Choice of Aesthetics

Posted: December 16, 2018 in Culture, History, Idealism, Philosophy, Taste, War
Tags: , ,

As a student, practitioner, and patron of the fine arts, I long ago imbibed the sybaritic imploration that beauty and meaning drawn out of sensory stimulation were a significant source of enjoyment, a high calling even. Accordingly, learning to decode and appreciate the conventions of various forms of expression required effort, which was repaid and deepened over a lifetime of experience. I recognize that, because of their former close association with the European aristocracy and American moneyed class, the fine arts (Western genres) have never quite distanced themselves from charges of elitism. However, I’ve always rejected that perspective. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the fine arts have never been more available to people of all walks of life, as crowds at art galleries attest.

Beyond the fine arts, I also recognize that people have a choice of aesthetics. Maybe it’s the pageantry of sports (including the primal ferocity of combat sports); the gastronomic delight of a fine meal, liquor, or cigar; identification with a famous brand; the pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous, with their premium services, personal staffs, and entourages; the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a 1970s American muscle car; the sartorial appointments of high fashion and couture; simple biophilia; the capabilities of a smartphone or other tech device; or the brutal rhetoric and racehorse politics of the campaign trail. Take your pick. In no way do I consider the choice of one aesthetic versus another equivalent. Differences of quality and intent are so obvious that any relativist claim asserting false equivalence ought to be dismissed out of hand. However, there is considerable leeway. One of my teachers summed up taste variance handily: “that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.”

Beauty and meaning are not interchangeable, but they are often sloppily conflated. The meaning found in earnest striving and sacrifice is a quintessential substitute for beauty. Thus, we’re routinely instructed to honor our troops for their service. Patriotic holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and others) form a thematic group. Considering how the media reflexively valorizes (rarely deploring) acts of force and mayhem authorized and carried out by the state, and how the citizenry takes that instruction and repeats it, it’s fair to say that an aesthetic attaches to such activity. For instance, some remember (with varying degrees of disgust) news anchor Brian Williams waxing rhapsodic over the Syrian conflict. Perhaps Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning provides greater context. I haven’t read the book, but the title is awfully provocative, which some read as an encomium to war. Book jacket blurbs and reviews indicate more circumspect arguments drawn from Hedges’ experience as a war correspondent.

We’re currently in the so-called season of giving. No one can escape anymore marketing harangues about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday that launch the season. None of those days have much integrity, not that they ever did, since they bleed into each other as retailers strain to get a jump on one or extend another. We’re a thoroughly consumer society, which is itself an aesthetic (maybe I should have written anesthetic). Purchasing decisions are made according to a choice of aesthetics: brand, features, looks, price, etc. An elaborate machinery of psychological prods and inducements has been developed over the decades to influence consumer behavior. (A subgenre of psychology also studies these influences and behaviors.) The same can be said of the shaping of consumer citizen opinion. While some resist being channeled into others’ prescribed thought worlds, the difficulty of maintaining truly original, independent thought in the face of a deluge of both reasonable and bad-faith influence makes succumbing nearly inevitable. Under such condition, one wonders if choice of aesthetic even really exists.

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Comments
  1. Brian Miller says:

    I’m guessing ones sense of beauty has always been largely determined by the larger culture. Grow up in a 19th century Appalachian village and your sense of beauty would be largely determined by an old Scots-Irish fiddle arrangement, the solitude of the woods, the pleasures of planting a garden. Some one of the same era and a different class in a German college, might delight in the music in which you trained or a well-maintained library.

    While reading your post a couple of adverts popped up telling me that I could gain understanding of my digital presence by clicking “here” or a lifetime of rewarding travel would broaden my sense of beauty if I went “there”. I suppose that my aesthetic is almost impossible to separate out from the barrage of cultures on offer. My interior aesthetic is wholly commodified at this juncture. Who do I want to be, profess, my standard of beauty…? Well, there is certainly an advertisement scheme or an app to help me solve that particular problem of indecision.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I rather dislike my own gesture at the end toward lack of free will (a/k/a determinism). Certainly we’re products of our environment(s), but not so wholly that we lack agency completely. Maybe it’s too tortured an argument, but if we’re malleable by outside influence (the commodification of desire), then why not by self-influence, e.g., making a simple decision?

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