Chapter 7

Aesthetics

There is no absolute objectivity in aesthetics. There are only individual ways of looking at things.

Our brains compare everything we see, whether natural or manmade, with familiar objects that are similar. The observer evaluates and classifies the 'object' according to his or her experience. It is therefore impossible to look at anything without prior assumptions. Our experience leads unconsciously to expectations. If the object meets or exceeds them, we feel secure or are pleasantly surprised. If it fails to meet them, we don't like it or try to ignore it.

While learning the trade I tried as hard as I could to revolutionize bowmaking. I did everything as differently as possible, naturally without much resonance or success. What we like depends on what we know, and if novelty deviates too far from this, most people will reject it.

There are nonetheless a lot of people who agree on what they like. All we can conclude from this is that they share a common experience. This is culturally conditioned, of course. We need to presume this cultural consensus in order to talk and understand one another. Someone from a different culture often understands a given statement quite differently from the way we ordinarily do. He or she finds different things funny or beautiful. Our aesthetic taste is also a matter of cultural conditioning, deriving from our experience and education.

Finding things beautiful is also a culturally determined affair, since it depends upon our experience and our upbringing. Well, one must now ask oneself just how important it is, how a bow looks. In point of fact, every detail of a bow, every design of its contour has a functional reason. The only exception is the nose, the frontal tip of the bow. In the Baroque period, every shape had to end in a flourish. The nose of the bow is a relic from that time of the Baroque bow; it has no functional reason. But one has grown so accustomed to it, that a bow without one would be found extremely ugly.

A bow is not an objet d'art. Its development has been primarily determined by function, with the goal of making it louder, stronger, more aggressive. Aesthetic appearance was secondary, equivalent to the spinach served as a side dish to the main course. If the spinach is oversalted, it may be an annoyance. But no one would judge the main course by the spinach.

On the other hand, aesthetics should not be underestimated either. The magic that radiates from a master craftsman's beautiful old bow is a source of pleasure for the connoisseur. A large part of this has to do with the quality of old wood. An old bow maker once told me, many years ago, that with good pernambuco wood it is like having the feeling one could look into the wood as one would into a lake. This is a romantic description, but I can not think of a better one.

Whereas there is relatively close agreement as to what constitutes good wood, the shaping of the lines of a bow is, to a large extent, a matter of taste. Unfortunately, our taste is very dependent on what we are accustomed to, and also on the sheer price of a bow. It is much harder for anyone to find a very expensive bow awful than to disapprove of a cheap one. Nobody likes to admit this to himself. However, it is the case that something which is worth a lot of money inspires us with much respect. When one buys something that clearly oversteps the limits of ones budget, then one loves that thing more, since one has bought something one could not really afford. Musicians normally are not madly keen on having an expensive car, but a too expensive instrument or a too expensive bow gives them much joy. It spurs them on to higher achievements, instead of their just hating the idea, which would be a reasonable reaction. That is a paradox from which we all suffer.

Astonishingly enough, connoisseurs are more or less agreed on the subject of what constitutes a good bow, apart from the wood and the price. It is naturally true that the longer one has had to do with bows, the more details one can see in them. And the more details one recognises, the nearer one gets to the essence of a bow. At the same time, however, the connoisseur is more careful in his judgement. There are bows which one finds beautiful at first sight, but which lose their fascination the more one contemplates them. Others that one had not particularly liked at first gain sympathy with time. What appeals to people straight away probably has to do with the degree of familiarity of the observed shapes. The slowly arising sympathy comes, however, from the more genuine understanding of the object in question. This is the build-up of a relationship between object and observer.

The relationship naturally remains subjective. But there are objects, in this case bows, which favor such relationships, and others which have less appeal to the experienced observer. In my opinion, the intensity of the relationship depends on how much love, time and competence have been invested in a given bow. For the observer, careful craftsmanship or a particular profile are not the issue. On the contrary, less carefully crafted bows may have more appeal for us. Their imperfections can inspire sympathy, and may encourage the instinctive understanding needed for a feeling of affinity for a bow. A good bow is a complicated statement, that can subsume an inner harmony not always recognizable at first sight. But when it is there, there is a growing affinity for the bow, and respect and sympathy increase perceptibly. This happens more often with bows made by well-known makers, not only because they are expensive, but because the makers, each in his or her way, have taken particular care with the materials.

Beauty is not an accident, but a result of intense desire plus deep thought and professional skill.

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