Updated: Jun 16, 2021
"Lighthouse" by Kim Johnson.
A few weeks ago, on a trip to the East coast with my partner, I paused in Valencia, where a "lighthouse" standing in a roundabout miles from the sea pulled our conversation to other equally bizarre examples of pubic vandalism, such as the tree constructed of traffic lights near Gran Bazaar.
We pressed on to Sangre Grande, where we were pulled up short in front the police station. There the issue confronted us, stripped bare in the centre of another roundabout: two tubular stick men, one headless, playing stick.
"Stick men stickmen" by Kim Johnson
Thereafter, as we wound our way to the Manzanilla coast, we bounced the question back and forth: were those stickmen an example of bad taste, like much or even most of Trinidad’s statuary, representating an extreme, perhaps absolute, absence of artistic talent, or were they a symptom of something even more sinister: an absence of any taste at all?
When it comes to public conduct bad taste and tastelessness mean pretty much the same thing, but in aesthetic choices they are very different. The man of bad taste in, say, war movies, might prefer Rambo 5 to Dunkirk. One can almost sympathise (once he's not hired to produce a movie). Occasionally we need to be mindless and stupid, some more so than others, because the world is exhausting and thinking requires a lot of energy.
A lack of taste is a different matter entirely. Then, the person has no interest in whether something is tasteful or not. Usually, because other considerations are more important, such as how big or conspicuously expensive it is, like houses or jewellery. It’s the aesthetic equivalent of bullshit, as deconstructed by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, wherein the bullshitter is indifferent whether his words are garbage or truth or completely incomprehensible, one or the other, who cares?
Maybe, suggested my companion, the stick figure was meta: not an indicator of zero artistic ability; but rather an icon – the ultimate pared-down essence of a person: head, torso with two arms and two legs – no features to distract you from what they represent, which can be very eloquent. Like how Usain Bolt could represent the abstract idea of velocity as a stick man.
Perhaps those stick men in Sangre Grande were icons of Trini warriorhood, the kalenda stickmen. Ironic that they were placed in front of the police station when for decades the stickmen were hounded by the police, and responded with their sticks quite credibly; but yes, iconicity is a cosmic possibility, like rolling two sixes with a pair of unloaded dice 66 consecutive times.
Realistically, however: No. I know my people. I recognize their stick men, their stiffness and immobility. They stood frozen with pans in the Botanic Gardens, I recall, and other pan stick men still pose in front of a building along Queen’s Park East as well as, to my humiliation and embarrassment, at Piarco airport. They are not icons. They are the children of some bureaucrat’s decision to erect a statue in tribute to pan or bois. The budget is too small to commission a properly ugly sculpture – such as the Sparrow, Kitchener or Lara statues that disgrace Port of Spain – so a stick man will have to do. He’s not supposed to look like any particular person anyway. As a matter of fact, a stick man might be taken to be kinda artsy, tubular like, a step up from the paintings that used to be cubicle.
They are the progeny of an unholy alliance between a bureaucrat without taste and a hustler without talent.
The discussion would have concluded there with a non-verbal African expression of contempt and disgust - that is, a steups - had it not affixed itself to my interest in how the senses work, including their duty to provide metaphors. The way, for instance, that sight is a metaphor for understanding - You see what you mean? And touch a metaphor for emotional empathy.
Why is taste the metaphor for aesthetic sensibility when our experiences of beauty are mostly what we see or hear? Perhaps because taste is the most unrelenting sense. We don't notice most of what we see or hear, thank God, or even feel (like the chair I’m sitting on) . But you tast anything you put in your mouth, whether it is pleasurable or unpleasant. Rarely is it indifferent, and it’s obvious why. Survival of the species requires everyone be very aware what he or she has put in his or her mouth. Give it a sniff first, your nose will indicate if there's anything suspicious (fishy) about it.
Maybe the taste metaphor emphasizes that beauty gives (or should give) pleasure as directly as taste does. God knows how I wish the ubiquitous ugliness in our urban landscape prompted widespread and instantantaneous displeasure. Maybe then we'd do something about it (although it's possible we'd get more stick men).
Still, curiosity sent me down the rabbit hole of aesthetic history, to land in an 18th century room, where taste was the major concept through which aesthetic merit was viewed in European philosophy, with seminal works by, among others, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Both men sought to reconcile the contradictory ideas that (1) taste is a subjective feeling that varies between people; whereas (2) some works are objectively better than others.
From there passages branched in many directions. Taste is a physical sense, of course, but it's also a social grace. I've known people who are tasteful and others who are tasty. Your taste perceives pleasure or displeasure instantly but you also learn to appreciate some tastes gradually. It took me decades to enjoy callaloo, something about the look turned me off, although I hold no objection to black pudding. Taste varies – it differs from person to person and between different cultures, different ages. Mine has changed drastically over the years, leaving me disappointed when I revisit some favourites of my youth, and horrified when I others. Yet taste is also judgmental and normative and I can't help but think whoever commissioned and/or fabricated those Sangre Grande stick men are philistines who should not be trusted with anything more responsible than attending gas stations.
Theories of taste declined in the 19th century and were all but forgotten by the 20th. But not by all. In 1964 Susan Sontag’s first major essay “Notes on Camp” broadens and deepens the concept in ways that have profoundly influenced my own understanding of our Afro-European civilization:
"To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion—and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas... Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste."
The "Camp" sensibility she describes in sensitive, loving detail found beauty in artifice and superficiality. It took the piss out of serious high art by celebrating extravagent stylishness and naive over-the-top cosquelity. The traffic-lights Christmas tree would have been seen as camp. This creation of New York's artsy homosexual world was the antithesis of Sontag's Jewish intellectual background:
"I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it... a deep sympathy modified by revulsion...
"The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness."
How sad it is that such an insightful cultural critic, one of the most brilliant American intellectuals of the later 20th century, was blind to her generation's dominant sensibility, the Cool which was elaborated by Black Americans. "Cool" is a style, a mystique, a way of presenting the self in everyday life and an aesthetic of artistic performance.
A timeline of cool, adapted for Wikipedia from Dick Pountain and David Robins, Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude.
A general sangfroid, the Black version of Cool was popularized in jazz circles in the 1940s: a calm amidst the storm, a state of unperterbable harmony and poise under all circumstances. George Elliot Clarke describes the two coolest men of the 50s and 60s, Miles Davis and Macolm X, who embodied "resourcefulness, quick thinking, skill, courage, fierceness, seeming insouciance, and fashion smarts." Cool jazz was deeply passionate. But it was unruffled, even while it was being created. It is the stylishness of every black performer who improvises his creation without breaking a sweat, the swaggering quintessence of unruffledness. Robert Farris Thompaon traces such coolness back to West Africa:
"Like character, coolness ought to be internalized as a governing principle for a person to merit the high praise, “His heart is cool” (okan e tutu). In becoming sophisticated, a Yoruba adept learns to differentiate between forms of spiritual coolness… So heavily charged is this concept with ideas of beauty and correctness that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as “cool.” Coolness, then, is a part of character… To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with… we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is ashe. This is character. This is mystic coolness."
For everyday cool Thompson seems over the top and taking it a bit too seriously; in other words, Camp. Until I recalled the words of a stickman and founder of the Bois Academy, Rondel Benjamin, who explained why he played that most violent of sports:
"Bois". Photo courtesy of Carnival Institute of Trinidad & Tobago
"How do you access your grace under the greatest threat that is possible, which is death itself? Everything about our Carnival is about internal grace expressed internally as beauty. And you see that? That is what people does call aliveness."