what movie do you want to live in?
Wipe your moodboards clean! What are we talking about when we talk about 'aesthetic'?
I’m sitting in a lightly cluttered kitchen, painted white and a not-nearly-neon green. (The green has grown on me.) To my right is a copy of The Night Circus, bookmark sticking out two-thirds of the way thru, stacked on top of a Mercedes-Benz car manual. My notes for this post are on college-ruled paper, resting on a closed binder beside a skull-emblazoned baseball cap rimmed with the motto blow your mind. Pheasant feathers (at least I think they’re pheasant feathers—it was a long time ago when I collected them) sit in a vase on the oakwood counter.
I’ve turned my laptop around because of the sunlight from the conservatory. An English bulldog is mean-mugging me from the window.
I searched “fairycore” on Spotify a little while ago, hoping to set the mood for this writing task. The tunes were eh, so I’ve just put my liked songs on shuffle and lowered the volume. It’s switching from Ludwig Goransson to Royal & the Serpent now.
If there were a single word (maybe two) to describe all the above, what would it be? What’s the feeling you get from all that description? What’s the vibe? What’s my aesthetic?
All aboard! We’re just getting started talking about aesthetic. Join very public secret society for free.
the origins of ‘aesthetic’
The word aesthetic comes from a Greek verb (aisthestai) meaning ‘to perceive.’ A derivative word, aistheta, means ‘perceptible things.’
In the 1700s, a German writer used the word to denote perception by the senses. From that point, philosophers got a hold of it and muddled it up (of course) in talk about beauty, judgment, taste, and pleasure.
Oh, aesthetics is also a philosophy of art.
That’s what it is, but what does it mean?
When we talk about aesthetic—at least as I mean to talk about it in these next several posts—we are talking about a collective beholding. Not many people beholding one thing, but the many aspects of a thing being beheld at once. In this collective beholding, the thing beheld—a picture, a living room, a person—is fully perceived, but may or may not be fully comprehended. In fact, for the aesthetic to work, an element of mystery might necessarily remain in the perception.
Think of it this way. Have you ever watched a movie, read a book, or visited someplace and realized you liked what you had experienced? Yet, when someone asks why you like it, you’re at a loss for words.
Perhaps you’ve realized you intensely like someone after a single interaction1—only to have surface the logical reminder that a pretty face and pretty personality do not a like-worthy person make. But you don’t care. It feels right. You like them and that’s that.
That is an aesthetic experience. It’s a sense, a feeling fully communicated but hard to break apart into separate definite sensations. It is “a collection of signifiers or, more precisely, a vibe.”2
This is what people are doing when they go about creating an aesthetic: they are collating the signifiers (the bits and pieces) they need to achieve a particular vibe. There is a sense in which we have always done this in a less conscious and more rigid fashion. (In ancient times, the lower and laborer classes dressed differently than the merchant and middle classes, who dressed differently than the nobility and upper classes. And one wouldn’t be caught out wearing a garment of a class other than their own.) Today, we do it more obviously, more intentionally, and perhaps more pathetically than ever before.
briefly, on judgment
I don’t intend to pick apart the elements that make up an aesthetic, at least as far as I can foresee. I don’t think that’s helpful, and it would make for an interminable series. If, as David Hume averred, “the ability to detect all the ingredients in a composition” is part of good aesthetic taste, I disagree. You don’t have to detect every ingredient in a cake to appreciate the slice you’re eating.
When we eat cake and decide whether it is good or bad (or something else) we are engaging in judgment. We don’t try to do it. We do it. This is aesthetic perception. We see and we judge. We, in fact, cannot see or experience without judging.
People. Buildings. Sculptures. We detect a vibe and decide whether or not we like it most often without knowing why. Of course, the more we engage with something, the more fair and nuanced of a judgment we develop. But there is no compartmentalizing when it comes to aesthetic. We must take the thing as a whole or not at all.
universal signifiers of aesthetic
I find art philosopher Denis Dutton’s seven universal signifiers of aesthetic helpful for asking questions about the things we’ll consider throughout this series. Here they are as summarized by Steven Pinker, with questions crafted by yours truly.
Expertise or virtuosity. Does this aesthetic require skill (or pursuit of skill) to craft?
Nonutilitarian pleasure. Is it possible to enjoy this aesthetic as a work of art and nothing more?
Style. Does this aesthetic adhere to any accepted rules of style?
Criticism. Is the aesthetic a work of art? If so, it can be subjected to judgment, appreciation, and interpretation.
Imitation. Is the aesthetic an imitation of something else or imitable by others?
Special focus. Can this aesthetic be experienced dramatically outside of ordinary life?
Imagination. Does the aesthetic-crafter and the aesthete engage imaginatively in the creation and receiving of the aesthetic?
As we engage with aesthetic and what it has to do with authenticity, self, space, and the mind, we’ll return to these questions or variations thereof.
we want to like the world
Eli Siegel founded a school of philosophy known as Aesthetic Realism. One of its core values can be summed up thusly: we want to like the world. Siegel wrote:
Is this true: No matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?
The answer is yes. We want to like the world. And if we do not like the world, we set out to build a world that we can like. And this is largely carried out through aesthetic-crafting—a type of aggressive, intentional, mid-scale, super-online scrapbooking. Or as one UK student described to a Vogue editor, it’s “the stylistically consistent multimodal manifestation of an imagined lifeworld.”3
Multimodal manifestation. Imagined lifeworld. Please take notes.
It’s also like deciding which movie you want to live in. Or album, or book, or videogame. It’s less about what happens in each of those mediums, but the feeling, the vibe, that the specific offering of art communicates to us.
asides + signal boosts
So, what’s my aesthetic? Surely if I’m writing all this I have it figured out. Eh, no. I think I put most of my aesthetic-crafting energy into the physical spaces I control. I like cozyness without clutter, natural lighting and calming interiors. I like heavy fantasy elements sitting alongside the mundane. I also like dragons and I have three figurines scattered in aesthetically pleasing places around the house. Add to that some new Byzantine-style religious artwork. I think I’m going for a unifying saints-and-dragons theme.
I took a break from writing this post to watch Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, and it lived up to the praise I’d been hearing about it. It wasn’t what I feared it could have been: oh let’s make a D&D movie and get all the nerds to watch it 💲💲💲. It was actually hearty and fun, and shows that movies can be good and silly without being stupid and cringe.
Go listen to Bari Weiss’ interview with mega music producer Rick Rubin. He’s produced almost everyone from Adele to Jay Z and he’s got a new book out titled, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. I haven’t read it yet, but if the insight he gives in this episode of the Honestly Podcast is any indicator, it will be well worth it. Here’s what he has to say about making art while ignoring the audience:
It’s fine to want to connect with an audience, and if you wanna connect with an audience you have to ignore them when you’re creating the work. If you’re making the work for the audience, it’s no longer a genuine work. It’s no longer authentic. The authenticity is what makes it good. You putting yourself into it, flaws and all, ugly and all, beautiful and all, weird and all. All of those things are what makes people connect.
…when I say the audience comes last, I do mean it. But the reason the audience comes last is because the audience has to come last in service to the audience. If you’re making it for the audience you will undershoot the target. If you’re making it for yourself, you’ll do your best work.
I suppose intense hatred for someone is the opposite and equal reaction.