“Oh, that’s so aesthetic.”
It’s a slang expression I’ve heard being thrown around increasing frequently, over the past year, by us college students (Princeton being no exception). To be more specific: “aesthetic” used in this way acts as a stand-alone adjective, in itself describing something. Sometimes this “something” is an object: I have heard us call a glass filled with different colors of sand “aesthetic”; or a Bosai tree in a small pot with even smaller stones; or many other similar objects found in one’s local Starbucks. Other times I have heard a building or room called “aesthetic”: perhaps a dimly lit bar established in a revitalized factory. Still other times, I’ve heard a model’s clothing described as “aesthetic,” like that advertised on huge posters at the Gap.
Despite, or perhaps due to, this ubiquity, I find it very difficult to pinpoint what exactly we mean by calling something “aesthetic.” Certainly, it suggests some general concern with visual appearance, but what do we actually communicate to another person when we describe something as “aesthetic”? Many slang words or expressions lack concrete definitions, of course, but here I argue that there is something particularly insidious about our lapse into imprecise and cursory uses of aesthetics. Such is a theoretical argument with important implications for assessing our generation’s perception and interpretation of built and unbuilt environments.
The central problem with our present usage of “aesthetic,” I argue, is its omission of nearly all meaning traditionally associated with the otherwise very meaningful term. Aesthetics, of course, is as complex and historical a topic as there is, dating back at least to the Greeks and frequently referenced in the academic literature on a variety of humanistic topics. To explain these traditional meanings, I will not myself attempt a definition, a task for which I am hardly prepared. Rather, I will refer to the widely acclaimed and relatively recent book The Hand and the Soul(2009), which provides an excellent introduction to the topic in the form of essays written by thirteen architects, artists, and philosophers. These can provide the lens through which we can see the inadequacies that arise from our colloquialization of the term today.
Usages of “aesthetics” in The Hand and the Soul are quite varied, reflecting the intellectual diversity of its authors. Some explore the complex intersections between aesthetics and ethics. Others discuss how aesthetics and environmentalism communicate; for instance, how can a “green aesthetic” be cultivated? Still others elaborate upon the dual manifestations of aesthetics in the related (yet distinct) disciplines of art and architecture. Common to all these usages, however, is specificity: for such a potentially all-encompassing topic as aesthetics, the author always elaborates upon what particular aspect of the term he or she is actually discussing. If used as a noun, referring to a general discussion of matters of beauty (as in the “the possible intersection of ethics and aesthetics”), then aesthetics is not so much a describer of an object or thing in itself as a powerful prelude to a targeted discussion about the specific qualities of a particular object or space, using the thoughts and feelings “aesthetics” suggests as a starting point. The corresponding adverb, “aesthetically,” prefaces a similar such discussion. Alternatively, aesthetics can also be used as an adjective, but importantly not of an object itself. Instead, “aesthetic” is used to describe a human action, thought, or experience: “aesthetic pursuits” or “aesthetic theory,” “aesthetic propositions” or “aesthetic imagination,” “aesthetic delights” or “aesthetic choices and judgments.” Whatever the use, in sum, aesthetics is not a binary category to describe something, but a far more complex term an author or speaker uses to begin a further discussion.
The lack of either discussion or elaboration following our colloquial usage of “aesthetic” today is the first indication of trouble. For rarely when we call an object or space “aesthetic” does discussion or description go anything beyond that. Instead, without any elaboration, “aesthetic” becomes synonymous with mere “prettiness,” taking on the characteristics of cheap associations that lack the depth typically accorded to the term. Taking the place of such further discussion is a tacit acceptance of the speaker’s denotation of the space or object as “aesthetic,” no matter how vague and nondescript. (Though this does not seem to prevent the term’s intellectual power from imbuing the speaker with an air of cultural sophistication and authority, no matter how ill-deserved.)
Why should we care about this lack of precision? After all, I am sure that some at this point would point out that slang words often alter the meanings of their original terms. To this, I would respond that we have not only altered, or broadened, the meaning of “aesthetic.” Far more than that, we have completely robbed it of its essence, of nearly all its value, in our present usage. To explain, I will point to three important meanings of “aesthetics,” which we appear to have come to hopelessly disregard.
