Aesthetics, Artists, and Cultural Dissolution
by P Segal
Somewhere in the mid-20th century, when functionality became more important than beauty, the study of aesthetics slowly disappeared from the American academic pantheon. What was once a common university field of study, and had been since ancient Greece, was relegated to a possible side-note of art curricula, away from study and appreciation and towards the inevitable, elitist dominion of criticism. No longer able to access the long history of aesthetic theory as part of being well educated, humanity was left with critics as arbiters of good taste. The disappearance of aesthetics as a common element of education seems to correlate, sadly, with the gradual escalation of toxic problems in our culture. We have arrived at a near revolutionary state of divisiveness, factionalism, hate, and diminished empathy in a world overrun with unadorned big box architecture, sleek technological design, and psychopathic politicians.
On the surface, it seems coincidental and not a matter of cause and effect. There is no way to prove a possible correlation between the discarding of beauty as a subject of interest and the increasing polarization of our culture because it has never been studied. Perhaps it is too vast an undertaking, and given the demands for funding of other, more practical and measurable research, easy to ignore. Or perhaps it has never been considered.
There have been countless studies, however, on the value of art—in psychological healing, childhood development, quality of life, and other aspects of the greater good—all of them concluding that art is, in one way or another, extremely important. But art has also become commodified, a kind of healing we can buy, like medicine, and, in the meanwhile, the products of art become increasingly reflective of functionality, chaos, or commercialism. While a can of soup or a Japanese cartoon might indeed have aesthetic properties, the appearance of these things in the highest echelons of art does little, if anything, to lift the human spirit.
The producers of art, in the age of functionality—the artists—continue to lose ground in the social hierarchy, a fact evidenced by the wholesale eviction of creators and art collectives in San Francisco, the casting aside of a historically rich culture of artistic innovation to make room for the alternative creativity of technological advances. The city prospers and adds a slick veneer of its prosperity, in more towering residential monoliths owned by offshore oligarchs, businesses catering to the wealthy, new and virtually identical metal and glass fine dining establishments, and cleaning up of areas once home to the city’s poorest residents, including those who attempt a life driven by aesthetics. And with their loss of place in urban culture, the artists’ work often reflects an increasing sense of despair and bleakness.
The diaspora of artists from American cities has not made them better places to live. In San Francisco, the once-legendary bohemian charm and brightly colored neighborhoods disappeared. The friendliness visitors once spoke of experiencing is gone, along with the sense of community that characterized old districts, replaced by us against them factions of citizens demanding or protesting changes to the city. Rather than making it a cleaner, nicer place to live, the disappearance of artists parallels the transition of citizens from neighbors enjoying life together to the fomenting of an angry, politicized, and hostile electorate.
One might reasonably say that those changes in the social character of the city are more the result of income disparity or other economic causes. An explanation far more subtle, however, is the loss of aesthetic consciousness—and the eviction of artistic creators, who embody that consciousness. Very little research is done about artists, except famously for their frequency of diagnosable psychological issues. Such diagnoses may be easier to understand when considering that the artist’s mind is cleaved into two conflicting streams of consciousness: the half that captures what has never been seen, read, or heard before, and the half that manages to survive in a world of protocols, procedures, regulations, codes, trends, and marketability. The loss of place in the urban milieu makes that bifurcated mental life all the more despairing. But while the loss of place for artists may be most obviously punishing for them, it also unravels the social fabric, leaving a city without the benefits their presence provides.
Whether or not an artist’s production is consumed or valued, the artist’s existence has value, seen in painfully obvious cause-and-effect urban scenarios. The one most commonly observed is that when artists converge in an urban setting, it assigns cachet to that turf, making its real estate attractive. Every famous art enclave in a major city has been appropriated and increasingly gentrified: Montmartre, Greenwich Village, Mitte, North Beach, the Mission. Artists give a run down neighborhood an ineffable character that makes it attractive, because those confluences of creative energy are compelling.
Artists’ enclaves attract because to be an artist is to be quintessentially authentic, one of a kind. Anything else would be derivative. Originality matters in the arts (but is usually impractical anywhere else), and our culture is obsessed with consuming the new. It is also starved for authenticity. In a community of artists, outsiders breathe a sigh of relief, freed, momentarily, of the limitations of consumerist, trendy society. They inhale, without knowing it, the air of a place where something is more valuable than money, and where conventional judgments have no significance. People go to bohemian places to relax, to be entertained, and to escape conventionality. Then they want to live there, so they can always be surrounded by that unseen, intoxicating prevalence of unfettered human imagination, forcing out the very people who had it—an environment where aesthetics matter.
Artists simply step off what writers of the Frankfurt School called the endless cycle of production and consumption of late capitalism, producing not to facilitate their ability to consume, but to offer up slices of their souls, in the hope that people will find those offerings desirable. With any luck, they will appeal enough to hold body and soul together, so they can offer more. Artists want to give people things that will have meaning for them, that will enhance understanding, give pleasure, and make environments more pleasing. Aesthetics are central to their lives, and they are tossed away from American cities as their preoccupation was from academia.
What do neighborhoods full of creators—wanting, if indirectly, to inspire, uplift, and beautify—do to the emotional and psychological climate of a city? Artists have always been given credit for providing cities with bohemian charm, as they should. But there is no recognition, after their expulsion, for the value that bohemian charm had in soothing and delighting, keeping the quality of life, somehow, in the realm of acceptable. As the artists are expelled, the local color vanishes, and the buildings themselves take on a bland and ubiquitous palette of beiges and grays; there is no recognition of the psychic pressure valve the artists have taken with them. What remains is an uncomfortable awareness that things are no longer so charming. In fact, the lack of diversionary charm puts the other social issues in stark relief, leaving us with an angrier and more contentious citizenry.
In the same way that the displacement of artists ruins cities, the elimination of aesthetics harms education and the students it is supposed to prepare for life. An understanding of what comprises beauty enlarges the human capacity for appreciation of the world and things in it, encourages decisions that take it into account. A familiarity with the greatness of artistic production, over the centuries, offers much that enriches and resonates in the human spirit. When the process of educating strips away an understanding of what gives aesthetic pleasure, one of the most compelling and healing things on earth, and focuses on skill sets and information devoted to the jobs that will pay for that education, it impoverishes, literally and metaphysically. We are left with aesthetics mentioned mostly in the contexts of hair or skin salons and plastic surgery, the antithesis of a deathless beauty that long survives its creator.
The things that survive from the eons when people studied aesthetics continue to fill us with wonder and admiration, a feeling we rarely experience watching yet another high-rise under construction. Our cities have grown uglier and more utilitarian, and humans are increasingly less empathetic. As we abandoned the simply beautiful in favor of sleek and featureless design, we have not grown more content. Our well-designed objects are not without a spare aesthetic, perhaps, but without the heart-rending loveliness of Bach, Venetian palazzos, or Turner watercolors. It is possible that the restoration of aesthetics to our universities, artists to our cities, and a sense of beauty to our lives may restore a psychological balance we didn’t recognize was askew. This is a theory unlikely to be tested, but given the status quo, it really should be.