The Aesthetic

This will be the first in a long thread on the aesthetic.

I may be misreading Dom Lopes’ Being for Beauty, but I come away with a definition of the aesthetic that he, very likely, does not intend to offer.  To wit: the aesthetic is excellence in any human practice whatsoever.  We take pleasure in seeing something well done.  That super-competence is above and beyond functionality.  There are many ways to put the ball in the basket in a basketball game.  Some are workmanlike; they get the job done.  Other ways are surprising, graceful, acrobatic, have panache etc.  It’s those “extras” that are aesthetic.  We call someone an excellent musician or speaker or teacher when they do more than just deliver the goods.  They elicit a response that exceeds communicating to an audience the content of the deed or the recognition that the deed has achieved its intended outcome.  Mere effectiveness, functionality, is not aesthetic.

For starters, then, we should probably resist nominalization here.  “The aesthetic” is exactly the wrong phrasing.  Better to see the aesthetic in terms of adverbs (especially) and adjectives.  The aesthetic resides in how a thing is done, not in what is being done.  The nouns can take care of the what.  We use the adverbs and adjectives to qualify the nouns—which leads us directly to the common notion that the aesthetic has to do with qualities, not quantities, not with the bare facts, but with elaborated facts.  We enter the aesthetic when we take basic functions—eating, having sex, dressing, communicating—and make them elaborate.  We explore the various ways of doing something—and take pleasure in playing with the possibilities. 

Thus, from one point of view, the aesthetic is not cost-effective.  It asks us to expend more time and energy in doing something than is required to simply get the job done.  The aesthetic, this is hardly a new thought, is unnecessary.  From a utilitarian point of view, it looks frivolous.  There are even cases where a concern with style, with doing something in a way that will impress and please others (or oneself), detracts from achieving the practice’s goal.  The aesthetic is a luxury, one that always implies the existence of a surplus.  I have the time and energy to not drive directly to the goal in the most efficient manner possible.  There is always the hint of the aristocratic here, the supercilious manner that says I don’t have to take achievement of the goal all that seriously.  I am more invested in the presentation of the self in a certain stylish way than I am in vulgar achievement.  Wanting something, grasping for it, is déclassé.

Utilitarians, those relentless accountants of human life, are forever telling us we cannot afford the aesthetic.  Somewhere there is someone in desperate need and you are wasting precious resources on your frivolities.  This is basically Peter Singer’s argument.  How dare you spend $150 at a fancy restaurant when there are people starving?  Only in the utopian achievement of all of humanity’s basic needs could the aesthetic be justified.  The same basic puritanism is displayed in Thomas More’s Utopia, where the aesthetic is just about completely banished not only because the focus is on providing for everyone’s needs, but also because the display side of the aesthetic, its striving for excellence as a way to impress, threatens egalitarianism. 

There have generally been two ripostes to the utilitarian distrust of the aesthetic, both captured in familiar Shakespearean tag lines.  The first comes with Toby’s plea for “cakes and ale” in Twelfth Night.  What a dull world it would be if we never played, never elaborated, but stuck to doing our tasks with metronomic regularity and efficiency. All work, and no play . . .

The second is more grandiose, enunciated in Lear’s anguished “O, reason not the need.”  Here the aesthetic becomes the very ground of humanness.  “Man’s life is cheap as beasts’” if we are bound to needs, to the necessary.  From being elaborate play, the aesthetic gets transformed, in one giant leap, into the very space of freedom.  This line of thought is particularly potent in German philosophy, running from Kant and Schiller directly to Arendt and Marcuse (among many others).  For Schiller, the aesthetic is what makes us human, because it means we are not tied to the actual, to what today presents to and demands of us.  We are human because we can entertain possibilities, imagine futures, that transcend current circumstances.  The aesthetic is the realm of the virtual, of the unrealized imaginative, contrasted to what stands in front of us right now.  And it is precisely that ability to transcend the here and now that provides the freedom that, for him, is essential to being human, not animal. 

