Cover from the book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions by Leonard Koren
If you have this book in your hands, you’re most likely a creator or culture worker who, on any number of occasions, has been seized by the desire to wrestle the terms “aesthetic” and “aesthetics” to the ground and strip them of their pretensions. This has probably occurred when you’ve heard or read “aesthetic” or “aesthetics” used in some vague or ambiguous way whose main purpose, it seemed, was to fill semantic dead space, as in I really like his uh, uh, ummm, aesthetics.
However, you also know that although “aesthetic” and “aesthetics” appear to agreeably elevate the tone of whatever discourse they’re used in, they rarely function as mere decorous vacuity. Yet because these terms confusingly refer to so many disparate but often connected things, the exact meaning of the speaker or writer, unless qualified, is sometimes unclear.
I trained to be either an artist or an architect but forsook — or possibly combined — both careers. Instead I chose to work at (a) formulating questions about how various aspects of the aesthetic [in the meanings of “appearance,” “style,” “taste,” “artistic,” “beauty” or “the beautiful,” and “a cognitive mode”] dimensions of life function, and then (b) fashioning responses to these questions in book form. A while back it dawned on me that I had neglected to address the most obvious aesthetic question of all: “What does the word ‘aesthetics’ actually mean?” A search through my favorite dictionaries indicated that: A philosophical discipline, concerned mainly with art and beauty, is the primary definition. This wasn’t the useful, “natural” meaning I had hoped to find, but curious, I waded into the literature to get a better idea of what philosophical aesthetics is all about.
After perusing the classical Greeks, Kant and his contemporaries and finally the arguments of modern-day thinkers, I concluded that academic aesthetics [in the meaning of “a branch of Western philosophy concerned primarily with the nature of art and related phenomena; the philosophy of art”] has little relevance for the artists and designers drawn to my books. Nevertheless, a passage from a volume by the philosopher–art critic Arthur Danto echoed in my brain: “…without theories of art, black paint is just black paint and nothing more.” Danto pithily noted an obvious reality: in practice many artists do use the equivalent of aesthetic [philosophy of art] theories and arguments to establish, justify, and bolster the meaning of their artwork. Indeed, how and what artists say — or don’t say — about their work is often an integral part of the art-making process itself.
Then I ran across a much-debated paper by the critic W. K. Wimsatt and the aesthetician Monroe Beardsley titled “The Intentional Fallacy". Therein the two thinkers argue that once an artwork is completed and begins its life as an independent entity, the artist has no more authority over, or valid critical insight about, the artwork’s meaning than anyone else. They even suggest that it’s inadvisable to take what an artist says about his or her work too seriously.
My professional instincts aroused, I began developing a defensive response of sorts. I started writing an aesthetics [philosophy of art] primer for artists and designers, elucidating what aestheticians have been thinking about for the last fifty years or so. My book’s structural metaphor was “the aesthetic [philosophy of art] mind at home.” Each room (i.e., each chapter) of this virtual domicile was encompassing a different set of thematically related “big ideas.” As the heavy and often unwieldy philosophical furniture moved in, however, the “residence” became darker and more dreary. Even the services of a smart graphic decorator were of no avail. Deflated, I put the project on hold.
Not long afterwards, I was drawn into a protracted legal battle with my years-ago-divorced ex-wife. To distance myself from the associated psychological abrasion, I related to the seemingly endless procedural demands as if they were elements of a bizarre avant-garde theatrical performance. It was ugly, but it was aesthetic [artistic] ugliness; that is, ugliness with the everpresent possibility of transmutation into something positive — maybe even beautiful. Then the drama became scary and weird. For two excruciatingly long days I was holed up in a drab windowless room; a video camera was trained on my face while the other side’s lawyer beat me up with threats of financial ruin — and worse. The aesthetic [artistic] ugliness vanished and a “moral-ethical ugliness” took its place. Moral-ethical ugliness — in this case the intentional, unnecessary infliction of pain — was not something I believed transmutable into something positive, unless, of course, it was used as an ingredient in a work of art, which at the time, I had absolutely no interest in making.
In need of a break, my partner, our son, and I repaired to Italy to spend a quiet few months in a small, unglamorous, medieval village. Almost immediately I relaxed into a no-nonsense frame of mind and resumed work on the primer. By this go-around I was no longer enamored of academic philosophical aesthetics; its focus and preoccupations now seemed too narrow. I thought it was important to construct a more comprehensive vision of aesthetics [appearance, style, taste, philosophy of art, artistic, beauty, cognitive mode, a language] which would more accurately reflect our visceralcerebral engagements with the world. All I had to do, or so I believed, was to locate all the definitions of “aesthetic” and “aesthetics” out there and write them down as succinctly as possible. Then this all-inclusive aesthetic [appearance, style, taste, philosophy of art, artistic, beauty, cognitive mode, a language] world-view would be self-evident. When completed, my condensed mini lexicon comprised fewer than a thousand words. I was in the process of transforming this meager assortment of nouns, verbs, and adjectives into a “fits-into-the-palm-of-your-hand” book — about two-and-a-half-by-four inches — when G. phoned.
