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.
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.