Aesthetic. Aesthetic. You’ve probably heard it mentioned as a reaction to someone’s Instagram post or outfit. And maybe you’ve used it as a descriptor more times than you’d care to admit. Merriam-Webster defines it as “pleasing in appearance.” Urban Dictionary defines it as “something that tumblr weirdos say way too often and use for every damn thing under the sun.” But what actually is “aesthetic” and why do we care so much about it? The idea of aesthetics is as ever-present in the contemporary moment as the definition of the word is vague and elusive. It’s influenced social media, art, and personal identities. But aesthetic isn’t everything.
Before the word was adopted into its current context, aesthetic, rather aesthetics, concerned the area of philosophy that dealt with beauty, art, and taste, as well as the creation and appreciation of beauty in the world. Theories of aesthetics changed throughout history, shaped by influencers such as Sanskrit texts, Confucius, Immanuel Kant, Oscar Wilde, and mathematics. Philosophers dig deep, discussing things like the influence of the viewer of art in creating art’s meaning or whether beauty can be considered subjective or a human truth. Despite its complexity, grappling with the immense, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around questions of the roles of beauty, art, and taste in society has somehow been reduced to a term used to describe the superficial.
We look at the uniform filters of someone’s Instagram profile and proclaim that they have a “great aesthetic.” Even more, we “like” one of those carefully filtered photos, showing a row of succulents on a windowsill, that is a harmonious follow-up to a photo of a beautiful beach landscape, filtered exactly the same. We give people “aesthetics,” weaving oversized frames, mom jeans, and white sneakers together into someone’s identity. In this way, “aesthetic” has gone from a nebulous philosophical subject, open to many interpretations, to a fixed one-dimensional identity derived from surface-level observations. Tumblr blogs, room décor, outfits—if there’s no clear aesthetic, it’s not perceived as beautiful or meaningful.
The concept of aesthetic is supposed to be about creativity and unique identity, applying the traditional idea of the underlying themes and principles of artists or art movements to the ways people choose to express themselves. It’s about the things you find beautiful and choose to incorporate into your life as a way to represent who you are to others. The problem is, aesthetic has become more creatively binding than liberating. In focusing so heavily on fitting a superficial theme, we have begun to rigidly curate our lives, consciously or unconsciously. Think about the times you’ve second-guessed an Instagram post that may not “fit” your feed, or have decided not to buy an item of clothing because it doesn’t work with your “look.” We curate in response to the proliferation of “aesthetic” on social media and the pressure conform to a specific identity.
What would happen if we stopped over-analyzing how we express ourselves? What if we chose to disregard superficial constraints and instead embraced the eclectic nature of our unique creativity and identity? Aesthetic is something we cling to in lieu of revealing our true selves and stepping away from group identities. The fact is, true creativity, authentic art, and veritable beauty don’t come with concrete formulas.
Web Design: Catie Grasse