Discover more from very public secret society
the quotient of beauty and desire: an aspirational aesthetic
How art for art's sake becomes art at the expense of everything else. The final post!
He felt as if he had left a stage behind and many actors. He felt as if he had left the great seance and all the murmuring ghosts. He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new.1
Who am I? Where do I belong? Questions of identity and belonging are at the heart of aesthetic pursuits. We wrap ourselves in colors and clothes, trying on outfits for size. Outfitted, we try to fit in. We evolve and manage the expression of ourselves, becoming PR professionals for our personas.
We are under the impression—or the illusion—that we are in control of our stories and that we can shape them at will. When we err, we immediately turn to the footage in our minds. We edit and modify, fill in with color and background noise, we judge intent and supply excuses. Immediately, we are authors doing spin.
We do this, yes. But our ultimate desire is to be understood without saying a word, without presenting at all. To be known and seen without the effort that entails. That is the heart of the aesthetic pursuit.
Don’t miss the Aesthetic playlist or the official debrief...
(un)reality and representation
Amid our desire to be known, we are confronted with a panoply of ever-shifting ideas, concepts, ways of being, and image-evoking senses borne to us on waves of sound and light. We now engage with a “precession of simulacra,”2 symbols upon symbols which tell us how we should be. Pretty, designer, bespoke, eternally happy.
This precession of simulacra—social media influencers, Paris Fashion Week, whatever “core”-suffixed trend is the cause du jour—overlays the territory of reality. Such representations, from AI-enhanced faces to selective storytelling, precede and determine the attenuated reality we experience. Our reality, such as it is, is unreal because it is always new and premised in symbols that are foundations unto themselves. There is no there there. We gaze into the mirror, longing to see what is true. Yet we wear masks and have become forgetful of distinctions between reality and the representation of reality. We have been promised the ability to “bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.” Hence our willingness to play algorithmic quidditch to achieve terminal immortality.
Reaching terminal immortality subsumes a positive desire that underlies the aesthetic impulse. That positive desire is this: when we create aesthetically, or with an awareness of aesthetic dimensions, we follow our ancient parents who were set to tend and keep, to craft and cultivate, to nourish their garden and name the inhabitants thereof.
To yearn aesthetically is to answer this question: What gardens will we make out of our place and presence in the world? Will our gardens be coursed with quiet paths and tall hedges—calm, meditative, transcendent? Or will we have dirt trails crossed with rotted bark and overgrown with thorned foliage—a haven for the adventurous searcher? Perhaps, in a walled orchard, we will toss soft petals on a dulcet wind.
What kind of gardeners will we be?
Following our aesthetic impulses, we attempt to fulfill our truest desires by ordering reality. We stand forever at tension between where we are and where we want to be, who we are and who we are becoming.
witnessing our own chess game
With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess-game he was witnessing, move by move.3
I’ve been sitting in this space of considering aesthetic for months—longer if I count the time I’ve spent thinking about it and talking about it with others—and I don’t know where we are now as a society. Are we trying to become what we know we aren’t, or are we actually becoming something worth the label of authentic?
We tend to expend more aesthetic energy in one dimension than in others—body appearance, physical space, the mind, personality, or what have you—whatever dimension we deem most important to ourselves or way of being in the world. Individually, we hold up masks, but communally we hold up mirrors.
The mask allows us to consider a different face, a different way of being. We can imagine ourselves as other than we are now. But the mirror reflects what our community, culture, or social enclave says about who we are or who we should be. The mirror reminds us that we are not alone in our aesthetic journeys—which is a thing we both crave and detest.4 One podcast recently highlighted the prevalence of toxic trends and how people adopt them, not because they’re good, but because so many others have walked such paths. In our aesthetic choices, we often reflect our culture back to itself.
However, when we hold up masks, we also shed something like light on the path. When we conceive other ways of being, we begin to create and shape the reality of our minds and our world. We become embodied art, or (as Tara Isabella Burton says), “The artifice becomes an expression of authenticity.”
As we enact what we desire, what we desire becomes real. It’s an ability nearly divine: out of something, something else.
