, sometimes abstract words may convey. Lexical investigation, inquiries about the history of the words, and their word roots, and semantically related terms or concepts in other languages may also be useful. In order to pursue the deeper truth of the matter, however, it might also prove valuable to approach the various senses in ways that may be unfamiliar to most Western university students, but which have been used for centuries (if not for millennia) by other traditions usually characterized as "esoteric" or "mystical." In such systems, the various aesthetic modes of perception are typically associated with other symbolic elements.


Relationships in the tradition of the enneagon with the bija RAH, the Eidotrope ("element") FIRE, symbolizing VITAL ENERGY that provides ACCOMPLISHMENT, the Divine Energy of NO CONTRADICTION, the instinct of CONSERVATION (self-preservation), the domain of WORK, physiologically the digestive system and its nourishing action, ichnography: womb, yoni, umbilical cord, omphalos, breasts, the psychic function of the archetypal MOTHER. Internal evaluation of your experience with your mother, proceeding through each area chronologically:

How she taught you to behave     (Behavior and conduct)
Her aspirations for you     (Hierarchies)
The help she gave you     (Work and activity)
Her friendship with you     (Social)
What she taught you     (Intellectual)
The time she spent with you     (Expression and creativity)
How she took care of you     (Health and security)
Her love for you     (Sentiments)
The spiritual guidance she gave you     (Spiritual)

9 TASTES Generic: SAVORY = bread, cooked grain, nuts and seeds (oil) (sap- = to taste, to perceive, to be wise SAPIENT, SAGE)

Physiological basis:

SALTY           salt
SWEET          fruit, sugar
SOUR           lemon, pickles (acidic)
BITTER         coffee, quinine, chocolate
Aesthetic, cultural: PIQUANT         pepper, chilies
PUNGENT        ginger
ASTRINGENT persimmon, green fruit (olives)
AROMATIC       saffron, clove, vanilla


1. Korean: soy, garlic, brown sugar, sesame seeds (+ kim chee)
2. Japanese: soy, sake, ginger, sugar (fish)
3. Cantonese: soy, garlic, sugar, peanut oil
4. Szechwan: soy, brandied wine, ginger, (+ sugar/vinegar/chili)
5. Indonesian: soy, molasses, peanuts, chili (clove, coconut)
6. Iranian: yoghurt, dill, mint (lamb)
7. Middle Eastern: lemon, parsley, garlic
8. Greek: lemon, oregano, dill, cinnamon
9. Provencal: olives, tomato, thyme, basil, oregano, garlic
10. French: butter, cream, cheese, wine, herbs, mustard (meat stock)
11. Eastern European: chicken fat, onions, (potatoes)
12. Russian: sour cream, dill, caraway
13. Central American: lime, chili, coriander, scallions
14. Mexican: tomato, chili, cumin (corn and beans)
15. "American": iceberg lettuce, BF mayo, Velveeta? (hamburger & cola)


High-fat meats (lamb, goose, duck) + low-fat sauce (fruit/wine, sugar) Low-fat meats (chicken, fish, veal) + high-fat sauce (cheese, cream)

BASIC KITCHEN RULES: 1. Don't burn yourself. 2. Don't cut yourself.

* * *

Frequently, the results of our research are conditioned by the very means by which we approach the principal objects (or subjects, processes) of our study. In the history of science, this is understood as one of the important implications of work by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (in the field of physics, around 1925). Similarly, in the field of archaeology a brilliant researcher, Gerald Hawkins, thought to study the famous monument of Stonehenge with the aid of computer analysis. It is therefore not surprising that one of his conclusions suggested that Stonehenge itself WAS a computer, or that it could at least be understood to function like one. So we should be sensitive to the nature of our methodology, exploiting its capacities while remaining aware of its limitations. There are many ways in which the various senses can be approached or studied. For example:


The case has been made [McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy] that since the advent of printing our culture has become increasingly visual. There is also a basis for this visual predominance in the history of science, with the development of optics, from the Dutch innovation of the telescope through Galileo, Huygens and Newton. In the 19th century the theory of the continuity of vision [P. M. Roget, 1827, of Thesaurus fame] only much later, following Edison and others, led to the development of the motion picture, which of course, became a major factor in popular culture from the second quarter of the 20th century. Lumiere at the 1900 Paris World's Fair projected movies.

