[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
10 March 2014
I’ve been thinking about the conversation we had about beauty [at the winter residency]. I continue to feel the pull of competing discourses around the topic and, as I know is true for a lot of other people, I’m worn down by the cultural strife that dances around the idea of beauty. I’m discovering that I might be subconsciously declaring a separate peace; that I might need to let those cultural battles continue to the side of me while I spend time trying to remember why I value beauty, and what I mean when I claim something is beautiful. I expect that this might be a continuing theme for me this semester. Or longer.
In my early twenties, I dated a talented designer who had a habit of saying, good eye, whenever he approved of one of my aesthetic choices. It was annoying not just because it highlighted the condescension that often hung heavily over our relationship, but also because, by praising those things of which he approved—in a tone similar to the one my parents used when discussing virtuous school grades—he implied a connection between my unexamined aesthetic choices and my moral goodness. Setting aside any lingering equivocation about a relationship that ended a half-lifetime ago, I can’t deny that his habit was illuminating, too. For the first time I was forced to consider the ways in which I could intentionally navigate the material world, and to learn how my relationship to materiality constituted a kind of philosophical, aesthetic discernment. I started to consider how an aesthetic might be particular to me, and how such choices told a story about me, and even how they revealed—and perhaps could extend—my values.
My ex-boyfriend’s occasional approval of my aesthetic choices—not to mention his deafening silence or frank disavowal in other circumstances—not only problematized our relationship, it also brought into sharp contrast aesthetics’ contested terrain, deep subjectivity, and the problem of fashion and taste. There were definite times when his approval raised feelings of pride in me, but just as often his opinion baffled me. Concomitantly, his aesthetic choices—choices I knew he was consciously and intentionally making—too often felt superficial, ephemeral, and matters of momentary whim. This was confusing, to be sure, but it also held a lesson. I started to consider the relationship between fashion and style, and to appreciate the variety of delights that could emerge from both deep commitments and passing fancies.
Later, within art discourses, social activism, and in conversation with feminism, I learned that aesthetics are political and politicized. For example, beauty can be a means through which patriarchy maintains the subjugation of women, a means of reproducing the dogmas of domination, and of seducing us into believing that evil might be benign. An obvious example of this last point is embodied in the ways that Nazi Germany used aesthetic tools—including ritual, design, and ideas of human perfection—to advance war, genocide, and scientific horror. Conversely, I saw with my own eyes how smart design and performance could be used as a means of advancing social justice and social change. The powerful images created by Gran Fury—the design collective that emerged from ACTUP/NY—shifted public discourse around AIDS and destabilized prolific bias against same-gender love. In my life, these aesthetic interventions had real and positive consequence.
These ideas are not new. Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” establishes that “the logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” Elaborating on this point, and establishing the way that the Right and Left use aesthetics, beginning from an idea that Fascism is making an art of war, he states:
This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake).” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.
Within the arts of the last century, these questions have played out in other ways. As Dave Beech begins the introduction to the book Beauty (Documents of Contemporary Art), the relationship between beauty and art today—which is a context that we inherit, and in which we make artworks—constitute a particularly tricky space:
Beauty and Art were once thought of as belonging together, with beauty as among art’s principle aims and art as beauty’s highest calling. However, neither beauty nor art have come through avant-gardist rebellion and modern social disruption unscathed. Their special relationship has, as a result, become estranged and tense. (Beech, p. 12)
I don’t mean to sidestep these issues, or to diminish their importance, but others have written about them in more depth and with more insight than I can in this letter. And, to be honest, these days I’m finding it tiring to think about beauty and aesthetics solely within the context of contemporary art and social theory. To my ear, these discourses strip the sublime from beauty, and by situating it solely in within the political sphere risk diminishing the human experience. And I know that I cannot escape engaging these ideas because they saturate our shared public life. Every day the New York Times—from the front page to the world news section, and from the op-eds to the arts—is replete with examples of how these uses of the aesthetic are always in political play.
So, what is my aesthetic?
I think about this question in relation to the environments I’ve created (and in which I live), to the work I make, and to the ideas that feel most yeasty to me. I think about it in terms of my affinities, to my feelings on context, and those places that seem to embrace me. I think about in terms of the objects and experience that draw me in, that captivate my curiosity, and that delight my imagination. I think about it in terms of the places where I’m productive and in which my mind is lively. And I keep returning to wabi sabi. As Andrew Juniper writes:
Wabi sabi is an aesthetic ideal and philosophy that is best understood in terms of the Zen philosophy that has nurtured and molded its development over the last thousand years. Zen seeks artistic expression in forms that are as pure and sublime as the Zen tenets they manifest; it eschews intellectualism and pretense and instead aims to unearth and frame the beauty left by the flows of nature. (Juniper, p. 1)
It feels problematic for me to casually introduce wabi sabi, a Japanese philosophy, without some context. I’m not offering this as a bit of, what Edward Saïd would rightly critique as, Orientalism, but rather as a counterpoint to the dominant aesthetic in which I’ve been immersed. As Andrew Juniper goes on to say:
The term wabi sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of the Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry and perfection. (Juniper, p. 2)
And it’s important not even to accept this at face value. Wabi sabi doesn’t avoid the politics or politicization that Benjamin laments. The Japanese tea ceremony, certainly reflects wabi sabi principles. Yet it also endures as a metaphor for a warrior’s code, and operates as a kind of link to a patriarchy, or certainly masculinist politic that are not my own. But the experience of impermanence and the physical changes that occur within the material world in dialogue with time, elements, and use—and the patina these produce—hold special fascination for me. I understand that that these preferences are shared by others, and undoubtedly learned in a fashion; but I also understand the ways that they’re particular to me and inform the ways I live. And I cannot deny that each time my current boyfriend and I walk down the street and I gesture toward a structure, perhaps suggesting that it’s a place I might want to live, he recognizes (before I do) my obvious preference for the structures that show wear, those that offer unspoken wisdom from uneven seams and weary edges, and in things that engage some ephemeral dance between firm history and teetering disaster. Nor can I fully understand my nonchalance when he expresses delight about a perfectly designed contemporary, minimalist space. After all, his taste is lovely. He has a good eye, too.
I’ve come to understand that the process of discerning one’s aesthetic is akin to discerning one’s voice. And, for me, takes me back to the complications inherent in my relationship with my long-ago ex-boyfriend. We’re influenced by the taste and choices of others, and those influences can be misguiding, they can deflect us from the particularities of our eye and the contributions only we can make. As a writer I’m currently challenged by the conflicting demands I perceive of my voice. On the one hand, as an academic, I often feel compelled to speak in a theoretical key (and perhaps, reading these words you’re both recognizing and having a reaction to that key). On the other, in the pursuit of art, I know that the poetic, the subjective, and personal experience are irreplaceable resources; that spare, economical evocations can accomplish more than any treatise. And I understand how my love of the fragmentary and impermanent also manifest within written form. All of which is to say that I’m constantly code-switching between the octaves I love and the voices I suspect will garner affirmation.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at, or listen to, the aesthetic discernment of others—just the opposite, actually—but rather that we need to understand our choices in the context of the many other choices that are being made. We need to understand our tastes and affinities in relation to those of others, and be willing to engage the inevitable conflicts that emerge from aesthetic difference. And be willing to change and transform in relation to new visions of beauty, in the presence of sublime experience that we’ve yet to imagine. Which perhaps means that we can never declare a separate peace; that we’re always engaged in the conflict—or at least complicit in it—whether we’re conscious of it or not.