Friday, November 4, 2011

Aesthetics: What Purposes Do They Serve?

This post is inspired by a discussion on the Tea Trade Forums about the new East India Company, in which we began talking about whether or not luxury and idealism are necessarily at odds with each other. The general sentiment seemed to be that, to a degree, they are. But this post is not directly about's about aesthetics.

In the discussion, David Gall posted a comment about how he appreciates beautiful objects, whether it be handmade art or well-designed electronics (he gives Apple computer as an example). I certainly think that aesthetics and beauty have great value, both for me and in general.

Some things, like sunsets, seem to be nearly universally appreciated as beautiful. But aesthetic senses, the sense of what things are beautiful, also vary hugely from person to person and culture to culture. One thing I think about a lot is the degree to which our aesthetic sense is culturally constructed, and can be changed. I like to think critically about aesthetics, and ask the question:

What effect is our aesthetic sense having on our lives, on our society, and on our environment?

Aesthetics produce real-world results:

Aesthetics are by no means superficial...they impact nearly all choices we make in life, from which products we choose to buy, to which streets or roads we choose to drive or walk on, to where we choose to live, to which clothes we put on in the morning. And, although some of us may not fully admit it, they also impact which people we choose to associate with. Many of the ways in which aesthetics shape our lives are subconscious...we make decisions to choose one thing over another, and these are sometimes major choices that impact our lives and the lives of other people as well.

An example of aesthetics having ecological impact:

One of the aspects of modern society in which subjective and highly variable aesthetics can have far-reaching ecological impacts is that of the grassy lawn. Pictured here are two patches of grass or lawn in Bryn Athyn, PA. The first:

And the second:

I chose these two photos because they are about as directly contrasting as you can get, at least, in Bryn Athyn at this time of year. Which is more attractive to you? The top picture is more lush and vibrant; the bottom picture is more barren looking, but shows greater diversity, both of color (with the two different flowering plants), and biodiversity. If you know me at all, you'll know that I prefer the aesthetics of the second picture.

When choosing something like which tea to drink, our aesthetic sense is mainly a question of personal taste. But in the case of these two pictures of patches of grass, there are actual impacts of choosing one aesthetic over the other. The top picture depicts an unnatural lawn, heavily treated with chemicals to maintain both a lush green color and a monoculture of one plant (and you know how I feel about monocultures). The chemically-intensive maintenance of this lawn has negative consequences on the environment, and even on humans--that lawn is actually on the campus of Bryn Athyn College, in an area where people often walk barefoot, thus exposing themselves to whatever chemicals were sprayed on the grass.

The second picture of grass, an untreated area, has much greater biodiversity, not to mention that it is less resource-intensive to maintain. More biodiversity means greater ecological value, and most importantly, there are none of the negative impacts associated with using herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. It looks a little bleak if you're used to the aesthetic in the first picture, but there's beauty hiding in the bleakness...the photo is taken during April, after all. If you are at all familiar with Pennsylvania's climate and ecology, you'll know that Pennsylvania does not naturally have lush, light-green colors year-round. April is a time in-between the browns and grays of winter, and the lush green foliage of spring...plants are beginning to bloom, but there's still a lot of brown and gray about. I personally find it beautiful.

This final photo shows a polluted stretch of the Delaware river, viewed from National Park, New Jersey, to remind us that, just as chemicals wash off and flow downstream, our actions flow into consequences. Fertilizers and chemicals used on lawns and in agriculture and industry kill wild animals, devastate ecosystems, contribute to cancer and other chronic diseases in humans, and destroy fishing industries downstream. This stretch of the Delaware river could be pristine; there could be abundant fish here, and it could be safe to eat these fish. In our current world, it is not.

Imagine what it could be like. And now:

You can choose your aesthetic sense:

You can choose which of the two pictures of grassy lawn to prefer. In this case, it's not a matter of personal taste. Choose the second one.


  1. While I agree with your general argument (that humanity's drive for a certain perhaps unnatural aesthetic can be harmful to the world around us), I'm not sure I can agree that the final thought isn't a matter of personal taste.

    For me, at least, almost all aesthetics have their place. Like yourself, I prefer the second sampling of grass, for many of the same reasons. And yet if I were in charge of presenting a college campus, I would indeed strive to make my lawns the sort of "perfection" shown in the first photo, because it adds a certain feeling to the campus aesthetic. Not necessarily better or worse aesthetically, but fundamentally different.

    As a further example, I actually like the final picture of the polluted river more than the picture of the sunset. I certainty don't enjoy polluted rivers (either conceptually or actually), but that doesn't mean it can't be beautiful in its own way. It's aesthetically pleasing to my sensibilities (as in I find that scene calm and relaxing), even though I understand that it is an environmental atrocity.

    I'm not disagreeing that our culture's aesthetic sensibilities are having a negative effect on our environment, but your post, for me, fell apart at the very end. I can't really choose my aesthetic sensibilities. The picture of the polluted river will always be more beautiful to me than the picture of the sunset, due to the way my mind processes color, form, and environment. So, in a sense, it's less about choosing my personal aesthetics and more about realizing when it is and when it isn't appropriate to unnaturally change the course of things to achieve a certain result. Sometimes a polluted river or industrial facility can actually be aesthetically pleasing, but that doesn't validate their existence in view of the harm they cause.

    So it's not really about aesthetic taste. Aesthetics, to me, is about the appreciation of beauty, which I believe can be found in all things, even those we revile. It's about holding our responsibility to our surroundings higher than our need to achieve aesthetic "perfection." I agree with you that we should hold that responsibility higher...but I don't think it has to do with choosing our aesthetic sense.

  2. Careful, I did not say that anyone "should" do anything, I asked them to do something. I stopped using the word "should" some time ago, which I explain in my post there is no should. It's sort of like Yoda's "There is no try, only do or do not."

    I also like the picture of the river too, even though it is polluted (and this isn't necessarily so evident without looking closer than the resolution in the photo allows). But you pointed out that you like the look of this photo because of the colors and such, not because of the details. I don't think this necessarily means you can't choose your aesthetics.

    Choosing which aesthetic you like isn't so much a function of choosing to like certain colors or patterns, so much as it is about choosing where to look for beauty and appreciate beauty. There is beauty nearly everywhere, even in polluted scenes, as you point out. The choice lies in where we choose to focus.

    To go back to the lawn analogy, an overwhelming majority of people seem to find violets beautiful when they look at a violet up close...yet a large number of people treat their lawns with herbicides, killing those same violets. It's a simple question of focus. People treat the lawns because they're choosing to focus on the uniformity of the grass, rather than the violets and other flowers, the intricate shape of the leaves, the biodiversity.