Not only photographers, but also fine artists were exploring the formal problems of representing, by an essentially static image, the illusion of motion. Thomas Eakins' painting Fairman Rogers, Four-in-hand, raised criticism from academics because it was believed that horses did not have all four feet off the ground, a fact which Eakins was able to justify by adducing evidence generated by the photographic experiments of his friend Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Marey's stop-motion photography in France. Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No.  2 (1912), sensation of the 1913 Armory Show. Duchamp went on to explore other implications of the "Fourth Dimension," most notably in The Large Glass (1915-23), Anemic Cinema (1926), Rotary Glass Plates [Precision0 tics] (1920), and Rotary Demisphere [Precision Optics] (1925). Also F uttering Hearts (1936).

In the 20th century several other technological innovations support the primacy of visual perception: TV, still photography, the use of color in all these, the Kodak Brownie, the Polaroid and the 35mm camera. The mass-produced Kodak put the camera into everyone's hands, so that people began to think and to see according to an aesthetic of photography. [The story of E. S. Curtis and his native American subjects "posing."] The Polaroid as a present-generating magic device for the world traveler. The 35mm camera and the resultant color slides have had a profound influence on the teaching of art and art history in the schools. [Problems of arbitrary scale, color fades].

New optics: Hubbel Space telescope, lens technology, lasers, fiber optics (medical applications, etc.). Neon and other gas-lighting, Las Vegas, Chryssa, Dan Flavin.

Color printing, really only since mid-century, has made a tremendous impact in publishing of books on art. At first, line drawings were used, sometimes hand-tinted plates, then b&w photos. Finally good quality color printing with Albert Skira publishers in Switzerland and the 400-line half-tone screen process. Early Technicolor movies rare in the 1940s became common. Also: Cinemascope, Cinerama, 3-D, Sensurround "Earthquake", Al Capp's Smell-o-vision, John Waters' scratch-and-sniff movies with Divine "Pink Flamingos."

1954 = first live, coast-to-coast TV transmission in color [Rose Parade at Pasadena]. The colorization issue: old movies really do look different (Ted Turner vs. Woody Allen].

In addition to other cultural and historical factors in modern Western civilization, there is also objective data from science which supports and helps to explain the predominance of the visual sense among all human beings. John Lilly & others studying interspecies communication with cetaceans, especially bottle-nosed dolphins, found that a comparable number of their brain cells were specialized for sound processing, the auditory sense. Vision is relatively limited in water, distorted, murky or dark--deep or night, whereas water 4 1/2 times denser, so sound moves that much faster than in air, 3-dimensional rather than linear. Blindness, astigmatism, other vision impairment. Night-vision technology (Desert Storm). Mirages, visions, apparitions, halos, rainbows, perihelia, psychedelia. Spectrometers, scientific analysis (astronomy, chemistry). Stroboscopic effects.

For us, light is fast so carries a lot of information. Our visual range compared with hawks, eagles and vultures.


Rather than the simple-minded "five senses," other traditions based on the Enneagon of Sufi lore propose a nine-part system:

TOUCH - Pressure
TEMPERATURE - Metabolism
AUDITORY - Hearing
VISUAL - Sight
VOCAL - Speech, music & singing

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (Random House, 1990), briefly mentions others, some of which we have already noted above: ultra- and infrasonics, electromagnetic, phototropic, gravity, muscular and proprioceptive senses, and phenomena of synesthesia.

Among others, the Tibetan tradition of transmitting teachings recognizes the "telepathic" sense (for want of a better term), regarded by them as the highest, MOST powerful means of communication.

See the brief article by this instructor, "Transmission," The Current Wisdom, State Hornet Publications, Volume 1, No. 2 (November 1992).