A first such facet of aesthetics is its epistemic, rather than purely visual, value. Looking at an object carefully is of course a first step in what the authors in The Hand and the Soul describe as the “aesthetic experience.” But as they also point out, aesthetics is not only a way of seeing the world, but a way of thinking about it. “To engage the aesthetic components of a work,” the artist Thomas Berding writes, “is to engage our own awareness of the contingencies, analogies, and groupings that are found in the very act of perception.” This “aesthetic attitude” is a type of mimesis, as he calls it, in which the mental response of the viewer to a situation or object is an essential next step to viewing the object. Glibly calling something “aesthetic” from one’s first impressions, as we are increasingly likely to do, misses completely this more cognitive aspect of the term. Employed in this merely descriptive way, “aesthetic” focuses all attention on the object itself, rather than the viewer’s experience of it. Gone is the complexity of the term as it relates to human experience and interpretation of the world, replaced by an instinctive and unthoughtful designation of something that looks “pretty.” Neither are we encouraged to think about those important intersections between aesthetics and other fields including ethics, history, and ecology, which the authors of The Hand and the Soulconsider essential.
Leaving aside the cognitive facet of aesthetics, a second issue arises with how our present use of the term treats perception itself. Namely, it places dominant—perhaps exclusive—focus on purely visual perception. Yet a true aesthetic experience, as the artist and architect Sanda Iliescu points out in The Hand and the Soul, requires extra-visual perceptions including smell, touch, and temperature, and many others. “[A]esthetic experiences awaken all our sense perceptions,” she explains. Some might claim that calling something “aesthetic” does not necessarily preclude such extra-visual perceptions. Highly unlikely, I would say, given the rapidity, almost instinctiveness, with which we designate an object or place with that term. We walk into a room, or see an object, and immediately call it “aesthetic,” but to engage in a complex multisensory experience, and discern relationships between diverse perceptions, requires both more attention and time than we are affording it right now. A truly “aesthetic experience,” as Iliescu writes, requires us to “slow down our sense of time.” (Sadly, this is a skill our instant anything-obsessed generation seems to lack anyways…)
A third traditionally meaningful aspect of aesthetics neglected by our present usage is its subjectivity. In describing the “aesthetic experience,” Iliescu explains that “each aesthetic experience is unique and tied to a specific place, time, and individual.” Indeed, one need not be an artist like Iliescu to appreciate the importance of subjectivity in art making and interpretation. Not so according to our present colloquial usage of the term, in which individuals, by laying down the immutable, binary categorization of a thing as “aesthetic,” erase, or at least severely downplay, personal ambiguity and subjectivity another person should confront when viewing an object. Something is not aesthetic according to me, one pronounces; rather, it is aesthetic, period. Regardless of whether said individuals’ judgment has any merit—questionable in any event for those reasons described above—eliminating the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience in this manner is remarkably out of keeping with the term.
Our present usage of the term “aesthetic,” therefore, is worse than simply loose and informal. Rather, the term has completely lost all its previous meaning and complexity. Where before existed a profound catalyst for interdisciplinary, multisensory perceptions of the world, today it has been replaced by a glibly used descriptor of merely superficial associations with imprecise conceptions of “prettiness.”
Some, I am sure, even if they are convinced of my argument thus far, may respond by questioning the importance of squabbling over such misuse. Indeed, I’ve come to realize that some of us are quite dismissive of any argument questioning the use of words in particular contexts, falling back to a somewhat unintellectual stance that such debates about the precise meanings and connotations of expressions are stupid academic exercises with little real-world relevance. To this potential criticism, I would respond by pointing out that words can, and do, reveal a great deal about how we collectively think about a topic. Here, our misuse of aesthetics suggests an inattention, perhaps obliviousness, to several pressing issues our society faces today that are captured in the traditional meanings of aesthetics. Our generation purports to care about issues of social justice or environmentalism, for instance, yet these are exactly the facets of aesthetics we neglect when we judge a building merely on its superficial visual appearance. I don’t think it a coincidence that those objects we call aesthetic, such as those mentioned at the beginning of this article, are often associated with bourgeoise capitalism and gentrification. In instinctively calling such parts of our world “aesthetic,” are we complicit with the growing neoliberal world order we claim to oppose?
There are also others, I also suspect, who would call such a discussion of aesthetics unimportant altogether. To this rather unoriginal form of the typical attack on artistic and humanistic pursuits generally, I would counter with the same retort so many such artists and humanists respond with. Such discussions of the arts and humanities, while they do not win us profits or extend our lifespans (though even this may not be totally true), enrich our lives and experiences incredibly, bring individuals together in common joys and ideas, and teach us important and applicable ways of observing and thinking about the world. Destroying a rich term like aesthetics in our collective discourse would be a genuinely regrettable loss indeed.
To that end, I think it appropriate to call for us to be more careful about how we use the term “aesthetic” in conversation. By no means must we employ the term at the level of, for instance, the authors of The Hand and the Soul. But if we can begin to talk a bit more precisely and specifically about how we observe the world around us, perhaps we can begin to think about it more insightfully too, returning our attention to many of the important artistic, ethical, ecological, and social problems the term has traditionally addressed.