Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

2021, Apr 30    

“He divided the human understanding into two kinds - romantic understanding and classical understanding. Romantic understanding is inspirational, imaginative creative, and intuitive. Classical understanding proceeds by reasons and laws. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classical.” - Robert Pirsig

There is something that has been bugging me when I teach rigging and animation to students. It is straightforward to explain the technical aspects of this visual art, for example, the interface of the 3D engine, or which button to press, or which checkbox to check. Robert Pirsig calls this a “classical” understanding of the world. It is a bit like motorcycle maintenance. On the other hand, there is also a “romantic” understanding of the world, which includes why a specific painting is beautiful or why a character pose is appealing. My students have a hard time understanding why something is beautiful or appealing because they usually ask me to explain this with classical methods. Classical methods of understanding include logic and thus, when something can’t be logically explained, it’s hard or sometimes impossible to understand. “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. Although we can use classical methods to explain romantic objects, for example, I can tell them that the rule of thirds works better in one painting vs another, or we can measure the exact RGB colors in the shadows of the painting and observe that they are more “warm” than “cold”, this is usually not the right approach when judging romantic objects. The right approach here is to use romantic understanding, which feels more like motorcycle riding. It includes intuition and feeling about things. If a painting has great composition and a choice of colors, it can still be boring and dull.

For the longest time, I have been struggling to explain these ideas and wondering how best to approach teaching “beauty”. The struggle exists because we are living in a world, especially after the industrial revolution, that is very classical. By living in this world full of technology, we train ourselves to use our classical understanding, but our romantic understanding of the world is left mostly untrained. Even I as a teacher am trying to sometimes explain romantic objects with classical methods, and this is usually unproductive, the same way it is unproductive to measure beauty and love.

Recently I started talking to my students about these two ways of seeing the world and that the only way for us to get better at the romantic side of things, is to simply take the time for training our minds with romantic methods. The ancient Greeks used the same word for technology and art, believing that there is no difference between the two, so they trained themselves in both classical and romantic methods of understanding. In our time and world, if all our lives, we have been trying to measure, judge, divide and compare, we need to spend an equal amount of time training ourselves to feel, imagine, sense, and love.

“If the world lived by those ideas, then they would all be grooving along with every beautiful and useful thing we touched and saw. Because the human being that created those things would have made them with the inner peace that comes to us all when the world of subject and object, me and you, romantic and classical, then and now, outside and inside simply fades away into the oneness.”