I’ve been reading about aesthetics a lot lately, and I don’t know if there’s actually been the biggest uptick in literature on the subject in my life since my philosophy of art class, or if it’s all in my head, but it’s definitely in my head now. So I’m just going to process a bunch of the thoughts I’ve been having here.

But, for propriety’s sake, I’ll put in a jump tag, so read on- but only if you’re exceptionally resistant to being bored!

The thing that keeps popping up on the periphery of my consciousness is the use of “aesthetic” or “my aesthetic” in curated collections of online media- usually Tumblr. I’m not the only one to have noticed this trend, though I’m actually on the more generous side of reactions to people using it; I’m genuinely fine with other people finding something online, labeling it “my aesthetic”, and posting with no other commentary. I think it occupies the same linguistic place as “this resonates with me on a deeply spiritual level”, but with fewer keystrokes. Good for them for exploring their world and trying to see themselves reflected in it/as reflections of it. So that’s a resounding “sure, why not.”

As far as the actual study of aesthetics goes, I’ve been reading some stuff that hits me in more of an emotional place, but I’m not sure how. I’ve been reading a book, “The Spirit Level“, about the benefits of reducing inequality in society. It’s a pretty good book, and although I’m not sure they fully support their case, it’s worth a read. (Or you could just watch the movie, instead, if you don’t like reading scatterplots.) But one part that stuck out to me is where they are discussing the ways the upper classes try to distinguish themselves from lower classes (both to reassure themselves of their own superiority, and to shore up the barriers to entry to their echelon), and they get into art:

These social systems of taste, which define what is highbrow and cultured, and what is lowbrow or popular, constantly shift in content but are always with us. The examples that Bourdieu collected in the 1960s seem very dated now, but illustrate the point. He found that different social class groups preferred different types of music; the lower social class groups preferred the catchy tune of the ‘Blue Danube’, while the upper classes expressed a preference for the more ‘difficult’ ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’. The upper classes preferred abstract art and experimental novels, while the lower classes liked representational pictures and a good plot. But if everybody starts to enjoy Bach and Picasso and James Joyce, then upper-class taste will shift to appreciate something new – elitism is maintained by shifting the boundaries. (p. 164)

I can get behind some of that. The idea that there are cultural markers that distinguish upper- and lower-class media seems pretty reasonable to me. What I balk at here is the idea that the inherent “difficulty” of a work is what defines, now or at any point in the past, how it will be received by different socio-economic classes. The prime example, of course, is Shakespeare, who wrote primarily for the unwashed masses. If you’ve never read an analysis of dick jokes from The Bard, you simply haven’t read The Bard. Arguably, because of linguistic shifts over the past few centuries, his work is more “difficult” today than it would’ve been in his time, so let’s put that in the “maybe” column. Instead, let’s look at someone who predated Shakespeare by some 2000 years: Aristophanes. Because he is so very distant from us, and because he wrote in Greek, even the good students at Yale require translation to see his stuff performed. And it’s about as low-brow as you can get; that play is ‘Lysistrata’, about a band of women who decide they’ve had enough of their husbands going off to war, so they refrain from sex until peace is declared. It gets… pretty graphic, pretty much from the start.

So I don’t think that the level of abstraction of a work is a good indicator of which class it’ll appeal to, and I don’t think it ever really has been. But I think you can still find the upper echelons of society deliberately poo-pooing some cultural phenomena, pretty much arbitrarily, because it makes them feel better about themselves. (I’m dating myself a bit here, but consider the divide between Frasier and Cheers; they’re basically the exact same sitcom, but appealed to different demographics, because their jokes were about different sets of cultural markers. Or even look at the subject matter they focused on: wine vs. beer. Both are booze, but for some reason, one says “elite” while the other says “commoner”, and even that is coming to something of a reversal with Two-buck Chuck and craft microbrews.) And, yeah, we need to knock that off, because it’s stupid to close yourself off to aesthetic experiences based on what your friends tell you isn’t worth your while.

Finally, I’ve spent some time grappling with an extremely dense, academic treatise on the relationship between aesthetics and economics, as it plays out in the world of writing implements. (I am, as you know if you’ve been stalking me, kind of a sucker for nice pens.) The major point I’ve taken away from that post is the idea that vocabulary informs our ability to understand things, and while the wine community has had several hundred years of snobbery to work out a common vocabulary for describing the aesthetics of their passion, the fountain pen community has only had a few decades to do the same- or even just a few years, since relatively few people wrote about (or even with) fountain pens in an aesthetic sense for much of the 20th century.

I haven’t been to art school, and there’s a famous post that suggests that that’s a reasonable way to live your life, but I wonder if doing so would’ve taught me things that don’t make it into textbooks. Things like the bulk of aesthetic vocabulary, so you can become familiar with terms that artists and the art-viewing public use to describe pieces to each other. You might have heard of “balanced composition”, but unless you’ve done some serious deep-diving into the academics of art, you might not be able to use it in a consistent manner. And forget about things like “chatoyancy“- how would you even know that’s a thing to look for?

So, yeah- way too much writing about something I can only begin to wrap my head around, without much in the way of a central thesis. I’m pretty sure that’s #my aesthetic.