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October 31, 2002

Artchat Survival Guide -- Aesthetics

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

A shot at defining "aesthetics," a term some of our readers have expressed an interest in.

"Aesthetics" is one of those words Americans get funny about. We balk at it; it seems to reek of refinement, English class, school ... The hell with all that, let's get on with the party! We're suspicious of aesthetics, and we all too often prefer to avoid the topic. When we do get interested, we look to Europe for guidance (Henry James was great on this theme), or to academics or gurus, and we find ourselves wanting.

The problem with our suspiciousness about aesthetics is that it shuts off conversation. Aesthetic experience is hugely important; to avoid consideration of it is to deny ourselves the full experience of life's pleasures. (Our naivete also leaves us open to exploitation by "experts.") And what's the point of that?

Technically, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the subject of beauty; the dictionary's opinion is that aesthetics has to do with a concern for, or appreciation of, beauty. Both of these definitions are fine, god knows. But there's another way to take the word that's more practical and more useful -- hey, values Americans like.

In our confusion about the topic, we tend to picture aesthetics as something you do after you take care of everything else that's more important. We take aesthetics to be optional -- as the slice of cake we may or may not treat ourselves to after a hard day.

In fact, it's part and parcel of, and inseparable from, how we experience life. We're always considering things and making decisions about them on grounds that are least semi-aesthetic. (The one exception: when the only value at stake is life or death.) Aesthetics is life considered from the point of view of beauty and pleasure. And nearly everything can be -- which isn't to say that, morally speaking, it should be -- discussed from the point of view of aesthetics.

A long way of saying that whenever choice is available, aesthetics (taste and preference, pleasure and displeasure) plays a role. Say you're thirsty: do you pour yourself a glass of milk, or one of o.j.?

What can drive people a little nuts about the arts is the way the aesthetic point of view is forever forming and re-forming itself, and operating on multiple levels. It's like my (admittedly pathetic) understanding of Zen -- you don't find enlightenment, you let yourself be the enlightened being you already are. How to do that? Quit trying to figure it out!

It's all so indefinite -- but that doesn't make it less real. Here's how it works. I'll use the example of my walk to work this morning.

I threw on some corduroy pants and a windbreaker (chilly outside!), got my tea at the deli rather than the usual fancy place, and angled up through Times Square rather than take the 5th Avenue route. Along the way, I bought a Walkman to replace the one that just went on the fritz. And all the while I was thinking: about this evening, which I hope to spend in my recliner reading some Philip K. Dick rather than any of that fancy literary crap I get so tired of; and about the vacation the Wife and I are scheduled to take in a couple of weeks. Well-earned, let me tell you, after all my hard work. Finally I waved my i.d., took the elevator and settled into the office.

A typical, hauling-my-sorry-ass-to-work morning: What could be more banal? How does aesthetics enter into any of this?

Here's how: I chose corduroy pants over wool pants; I chose the windbreaker over the leather jacket; I chose the deli over the fancy tea shop. I chose to walk rather than take the subway, thereby showing a preference for one kind of experience over another, as well as a preference for fitness. I was in more of a mood for the bustle of Times Square than the bustle of 5th Avenue. I chose a simple and cheap Walkman instead of one of those Swiss-Army-knife, do-anything Walkmans -- I've got a strong preference for simplicity and clarity. I really, really like my recliner, and one reason I'm looking forward to vacation in the Southwest is because the light in New Mexico is so beautiful.

So, while it's perfectly OK to see these routine morning activities as just a matter of doin' what I had to do, it's also perfectly OK to take note of how aesthetically-informed all my choices were.

These things do get slippery and vaporous. I notice that engineer and techie types often scorn the aesthetic point of view because it just doesn't seem real to them. (I get the impression that to some of them, thinking about aesthetics seems unmanly.) Can it even be discussed? Sure it can, not that it's easy to do, which is why people who are good at discussing aesthetic experience are to be valued.

(Incidentally, I giggle when literal-minded types cavil on the basis of "how real is it?" Just because it's hard to describe what it's like to ride a bicycle doesn't mean that no one can or does ride a bicycle. Come to think of it, looking at life from the aesthetic point of view is a little like riding a bicycle. Until you can do it, it seems impossible, but once you get the idea and find the feeling, it couldn't be simpler.)

Sorry about the detour. So: Where's the hard reality? Here's the answer: Why do people buy the cars they buy? Why do they dress and feed themselves the way they do? Why do they pick the the neighborhoods to live in that they do? Why do they choose the mates they do, and make love the way they do?

Unlike many artsies, I'm content, even eager, to see aesthetics take a modest place as one part of life. But I can get annoyed when people treat it as something unimportant. That's because aesthetics bleeds into some of life's Larger Questions. Why are we doing what we're doing? What's the point of life? Religion, ritual, pleasure, eroticism, beauty, spirituality, immortality, grace ... If you're interested in this thing called "aesthetics," you're going to be spending time in this not-unimportant neck of the woods.

I can also grow annoyed by people (often primarily political, technical or economic people) who are convinced that their values should always and everywhere trump aesthetic values. I'd ask them: once you've got your pet political/technical/economic system in place, what then? All that liberty and prosperity -- for what? So that you might ... [fill in the blank here]. I note that the freemarket economist Thomas Sowell is a baseball and a fine-photography buff. He has his pleasures.

The basic lesson is that, except for those brief moments when the only question in the air is survival, there is no experiencing life without an aesthetic dimension. That's not an option. Some people might wish it were possible to do so, although I can't imagine why. But aesthetic experience is built into the hard-wiring of our natures; we're already, and always, experiencing life on the aesthetic plane, like it or not. Aesthetics is part of the medium we swim in, and can't be completely separated out from it. (For what it's worth, my reaction to this fact is, Might as well enjoy. Why not relax and get on with the discussion? It'll only enhance the pleasure.)

And, hey, all those people who think they're deciding against aesthetics, or avoiding the question entirely? Those are aesthetic choices too.

Readers who want better arguments than I can manage along these lines might treat themselves to Yi-Fu Tuan's amazing Passing Strange and Wonderful (buyable here), as well as to some of the evo-bio-aesthetics books I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog.

In any case, how do these ruminations jibe with yours? Very curious to hear what sorts of general thoughts about aesthetic experience your own decades of fussing with the arts have led you to.



posted by Michael at October 31, 2002


Well... I have warm possessive feelings about the word "aesthetics." It's like a child's teddy bear to me and no one has ever even tried to spoil it.

The main problem I face in being true to my aesthetic activity is FEAR. How does one see/create beauty while scared?

What am I afraid of? Well, I was raised to look pretty, bear children and engage in polemics with my father. This is rather simple, maybe boring actually. But, it's only 1/4 of my current life. It's the other 3/4 that contribute to my fears. Will I manage? Will things fall apart? Am I in over my head? And here's a biggie, when I'm lying in my death bed will I think, "My life was just too damn hard?" That bothers me for some reason- like it represents the ultimate failure. I want life to be challenging, but "hard" suggests something medieval to me- like I'm a serf grinding out my life with a mortar and pestle while others just toss theirs into a food processor.

Maybe I'll have to learn to be fearful and aesthetically aware at the same time. But I haven't given that much thought. For now I play a tidal game: today I'm aesthetic, tomorrow I'm not, today I am, tomorrow...

Loved your ramblings.

Posted by: Rosa on October 31, 2002 11:24 PM

"I notice that engineer and techie types often scorn the aesthetic point of view because it just doesn't seem real to them."

Posted by: acdouglas on November 1, 2002 3:36 AM

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