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Some closing thoughts, a summary of the series, and the playlist
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of aesthetic in all its dimensions these past few months. I hope you have too!
I love sitting in this space partly because clean answers are hard to come by. While researching and writing these posts, there was always something to be figured out around the next corner, so many rabbit trails to run down. Humans are messy and sticky; what works for one might not work for all. One person’s aesthetic impulses might lead them down an entirely different path from someone else. And some are blessed not to think via aesthetic lenses very much at all.
This series isn’t anywhere near exhaustive, and I welcome thoughts and questions on elements we haven’t touched on. The potential for future re-attacks is high. It’s a closed book (for now), not a finished one.
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While writing and researching, I’ve been impressed with the massive creative energy that goes into aesthetic-crafting: whether that crafting is carried out on our bodies, our personalities, or our living rooms. The world isn’t divided into creatives and not-creatives. We are all laboring creatively in some aspect of life—cultivating, shaping, crafting, but some of us more consciously than others. This laboring is fundamental to who we are. It’s the spark of divinity within us, bequeathed to us by our Creator.
The Old Testament’s earliest (and first explicit) mention of someone driven by divine impulse is Bezalel, who was ‘filled with the Spirit of God,’ not to preach or prophesy or minister or heal, but to engage aesthetically: “to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.” A few passages earlier, Moses had been commanded to make “holy garments” for the Levite priests “for glory and for beauty.” His instructions were replete with requirements for fine threads—gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn—as well as precious stones like onyz, jasper, and pure gold.
God communicates his glory, presence, personality, and story to his people most consistently through aesthetic dimensions.
When we craft our lives or the spaces in which we abide according to an aesthetic—an aura, an ineffability that can only be beheld and experienced in totality—we follow the way of the Prime Mover. Whatever else we may be doing in our aesthetic pursuits, we are always doing that.
That idea undergirds everything we covered in this series. Below is a quick summary.
First, we decided that aesthetic is a collective beholding of person, place, or object. It is the many aspects of a thing being perceived at once. From the beholding, we receive meaning and mystery: meaning from the whole and mystery from the parts which cannot be analyzed separately.
Then, we explored aesthetic and authenticity—because the aesthetic question is ultimately one of realness and reality. Who are we? Who am I to myself? Who am I to my beholders? We have the luxury of “outsize curiosity about ourselves”1 and the curse of being able to interrogate whether we are being authentic. Søren Kierkegaard and Jean Baudrillard helped us as we came to see that inauthenticity isn’t real. Everything, even our pretending and searching, springs from a deep well of candor. “We can be nothing other than authentic, aesthetic-pursuing souls.”
Next, we reflected on the presentation of the body, where a lot of our aesthetic energy is spent. In cyberspace and meatspace, multitudes edit themselves into a presentation aimed at pleasing an audience. We’ve made a god out of beauty ideals and are killing our souls in its service. “We must reclaim the unmodified body as an aesthetic good.”
Moving from what we look like to who we are, we tackled the presentation of the self and the popularity of curating our stories and personalities to achieve an aesthetic, once again, to present to an audience. In so doing, we become image-crafters: “presenting a person who is not [us], but who [we] want people to think [we] are.” Our online selves are not our real selves, and what constitutes our real selves to some people is an entirely different set of ephemera from what makes us real to others. Naturally, we edit our story for whatever audience we face at the moment, but that speaks to our more profound nature as storytellers. And the purpose of storytelling is to connect. We curate because we want to connect, to be understood—in a way, to be consumed.
Next, we took on aesthetic and space (architecture and interior design), exploring how spatial artistry impacts us emotionally, mentally, physically, and even morally. Physical aesthetics tell stories just as much as our bodies and personalities do. They establish an atmosphere reflecting our stories and values back to us and the people we invite into our spaces. Being intentional about spatial aesthetic is one way we love ourselves, our neighbors, and the world.
The hardest one of these to write was on aesthetic and the mind. The idea of a mental aesthetic gets overlooked a lot (or categorized under other names). But we see life and ourselves through the prism of the mind. The furniture in our mental houses influences every aspect of how we live—how we give to and receive from the world. If we desire to amend or develop an aesthetic in other areas of life, we’d do well to start with the mind.
Finally, we looked at beauty and desire, the confluence of which is at the heart of our aesthetic impulse. The simplest way of putting it is this: we perceive something beautiful, and we observe the distance between us and that thing. Observing the distance gives way to desire, and we begin crafting toward that beautiful thing (giving new meaning to the term “fashion forward”). Is our desire strong enough to overcome the distance?
Okay, that does it.
Here’s a playlist for this series, a mash-up of songs that speak to our existence as creatures unable to escape the clutches of aesthetic.
asides + signal boosts
This episode of Vox’s Gray Area podcast delivers some much-needed commentary on the problem of knowing ourselves, which is related to the authenticity aspect of aesthetic pursuits. Host Allie Volpe and guest, philosophy professor Mitch Green, “explore why there’s an increased interest in self-knowledge, the merits of self-discovery, and the best way to truly know ourselves.”
Giving a shoutout to The Atlantic’s podcast series How to Talk to People. It’s about so much more than how to survive small talk and uncomfortable social situations. The hosts delve deeply into the difficulties of building and participating in community in an era that often seems designed to discourage that. 5/5 ⭐!