Aesthetics. A term that at once denotes a strand of philosophical inquiry regarding the nature of beauty, taste, and sensory perception; a set of principles concerning the aforementioned concepts; and - in recent years - a set of internet-based visual signifiers that are employed to convey one’s material lifestyle preferences (real or falsified) to an audience of aspiring followers. Think of the Instagram influencer who approvingly describes anything from a minimalist hotel bathroom to a 12-step morning routine as “so aesthetic”, and you’ll know what I’m getting at.

This alienation of the ‘aesthetic’ from its etymological origins is precisely what intrigues me. In an online age, the appreciation of beauty has been reduced to the generation and replication of images, proffered through myriad screens. If the sun sets over a pristine coastline somewhere in Italy and you didn’t post an Instagram story of the scene, did the sunset even really happen? And who cares if a contoured face full of filler looks bizarre and unnatural in real life, so long as it pops in a selfie? The cultivation of the personal aesthetic has become an essential stepping stone toward the authentication of the personal brand, with both flattening the lived experience of the creator.

Meanwhile, life beyond the pointed gaze of the iPhone camera grows spiritually and physically uglier. This is not to say that our natural world isn’t still abundantly, staggeringly beautiful – but rather that our collective participation in the mindless destruction of said beauty has resulted in a potent existential unease. Reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ earlier this year, I had that palpable sense of relief you get when an artist expresses what you yourself have been feeling, but thus far unable to articulate (this being the general function of art, I guess). 

In considering the modern-day nature of aesthetics, I want to ask: What does it mean to live a beautiful life when so much of the so-called beauty in our daily existence is rendered via artifice, exploitation, or digital ephemerality? How can culture persist beyond the reproduction of pervasive and banal online ‘aesthetics’? And how can we preserve faith in the inherent beauty of our world amidst its real-time destruction?

Reading List & Prompts
This willingness continually to revise one's own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.” ― Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who or what has taught you most about “looking in the right direction”?

“To be called beautiful is thought to name something essential to women's character and concerns. (In contrast to men—whose essence is to be strong, or effective, or competent.) It does not take someone in the throes of advanced feminist awareness to perceive that the way women are taught to be involved with beauty encourages narcissism, reinforces dependence and immaturity.”― Susan Sontag, A Woman’s Beauty: A Putdown or Power Source

Susan Sontag wrote these words in 1975. To what extent do they still ring true? Is beauty still a strictly feminist issue?

“Any woman who counts on her face is a fool.” ― Zadie Smith, On Beauty

How has your relationship with beauty - your own physical beauty; that of others; different forms of beauty entirely - evolved with age?

The impulse for classification is a staple of internet life—tag yourself; add your interests; pick your favorite croissant, and we’ll tell you the Taylor Swift song that sums up your life… The Aesthetics Wiki functions like a huge mall, a place to go shopping for a new set of characteristics and a firmer self-definition. You might not know exactly who you are yet, but you can say which hyper-specific collection of images best approximates who you’d like to be.”  ― Kaitlyn Tiffany for The Atlantic: Cottagecore Was Just The Beginning

How much thought - if any - have you given to crafting a ‘personal aesthetic’? How do you use imagery and consumer choices to shape and define your identity online and IRL?

“This past summer, I booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the hope of investigating what seems likely to be one of the oddest legacies of our rapidly expiring decade: the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips… “It’s like a sexy . . . baby . . . tiger,” Cara Craig, a high-end New York colorist, observed to me recently. The celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith told me, “It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.”

Did Smith think that Instagram Face was actually making people look better? He did. “People are absolutely getting prettier,” he said. “The world is so visual right now, and it’s only getting more visual, and people want to upgrade the way they relate to it.”Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker, The Age of Instagram Face

How, if at all, have you responded to an impulse to ‘upgrade the way [you] relate” to our increasingly visual world?

“The connective emotional grid of social media platforms is what drives the impression of AirSpace. If taste is globalized, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases. It resembles a kind of gentrification: one that happens concurrently across global urban centers. Just as a gentrifying neighborhood starts to look less diverse as buildings are renovated and storefronts replaced, so economically similar urban areas around the world might increasingly resemble each other and become interchangeable.”Kyle Chayka for The Verge, The Subway That Sunk: How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world

The internet has undoubtedly contributed to the globalisation and homogenisation of taste. What was the last experience you had/place you visited that challenged your conceptions of ‘good taste’ for the better?

“I know we agree that civilisation is presently in its decadent declining phase, and that lurid ugliness is the predominant visual feature of modern life. Cars are ugly, buildings are ugly, mass-produced disposable consumer goods are unspeakably ugly. The air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is full of microplastics, and our food is contaminated by cancerous Teflon chemicals. Our quality of life is in decline, and along with it, the quality of aesthetic experience available to us. The contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant; mainstream cinema is family-friendly nightmare porn funded by car companies and the US Department of Defense; and visual art is primarily a commodity market for oligarchs. It is hard in these circumstances not to feel that modern living compares poorly with the old ways of life, which have come to represent something more substantial, more connected to the essence of the human condition.”― Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

To what extent do you agree that the assertion that “our quality of life is in decline, and along with it, the quality of aesthetic experience available to us”?

“Nonetheless, I (like many others) felt a wrongness in the world, a wrongness that seeped through the cracks of my privileged, insulated childhood. I never fully accepted what I had been offered as normal. Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.”― Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible

Through different lenses, Eisenstein and Rooney (above) seem to detect an inherent ‘wrongness’ to our present way of life; one that conceals and distorts the true beauty we sense might be available to us. How can we restore that sense of beauty, as individuals and as a collective?

© 2024 PL