Aesthetics means your personal tastes, your personal favorites, which bring you joy, what economists call Utility. But aesthetics means other people’s tastes, too, so that what you abhor might very well be loved by someone else. There are 8 billion people on the planet, so there are 8 billion tastes.
Thus aesthetics, and art, gets bogged down immediately. Too many tastes to track – so why bother?
Simple: some art is erroneous, leading, or dangerous. Some art is truthful, universal, salubrious. Some art is propaganda. Some art is advertising. If tastes are not labeled or indexed, human beings can be co-opted, or tricked, into messaging that might go against their own interest. Indeed, their actual corporeal survival may ride on the correct enunciation of aesthetics.
In a truly free society, all tastes, all expressions, matter. Even the shocking, dangerous or “immoral” expressions supply useful information on the zeitgeist. Rhetoric, the ability to critique, is the only defense to structure, codify, and index aesthetics. However, sometimes laws may be required to dissuade truly vile expressions, and this is often a source of passionate debate (as it should be).
Aesthetics are programmed by cultural influencers, of various political stripes, with various motives. Art is a mode of expression, and a powerful one to human beings. Human beings are particularly vulnerable to beauty, excitement, and suggestibility, and can be moved to action quite easily with art. A song, a book, can bring down a whole society (Amandla!). A song, a book, can save a planet from its own destruction (Love is All You Need).
Aesthetics are marketed and sold by cultural influencers, and always have been. Don’t think you would know of Picasso without his gallery owner Vollard. Don’t think you would have Bach without his princely patrons, or the Lutheran church. The Medicis of Rome single-handedly pumped an Italian-Vatican aesthetic through its far flung empire, as did Napoleon with his visioning for France, as did the American Warhol, with his media acumen and Wall Street patronage.
Aesthetics is the constant behind-the-scenes battle for primacy of message, thus it is most often a persistent messaging of powerful coteries and influencers, an object-based representation of group status and identity. Art objects are totems — of, and by, the winners. The losers’ art, their artifacts, are lost or destroyed (Hitler’s Degenerate Artists), but may be rediscovered and made fresh again. Think of Casal’s discovery of Bach’s etudes for solo cello, or archeology’s unearthed treasures from antiquity.
Aesthetics is biologically based, as a sign-value for health, prosperity, status. Unblemished, symmetric, shiny traits are referents to genetic, biological and procreational health. Collecting of resources, harboring, is an animal trait as well, that of coquetry, for mate attraction. Art objects are in fact cultural currency, and their worth is defined by aesthetics. Thus, unblemished, symmetric, and shiny objects are the more popular art.
An example: you like Disney artifacts, collect them all, but also, you do not like the human nude represented in art: that is your taste. You like country music, that is your passion; yet you hate rap and hip-hop music, and are adamantly opposed to all representations of it, whether visually or musically, in your purview. Simple aesthetics are in a sense simply love/hate, yes/no, sustain/destroy dualistic lists. They often infer a zero-sum game.
Black and white taste-wars. Hence, real wars?
Imagine an ideal culture which would allow for all alien cultural objects to be viewed as valid expressions, worthy of fair, consistent rhetorical diagramming and deconstruction. This value would embolster a prevailing art theory, a poetics, and a language of aesthetics. It would build grey areas of understanding from simple black and white arguments. It would foster communication and assimilation.
You can see how these traits would benefit the stability of a group, tribe, or family. Or country. Or world.
Copyright © Michael James Hawk, all rights reserved.