You can see what has happened here.  We have gone from the aesthetic being unnecessary, a playful elaboration of things that need to be done, to that unnecessity become the bedrock of the aesthetic’s becoming just about the most important thing about us as human beings.  Our very humanity is at stake.

I am uncomfortable with the swing from frivolity to the ground of humanness.  I find the frivolity position more plausible, but do think it neglects the fact that every culture we know of displays aesthetic elaborations.  That fact suggests there is some core of necessity in the aesthetic.  It is not ever dispensed with.  If it has no functional pay-off, then (paradoxically) the lack of functionality must be playing some role that humans cannot jettison.  On the other hand, trying to colonize imaginative endeavors that strive to creatively rewrite possible futures under the flag of the aesthetic looks like special pleading to me.  Humans exercise their imagination in all sorts of ways—including when they devise more efficient ways to do things as well as more elaborate ways to do them.  Our freedom (conceived as the effort to transcend necessities) is manifest in utilitarian endeavors as well as aesthetic ones.  The Wright brothers were utilitarians through and through.  They weren’t looking for style points; they were just trying to overcome what had been a necessity in human life until they came along: we were tied to the ground. 

Maybe that simply means we are not humans without imagination.  But it also seems a bad idea to trot out this whole notion of “humanness” at this point.  Better, it seems to me, just to talk about instances where imagination is deployed—and not be bound to some dubious claim that non-human animals lack imagination, or to insidious assertions that some non-imaginative humans aren’t fully human.  In other words, let’s just skip tying the activity of imagining to some status of being.

Returning to the aesthetic, and the extremes that arguing along the lines of necessity/freedom gets us into, I am inclined to want to shift the terms.  What happens if we think of the aesthetic under the general rubrics of experience and communication. On the experience side, aestheticization is way of ratcheting up intensity. That intensity can be one of pleasure—but pleasure seems way too blunt a term to capture the subtleties aesthetic elaboration can provide. Again, we are on familiar ground here.  The connoisseur or epicure is often suspect, especially to the puritanical utilitarian, because the intensity is excessive to function.  And some of the intense experiences the aesthetic offers have no apparent function at all except to provide that intensity. 

So maybe we haven’t escaped the necessity/freedom issue at all.  Certainly, aestheticists have always championed the freedom of doing something for its own sake, with no concern for a return on investment for the time and energy spent.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to talk of these things without slipping into economic metaphors?  Still, focusing on the range of experiences the aesthetic might offer does allow us to avoid talk of “humanness,” while affording a pluralism that lowers the stakes considerably.  We are not talking any longer of some sort of “freedom” that makes us human, or is necessary (sweet paradox) to living a full, satisfactory, or flourishing life.  Instead, we are just talking about a wide variety of intensities and pleasures that some people might pursue even if those same experiences leave others indifferent.  Why would the entomologist scorn the novelist—or vice versa?

 Aesthetic elaboration makes for more effective communication.  Making something intense, memorable, distinctive etc. are all ways of grabbing and focusing attention.  Elaboration, in other words, may not just be pleasing, but also serve to grease the movement of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and other content from one person to another.  I think those of us devoted to the arts—and committed to having the arts take up some space in any educational curriculum—are most often attached to the messages, the content, we see art works as attempting to convey.

This is a vexed topic.  Aestheticism had as its very goal to strip the arts of all content.  Art with a message is often condemned as tendentious and, thus, inferior.  But it seems simply wrong to dissociate the arts from either an attempt to provide an intense perceptual experience (an event) as in non-representational music or painting.  Or to provide a meditation on the meanings and feelings that certain kinds of experiences elicit.  The literary arts, to a very large extent, try to explore the complex ideas and emotions that surround various situations—complex ideas and emotions that direct namings (anger, love) do not adequately capture. The elaboration in these instances is in the service of more adequate representation of things that resist such representation.  That’s one reason metaphors and other figures of speech become so central to literary practice.  And that’s why literary works can often strive to evoke an emotion instead of try to describe or represent it.  I still think either strategy can be called an attempt at communication. 

I will end here for today.

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