We play so much at being who we want to become. We both play and witness ourselves play. And some of us take the play more seriously than others. As Burton says of Taylor Swift and Lana del Rey, there are so many layers of play that it’s impossible to tell at what point the play begins and ends. “They are artists,” you might say, “they are supposed to play. They are supposed to act and have a persona, an aesthetic.”
But their art is their reality. Is ours?
Is our making our being?
Is it healthy to see the whole life as a work of art, a thing made as a presentation, possibly for consumption? Some folks do and they have gone too far. Art for art’s sake has become art at the expense of everything else. We will play ourselves into either death or transcendence.
the genius to manifest
We are gardeners, makers, shapers, storytellers, lego-builders. Burton uses another word to describe people of such impulse: geniuses. In the old days, a certain class of men and women (but mostly men) were obsessed with being seen as smart, knowledgeable, popular, and known for their culture, wit, and fashion. Some put much thought into how to be(come) seen as such. They had something of a formula that can be summed up like this:
People will think you’re a genius if you try hard enough to seem like one. However, by trying so hard to appear like a genius, you’re likely to actually become one.
The artifice becomes authentic. Art becomes life.
Notice the shift. You become the thing you play at. Play the role enough and you eventually become that character in the story. And, in the end, it might all be about story anyway.
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur believed we only recognize ourselves amid a story—a story that others are telling or perhaps that we are telling with others. (“The narrative constructs the identity of the character…,” etc.) We find meaning and reality when we recognize our presence in relation to the rest of the tale. The story—essentially an aesthetic cloak—is where the real us lives. Similarly, philosophers like Alisdair MacIntyre believed we achieve reality of self in the telling of story. (Man is “a story-telling animal,” etc.) It is not so much the story, but the act of telling it that finally bequeaths to us authentic aesthetic qualities.
Burton avers the impulse to manifest—to become or be seen as a genius (or whatever else)—is proof of an underlying “theological” notion that the world is enchanted. That God, or magic, or something has imbued the existing spheres with musicality. And musicality implies direction, intention, and some sort of strategy and meaning. For the areligious, this enchantment might not be attributable to a being but to a world that, as Burton puts it, “runs on vibes.” There is something more going on here. There is some there there.
We will forever attempt to tap into the musicality of the spheres, that vested beauty and intentionality which we cannot define but know when we see it. Enchantment is the collusion of beauty and desire: something unreachable, something out there, meets something identifiable which springs from within.
Our aesthetic inclinations are the quotient of desire and beauty. We desire a beautiful garden, so we cultivate. We desire a beautiful story, so we tell one. We desire a gallery of life, so we make living art.
As we desire, we design. As we design, we become.
asides + signal boosts
I thoroughly enjoyed The Reason Interview’s episode within which she and host Nick Gillespie discuss the concepts that inspired her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. I reference some of what they discussed in the post above because it, well, fits. The episode is on my “Podcasts to Re-Listen To” playlist, and her book is at the top of my next-to-read list.
I listened to The Sacred podcast’s episode featuring Audrey Assad. I’ve enjoyed Audrey’s music for years but this was the first time I’ve heard her tell her story at length. I applaudfor gracefully guiding the discussion through sensitive topics, and I especially identified with this from Assad:
Words are inherently incapable of describing the sacred because they inherently create opposites. It’s only the moon because it’s not the sun and it’s not the sky. There’s a certain duality to language that is unavoidable, therefore it cannot fully encapsulate what is beyond.
Understanding that idea has implications for cultural and political conversations, how we apply labels to ourselves and others, and what C.S. Lewis said about how we often find it hard to speak of the things that are nearest and most sacred to us.
I’ve also watched the premiere episodes of Ahsoka and thoroughly enjoyed them! Do we have another Andor-level stunner on our hands? We’ll see! Are you watching too?
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Jean Baudrillard (remember him?), Simulacra and Simulation (translated by Sheila Faria Glaser), 1994
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
We stretch between the desire to be unique and the desire to be the same as others in order to belong.