G. and I had become acquainted through our respective books. I admired the gorgeous volumes that showcased the exquisite ways he juxtaposed antique furniture, 20th-century art, and eclectic objects all within the context of extraordinary architectural settings. G. said he liked my books too, especially the one about wabi-sabi. Aware that I was in Italy, he asked me to visit a project he was working on in Venice. He had just restored the top floor of a large, historically significant palazzo and was now installing a freestanding art- viewing pavilion in its central open space. He said the pavilion was being rendered in a wabi aesthetic [style]. He related how he had gone to the Venice city dump and salvaged wood posts and planks that looked like they’d been floating in the lagoon for hundreds of years. That was the intention: they were supposed to appear wabi or sabi, or wabi-sabi. G. and his staff then used these elements to construct their maze-like pavilion. Corrugated cardboard panels were inserted between the posts to create the walls. These walls were then daubed with a mixture of water, glue, and soil from a nearby garden. When I showed up the artworks hadn’t yet arrived. To indicate where they would eventually go, G. made rough to-scale renderings of the paintings on lightbrown paper using the mud-like admixture and a paintbrush. Then he danced with these facsimiles until arriving at the perfect wall placement. It was a beautiful process to watch.
Meanwhile, dusk had turned to night. On the unlit upper story of the palazzo we stood in awed silence listening to the approaching thunder. Lightning pierced the still air. Then came a drenching downpour. Rain leaked through the roof and onto the floor forming little ponds. The pavilion, at this moment, was very wabi.
G. asked if I’d come back to see the pavilion with the “real” art in place. A month later I returned. The exhibition was now open to the public; throngs of animated visitors wandered about. Nothing much tangible had changed except that a Picasso, a Rothko, a Fontana, a Burri, and other illustrious artworks had replaced their modest surrogates. Most of the paintings and small objects showed well. The wabi quality, however, had disappeared. Wabi, an aesthetic [beauty, artistic, cognitive mode] appreciation of loneliness and poverty, is shy in glamorous and fashionable company. When G. asked my opinion I responded that I liked the pavilion better before, when it was still “incomplete.”
Over lunch at his own nearby Venice palazzo, G. said he wanted to make a book about all of the wabi-style environments he and his team had developed. He wanted my involvement. I was invited to spend a weekend at his primary residence in Northern Europe so we could continue the discussion.
Wandering about his 12th-century building and grounds some weeks later, G. and I discussed how we might work together. Our most productive moments were in what he called “the Wabi room,” a large, comfortable space with many Japanese features, but little wabi as I understood it — to me it was Japonesque. G. and I conversed a lot about aesthetic [style, taste, language] nomenclature; specifically, my reluctance to use the term wabi as he used it. I explained that reflexively I side with the linguistic determinists who believe that the language we use largely shapes the way we perceive and interact with the world. If we misuse or distort the meaning of good words — especially those that describe marginalized aspects of the palpable world — then those aspects of the world that these words describe may, over time, disappear. Okay, maybe not disappear, but certainly become harder to find, especially for the next generations. I made it clear that I’m not opposed to change, but I don’t want to participate in the conscious misuse of one of my favorite aesthetic [beauty, artistic, cognitive mode] terms.
G. and I ultimately agreed that it would be unrealistic for us to continue working together. Irrespective of our differences, I came away with a profound admiration for his skill in building and maintaining a fantastical aesthetic [taste, beauty, appearance] lifestyle, and a number of thriving art and design-related businesses based on that lifestyle. Intoxicated by the seductive allure of his enterprising spirit, I convinced myself that perhaps I, too, could use aesthetics [style, taste, appearance] to better my personal finances. What could I sell? My ideas? My way of thinking? My past experiences? With this in mind I began reconsidering the narrow agenda of my bare-bones aesthetics primer. What if the primer was embellished to project a more interesting and vivid “me”? Say, combining my dry, reductive aesthetics definitions with a compelling, or at least thoughtful, human interest story — like actual episodes from my life in various aesthetic [artistic, beauty, style, taste, cognitive mode, philosophy of art] domains?
And so that’s what I did. I reconceptualized the book as Flotsam & Jetsam: Bits and Pieces of My Life Upcycled into an Aesthetics Primer, and went back to work.