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The Age of Aesthetics – the triumph of “what” over “why”

December 29, 2018

Aesthetics are ever with us. Every intellectual decision has aesthetic origins and outcomes: but aesthetics are the antithesis of reason. What we feel, love, hate at the moment of perception is where aesthetics live, the rest is rationalization and understanding of what we sense.

Google puts it simply:

This week we are leaving “The Holidays”: in New England many, if not most, have left organized religion in this generation. The reality of professed, organized Faith, is becoming irrelevant to more and more people. But our deep devotion to the aesthetics of Christmas is as deep as if the entire culture was going to church every week. Aesthetics have triumphed over meaning to create a Holiday Culture devoid of why it was ever created. Just go to Starbucks and hold The Cup.

I think we are in an emerging Era of Aesthetics: I am not talking about “style” or “fad” or “hip”: our phones, this IPad, our cars, even every social condition is now linked to everything we humans have ever known by The Internet. This immersion in the “what” not only suppresses “why” beyond instantly available factoids, it also enhances the power and place of aesthetics to the point of obsession.

This is not about rational thought, it is about reaction. There are no values judged in these currents that are evolving before us, so outrage at these thoughts would be misplaced. The word “aesthetic” to describe the basis of any cultural reality is not a positive judgment on the beauty of anything: the word simply describes a distinct realm of consciousness: I think it is the right lobe of our brain that feels, while the left side plans, evaluates and judges.

We are feeling more than we are evaluating – more and more with every day.

We have always valued aesthetics. We unelected a potential president on the basis a “visual” – a raw aesthetic gut response:

Before that, when our culture had spent a full generation recovering from the worst carnage in the planet’s history, a “new” set of haircuts catalyzed the next generation’s impulse to go beyond safety to expression: the “Mop Top” embodied the beginnings of a new, less controlled, aesthetic outlook:

Now we are reaping the fruits of the full shift beyond Mop Top. Ten years ago the immaculate aesthetics of one candidate were far more important to most than the experience of another: Barack Obama became iconic. Despite initially having a full congress behind him, less was done in his eight years in office than the extraordinary impact of his aesthetic realization.

History repeated itself eight years later, as the most pungently aesthetic and anti-intellectual presidential candidate in history (or at least since Andrew Jackson) kinda sorta beat arguably the most robotic and intellectually defendable candidate we have ever had offered to us. The thoughtless spouts of Donald Trump meant less than his TV show persona and avowed distinction from an intellectually formed, media molded, talking sound byte. The alternative of a fully formed calculation was not valuable enough for enough people in the right places to triumph over the aesthetic projection of Donald Trump..

Now the winner is simply trying to do all the “what”’s he promised, in the oafish base temper he has aways had, and was known for 30 years, and his undeniable aesthetics of mangled orange malaprops and pandering makes his aesthetics fully toxic that those who hate them – and fulfill the hopes of those who elected him, a full two years after the election.

But these are obvious measures of aesthetic triumph. There are many cultural images that, to me, evidence this new Age of Aesthetics.

A border wall is an aesthetic barrier against fear, a wall is probably better than an SUV of ICE Agents roaming a ridge line, but it is more image than fix. But to those who cannot abide the noxious aesthetics of our current president the wall is cataclysmic: insane, meritless.

Aesthetic reactions are instant, devoted and absolute, regardless of what is being reacted to.

Think smoking. Outlawing a poison in every way except use has narrowed tobacco to the status of stupid and deadly. So no smoking in public spaces, federally financed apartments, in parks, on any media. Smoking is evil.

But its simulation, vaping, is also relegated to extreme derision despite the fact that it has no “second hand” impact, no smell, no cancer, no health consequences. But the toxic aesthetics of smoking translate instantly to vapor, and it must be condemned.

Unless it is weed. Marijuana smoking is being embraced as aggressively as vaping is being rejected. Why? The aesthetics of the Mop Top countercultural era finds hypocrisy in allowing the clear danger of drinking while outlawing the ambiguously hazardous brain deadening of dope. So legalizing marijuana became “the cannabis industry”. But it is (mostly) smoking, which is aesthetically deemed evil.

Intellectually there is no reason to outlaw harmless simulation of a deadly act (vaping by adults) and no reason to allow an outlawed gateway drug (smoking dope) except aesthetics. Reason is not at issue, just what we feel.

Babies are beauty. But when is a baby a human and not an unnecessary temporary internal organ that can be removed? A recent court in Pennsylvania ruled that a mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy rendering a new born in need of a two week post natal detox was not a crime because the preborn are not human. Yet.

Intellectually our laws trust the act of abortion to mothers, aesthetically the image of an addicted newborn is loathsome. But one follows the other.

Guns are simply unnecessary – you can live without them, and most do. But many love them, and all the aesthetics of empowerment and freedom their owners embody. A few of those guns kill innocents. But the aesthetics of gun love have, so far, trumped the intellectual value we apply to things like car registration.

Marriage is simply aging out of our cultural drift. Sex is becoming as unsanctioned as any activity. But age and consent are revealed as overwhelming issues – ‘“Me Too” was the collateral devastation of Mop Top Free Love – but, in truth marriage, by any definition, has nothing to do with children, families or much beyond the recognition of love. So, in the aesthetic reaction of joy at union, gay marriage has an enormous impact on a place (marriage) where most simply do not care.

There is no reasoning with change. The inevitability of Artificial Intelligence may simply supplant our left lobes with a rational backstop of our fully shared civilization’s data. The coming explosion of the way we live and perceive the world may make these evolutions seemed fully inconsequential.

But aesthetics as a basis for living creates a rationale that manifest the validity of Donald Trump being the President of the United States. Is that what we want?

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