Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Climbing and Art: A Debate that Needs to be Re-opened?

As a companion to a new essay (with accompanying paintings) that has just been published in Alpinist 32, an online feature I wrote titled "Climbing and Art" was added. In the online essay, I argue that it is time for a new vision of climbing:

"In other words, the outer frontier in any objective sense is now closed in climbing. It's my view that only within inner frontiers does the art of climbing have any future. We have yet to see very many contemporary portrayals of the inner vision of the climber that compare with examples from the 1960s and '70s."

In the essay I argue that a long time ago, writers in major journals took these questions seriously with a view toward maintaining some vision of integrity in the sport. I cite Harold Drasdo's important 1974 essay, "Climbing as Art" as one important example.

I am definitely concerned that with the newly emerged category of the "professional" climber and the emphasis on exploiting the commercial potential of the sport, important and creative voices are being buried. Especially worrying is the thought that climbing continues to be a reflection of a leisure class with seemingly endless amounts of time and money to burn, a class that is overwhelmingly white, prosperous, and self-satisfied with its view of the world. While I recognize that this has always been the case, any real innovation in the sport, and of course in society as a whole, comes from those outside the system. Trends in the society as a whole, not to mention the Great Recession, are working against diversity of voices and views, a situation that is unhealthy for both climbing and the broader social picture.


Anonymous said...

Alright, it's about time someone on one of these blogs actually wrote something interesting- I think this is the first time I've seen it, maybe I haven't been reading M+W enough. I will need to pick up a copy of the new Alpinist and read the full essay, but are you proposing that there is dissonance between the variety of quality of objective experience, i.e. "hard" free-climbing or alpine ascents of big mountains, and the variety of quality of inner, subjective experience, i.e how is the experience processed and reflected upon? What do you mean by "outside the system," and why must innovation come from there? Thanks for the interesting post, good work with the blog!

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the comment! I am proposing that with the mainstreaming of climbing into athletic discourse, with competitions, focus on speed climbing, link-ups, etc, that real reflection on what climbing is about is becoming unlikely, even dangerous, from a career perspective, for "professional" top-level climbers. So we are less likely than ever to hear what climbers really think or even if they think at all. The commercial imperative, masked in ever more sophisticated forms of media and group events, is trumping everything else.

The system refers to the group of media outlets, major gear manufacturers, and event producers whose primary mission is to monetize the essentially subjective experience of climbing by transforming it into something objectively measurable. Grades, times for routes, competition results, expedition grants, cash purses, etc, placement in media, all promote this at the expense of what is really important in the sport. Because of this commercial monoculture, I feel that ultimately any new vision will have to come from outside the system I have outlined above.

I don't expect any real attention to be paid to this phenomenon but feel it's worth exploring, hopefully in more detail.

Climbing Islove said...

I hope you won't find this too disagreeable. I do appreciate the opportunity you've created to think about this. Please read this: http://climbingislove.blogspot.com/2010/10/climbing-outside-system.html


Peter Beal said...

Not disagreeable at all. Will respond shortly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response Peter, the clarification on "the system" is helpful. I think a red-flag goes off in my mind whenever I hear that phrase; forgive me, I went to a liberal arts college. You are likely right about that as the money will never motivate climbers to think critically about what they are doing as it just doesn't sell. I noticed something similar while watching a re-cap of the most recent UBC comp. Throughout the video, there was footage of someone spray-painting a mural. In the end, about half the video was this mural footage- why? How much cross-over is there between graffiti and rock climbing? Zero. How "urban" are most rock climbers? Not very. When are we going to give up on the edgy, hip-hoppy, gangsta image in bouldering and comps? Now that's the stupid question- when the media and corporations stop making money doing it. Thanks again for the insight and I look forward to picking up a copy of the new Alpinist.

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

I think a case in point would have to be 8a.nu, no?

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

I read the climbingislove blog post and I have to say I’m a bit distressed by the ending message, and perhaps the message throughout the entire post. I think it is sad to think about climbing as having no purpose. Certainly the activity of climbing on its most granular of levels highlights a precious aspect of human existence.
Climbing is a subculture of our society, and our attitudes towards and within this activity and the subsequent community of people it fosters have a very real yet indirect effect on “people with real problems”. In fact, the way we act and treat others within this subculture is a living reflection of how we treat other players in certain social/economic/environmental/political arenas of life. To assume ‘the system’ is static, or immune to change because the activity that provides the foundation of ‘the system’ itself lacks a certain utility speaks very little about how the system ultimately effects these same social/economic/environmental/political interactions within a society and the world at large. To say that: ‘The pursuit of attaching a deeper, more subjective meaning to climbing’ (over the objective based alternatives such as dollars and points) is a waste of time when compared to ‘helping people with real problems’ discounts the holism between these two causes. If we cannot find a way to attach meaning, passion, creativity, and soul into climbing, how are we to apply these in other more impactful areas of our lives?

Brent Apgar DC said...

Peter, I'm curious to find a copy of Alpinist and check out the article. Sounds interesting.
I had to check out the reply post on the climbingislove blog...

Interestingly (he/she... no profile so I have no idea who "they" are) they say that you are espousing that climbing be "progressed" (not even sure what's meant by that... more routes/problems?, harder grades being put up?, more climbers in the sport overall???) by a certain means.

