I have an advanced degree in theatre history and criticism, and getting that involved discovering how to think about art. How others, like Aristotle, thought about art. The purpose of all those discussions of what makes something beautiful and artistic, was to help us students to know how we could develop a set or system by which we could see and discuss what sorts of things are beautiful in art, why we think that, and maybe create our own art from that. Aesthetics, in other words.
You are yawning already. Nobody cares about beauty in art, you say. For so many of us, artists and audiences, it is beauty if it sells and caters to the masses. Anyone who dares to go around this, is declared irrelevant. If you develop your own aesthetics or agree with Aristotle’s you have a system by which you can see and feel what art does for us humans. Being irrelevant is no longer a thing.
We are storytellers, all of us. We make up things all the time and then demand the rest of us not only see and feel what we see in feel. We demand that our view is the only reality. Storytellers, all of us.
I have brought up the notion of developing aesthetics in these articles a long while ago, but I called it developing taste (See: How to develop artistic taste and Why I won’t watch Fashion Police anymore). I was afraid that a discussion of aesthetics would turn people away, but I have since refined that idea. I think you are perfectly capable of joining in this kind of discussion and refined thinking, and may want to, even though you are not part of a college course that you can’t wait will end. I think you already know that aesthetics have much to do with even our everyday lives.
Here’s my drastic example. Recently, someone I love and care about very much sent me some scenes from a play she is writing. Yes, I knew it didn’t have structure yet, but what turned me off and tuned me out was that the language and images, strong, even smoothly developed, were shocking to me. I know this person well enough to know there would be good reasons for this shock and awe, that there were issues developing that would be worthwhile to think about. It would say something beyond the words and images that would give me and others plenty to think about.
But I couldn’t get past those words and images and didn’t want them rattling around in my head.
I also felt assaulted by the blatant sexuality and vicious violence, like the blood of an animal the characters were cleaning on stage, spraying all over everything. I read on, but I did not like having those images in my head. I am old enough to have seen many things like that on the stage, in television series (Dexter and Vikings), movies, and in books, and I still don’t like how they make me feel. No, I don’t have to be able to live vicariously through that kind of violence to know that it actually comes from real, human life. Humanity is capable of indescribably horrors. War, for instance.
But I won’t have it in my life, in my head. I strive for peace and an elevated way of living, which knows those things and worse happen, but think the way to end war and aggression and hate is not to do it myself and not to deliberately bring it into my life. Having those things in my head is a way of normalizing war and aggression and hate. So I said, no, I would not get involved in shaping that play. I can’t have it in my everyday life. It goes against the grain of the aesthetics I have been developing and, as Heather Land would say, “I ain’t doin’ it!”
The point, so far, is not to define aesthetics or even bring to bear what my aesthetics concerning art is, but to bring up to you just how aesthetics affect our daily life. We so often let things wash over us, knowing it is not only the positive feelings and experiences that define us, but the unpleasant, negative things as well.
But we have a choice. We can tell our own stories and if some things make you way over-the-top uncomfortable, don’t do it. Tell a different and equally true story. You don’t have to stick with the purely negative. I won’t. It goes against my still developing aesthetics.
I want to explore aesthetics in these blogs, as it bears on our development as artists. I use development, because no matter how far we go with our art, there is always more to experience. And I promise, these discussions will have more to do with why I recently gave up watching Vikings, a truly great series, because I don’t want to normalize all those brutal and gory scenarios in my everyday life. You’ll note that I am not calling anything “immoral,” or calling for the end to them. I’m not calling them good or bad, right or wrong. They have every right to see the light of day and for people to like them. It’s more about aligning things to how I see life and my view of mankind, and about how it makes me feel about art, down where I really live.
Try this. The next time something gives you an emotional punch, let yourself experience it. Identify what you are feeling, and where in your body you feel it. Then let it go.
I used to think that how I viewed art was my own business. When back in the 60s or 70s, some guy was making religious icons out of feces, I said that’s not anything I ever want to see. I get that he was making us view religion a little differently, but those images were his business. As for my business, “I ain’t doin’ it.”
But this time, I have someone I care about making her art with her own aesthetics and I might have driven a wedge between me and someone who has trusted me and cared for me. I can’t help her develop this kind of art and that feels pretty lousy, but not as awful if I had to carry those images and language around in my head every day, normalizing them, pretending that all is okay with me.
I still think aesthetics is personal and maybe a driving force in the everyday life of an artist. But it also defines how we live our daily lives.
It’s all art.