Aesthetic Conversations


One of the great blessings of friendship is that we are engaged in a never-ending conversation with our friends.  Even though I’m 4,409 miles away from home, I’ve been able to enjoy an exchange with one of my good friends, Josh Luper, through our respective blogs.  If you remember I recently wrote a paper about how, and why, we should seek to cultivate what I called “aesthetic literacy”.  The paper is brief, and there is no doubt more that was left unsaid than there was said, but I hoped to give readers an introduction to what I think is a massively under-emphasized topic.  I feel that my own thinking in this area is continually evolving so I was excited to see Josh take the time to respond to my thoughts with a few of his own.

In a post entitled “Consumptive Aesthetics“, Josh summarizes an aspect of my paper and provides a gentle critique of his own:

Ben frames the practical aspect of aesthetics in terms of consumption: aesthetic judgments are involved in choosing what we will listen to, eat, wear, etc. True enough. This means we must cultivate aesthetic literacy and discernment. At the same time, a chiefly consumer approach contributes to the marginalization of aesthetics in modern life, where beauty becomes just another option in the panoply of the market. Usually, it’s an expensive option. So cultivating aesthetic discernment becomes a hobby for the middle class and rich. The poor, who usually purchase cheap, mass-produced, disposable products, can’t participate in this beatification through acquisition of boutique products (one could argue aesthetic refinement can’t come cheaply—and I agree—however, that is another post).

Let me just begin by agreeing with Josh that a chiefly consumer approach does indeed contribute to a marginalization of aesthetics in modern life.  That is why I sought to marry the practical to the principled and gave priority to what I call “the aesthetics of being human.”  As I say on page four of the paper:

There is something much more significant than scientific studies or practical concerns can tell us about why we should seek to cultivate aesthetic literacy. […] At the most fundamental levels, then, we should seek to cultivate aesthetic literacy not only because it is ubiquitous and practical, but also because it is an inextricable part of being human.
In other words, as Josh points out, we can’t just think of aesthetics from a consumeristic perspective, we have to recognize that aesthetics are important because we are made in the image of the One who is supremely beautiful.  As I develop in the paper, the mysterious truth of the matter is that we bear the image of the Creator and thus, we are bound to create as well as to consume.  Cultivating aesthetic literacy allows us to both consume what is good and create what is beautiful.
One of the issues which Josh raised was very helpful in my own thinking on this subject.  He mentions the economic dimension of pursuing beauty.  Put simply: beauty ain’t cheap.  Quality costs, and for many the cost is too much.  I see this tension in myself, as I desire to use and enjoy that which is beautiful and well-made while glancing nervously at the price-tag.  How do we resolve this tension?  Josh points us towards an answer when he says:
So how can beauty come to be more pervasive in human culture? It must become a communal, not merely individual concern. It must become a public, not private pursuit. We must think beyond the products we consume and reimagine the spaces and communities we inhabit. If beauty is a vital part of human flourishing, it must not be reduced to a product we purchase and put on the shelf. It must become woven into the fabric of our social spaces, our economies, our zoning regulations, our politics. A culture that prizes beauty and craftsmanship will look (and live) differently than one which prizes entertainment and consumption.
I hope he’ll develop this further.  I don’t think that the communal dimension solves all the problems (and I’m not sure that’s what Josh is arguing either) but it is certainly a piece of the puzzle.  In any case, I relish the opportunity to converse about these things.  Another key aspect of being made in God’s image is that we are communicating creatures.  We talk and reason and create, and by God’s grace we’re better for it.

2 responses to “Aesthetic Conversations

  • JL

    I’m also grateful for ongoing conversation around this important subject (that photo is fantastic, btw!). Just to clarify, I wasn’t necessarily intending to critique your observations about aesthetics in every day life–I think what you said was true and a great way to alert people to how aesthetics are involved in basic human experience.

    As to how a communal/public vs individual/private approach to aesthetics solves the problem of the cost of cultural beautification, I’m not sure and am still thinking it over. I’m convinced that beauty (i.e. aesthetics, craftsmanship, etc.) should permeate culture and not be an experience of the rich only. It shouldn’t be confined to “the arts” or boutique consumer products. But I also don’t see how beauty can be pervasive if our prime concern (in terms of local cultures and cities in particular) is efficiency, constant innovation and growth, consumption, etc. So maybe we are asking the wrong question. Beauty is “costly” in economic terms, yes, but what is the “cost” of neglecting it? A culture can be economically healthy but aesthetically, relationally, and spiritually sick.

    (Note I’m discussing this primarily on a cultural level. In my family, I often have to buy cheap products for budget reasons. Besides, one has to be careful not to cut into the book budget too much! But ultimately I don’t believe this is a good state of affairs for society–for most people to be buying cheap, ugly, disposable stuff.)


  • befranks105

    Perhaps central to this will be the recovery of craftsmanship as both a vocation and a category.


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