I must have missed your point, I didn't think you were talking about progressing the sport of climbing anywhere. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Wow, these comments are making me feel like I'm at Evergreen again, Micah! Climbing is fun. I think that Peter is trying to talk about the question of why climbing is fun and that maybe the corporate sponsors aren't addressing some of the more existential issues in our sport; but clearly we all haven't missed the point. Maybe if you want to solve real problems you should donate your patagonia jeans, quit climbing, and stop wasting your time on the internet- maybe you could join the military and help solve their real problems? If we can't attach subjective meaning to climbing, then we can't attach subjective meaning to any other activities, including love, work, and social interactions- we would thus become robots.

boe said...

thanks for this post. i guess the hard thing about calling for art is that art is defined by its unpredictability: you can't ever know where it'll come from or what form it will take. but this question it got me thinking about what has counted as artistic innovation or inspiration in climbing most recently. opinions on this will vary of course, but i was kind of surprised to realize that for me the people who sprang to mind were michael reardon and dean potter. what strikes me though is that although alex honnold is now obviously taking soloing to a new level it doesn't seem to me like you can say that what he does has the same artistically creative dimension as dean's and, for me especially michael's did. even if alex were to solo freerider, as mind blowing as that would be, it wouldn't be surprising, it wouldn't come out of left field the way that some of michael's and dean's ascents seemed to do at the time. instead we already kind of expect it (which i imagine could suck tremendously for alex; i hope he can tune that out). if art returns to climbing it'll be by virtue of taking us off guard which just notching up the difficulty doesn't do anymore. that said, i think there's something artistically surprising involved whenever we pull off moves or routes we don't expect to. creating this kind of art will always be integral to actually climbing, to being a climber, even if climbing runs out of resources for spectator art

Peter Beal said...

Reading over your response, I discern two main arguments. The first is that "non-commercial" climbing doesn't and cannot exist, though I am not sure you have exactly explained why this is the case. The second is that climbers should be concerned with real problems. To me the second cannot be entirely detached from the first. That is, any climber who is thinking more deeply about the sport than how to make some money or a public reputation from it, is more likely to care about the bigger picture as well.

I deeply disagree with the first proposition as climbing is at its heart an ultimately pointless activity and no truly rational justification can be presumed. Searching for an "authentic foundation" is sure to be frustrated. Yet it is in this pointlessness that its justification lies, that it acts as a form of artistic or aesthetic play, one ultimately deeply in tune with greater forces in the world.

So I disagree that one cannot set oneself apart from the system. One does not have to buy Patagonia clothing nor does one have to accept the rest of it as inevitable, unless one chooses, for whatever motivations, to be deeply skeptical about the possibility of an alternative. However such a state of mind seems to me to be a form of retreat, a tacit acceptance rather than an active advocacy and ultimately doomed to disappointment either way.

Peter Beal said...

Dear anonymous, and you know who you are, you are stupid.

Small enough words?

Thanks for writing! :)

Climbing Islove said...

I cannot follow the second paragraph.

Non-commercial climbing just refers to the lack of anyone practicing climbing in the world who is not linked materially to the business of selling climbing. A counter-argument to this pitch might imagine a naked man, with no shoes or chalk or even clothes, climbing in the wilderness, but hopefully nobody will seriously raise that point.

I feel admonished, called out for retreating, for missing the big picture, for not creatively playing with the void, for being out of tune with the universe. Ironically I don't mean at all to hide under a rock, and retreat from the fray, but to say that it is exactly those folks imbuing climbing with whatever fancy, artistic, romantic, transformative and transcendent properties that are the ones all to well acquainted with being utterly disengaged and yet tricking themselves into believing climbing relates to some greater, larger and fundamental thing. It's almost like 'climbing-as-spirit'.

This rock climbing, this blogging, and this promise and pursuit of re-imagining of climbing is of about equal import with some guys playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basement. That is to say it's not unimportant in some sense, nor uninteresting, but it is to say it's just not that significant in a politically, socially or spiritually charged way. If we posit it as such, I maintain we've really duped ourselves, and are the most ideal example of a retreat from pressing problems of human need--real problems.

Peter Beal said...

The point of the second paragraph is that the "authentic foundation" of climbing is precisely its uselessness. This is the starting point of its value. To attempt to monetize it, make it truly professional, is oxymoronic in the end as I think a great number of "pros" in the business have found to their sorrow.

I am not arguing for a naked man in the woods, since you have raised that point, but I would argue for a thinking individual in the woods instead of one bent on converting the experience into publicity and cash. Claiming that buying gear somehow implicates one in the system is a slippery slope argument at best and misses the larger point of what we as consumers can do to encourage responsible manufacture and marketing of that gear.

I fail to see how climbers who claim a deeper dimension to the sport are "utterly disengaged" and "tricking themselves." Perhaps you could come up with some concrete examples. There are plenty of examples of disengaged climbers on the other end of the spectrum.

The main point which you seem to be avoiding is why climb at all? Maybe you should explain that point first before comparing my writing to "guys playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basement." I have been writing on this topic for a long while, most recently on this blog for three plus years, and my commitment to trying to understand the sport of climbing is self-evident. Among other things, it has put me in touch with significant figures in the sport who feel as I do, people who have influenced climbing for the better. I feel reassured that I am probably doing something right because of this.

It seems incumbent upon you, if you believe your position has real merit, to come up with something more concrete and well-argued than the suppositions and generalizations I am seeing so far.

A good place to start might be to explain how climbing in any sense addresses "pressing problems of human need--real problems" and how "climbing-as-spirit" or whatever you are claiming my ideas to represent is an unproductive or deluded response to these problems. Again concrete examples and specific details would be welcome here. I do welcome this discussion but without some more substance on your end, I fear it's hitting a dead end.