Monday, June 10, 2013

Hume and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

For those of you who haven't read the 1974 Robert Pirsig classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. It's a quick, breezy primer into an often felt, but seldom articulated gulf between art and artifice.

But he didn't get there first, not by a stretch. David Hume, Essay XV:
Even in those productions, commonly denominated works of art, we find that the noblest of the kind are beholden for their chief beauty to the force and happy influence of nature. To the native enthusiasm of the poets, we owe whatever is admirable in their productions. The greatest genius, where nature at any time fails him, (for she is not equal) throws aside the lyre, and hopes not, from the rules of art, to reach that divine harmony, which must proceed from her inspiration alone. How poor are these songs, where a happy flow of fancy has not furnished materials for art to embellish and refine!
But of all the fruitless attempts of art, no one is so ridiculous, as that which the severe philosophers have undertaken, the producing of an artificial happiness [emphasis in original], and making us be pleased by rules of reason, and by reflection.
Art: the product of happy nature, a graceful dalliance with a winsome muse and the reflection of a sensitive scribe.

Artifice: the pretense to, "regulate, refine, or invigorate any of those springs or principles, which nature has implanted in me."

'Tis the cold heart of a clod what never has known the tug of authenticity. You don't need an artist's soul to appreciate a fiery sunset or the geometry of a snowflake or the dazzling athleticism of an NBA final match. No painters beret need ye don to lose yourself in an elegant snippet of C# code or engross yourself in the majesty of the stars or unmoor your imagination to swim in the oceans between sweeps of ink that bind a narrative together. Everyone knows art, yet it's often that we consume artifice. We buy bottled sugarwater, see blockbuster films, and God forbid, drive a Toyota.

And what of the ticky-tacky attempts to bridge that gulf? What of the saccharine platitudes that urge us to buy "fair trade" coffee and intentionally smash teacups so that we can mend them for the elusive wabi-sabi aesthetic? Do the way we rank these things in our quiet inner places match how we rank them in an objective marketplace? Should they be ranked alongside each other? Or is it a distinction made irrelevant by individual calculus? Do I have any right to be offended by either epicureans or ascetics? By elitist snobs or dreadful boors? Is it not enough that I have access to my own euvoluntary exchanges that I have to get wound up by those of others?

What are the bounds of uncompensated externalities? Does the bad taste of others count?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?