14 December 2011

The Aesthetic Stagnation

Kurt Anderson had an article in Vanity Fair bemoaning a decline in aesthetics, and Tyler Cowen largely agrees with him.  Unfortunately, there are two major problems with their analyses.

First, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Or, to state it another way, value is subjective.  As such, trying to argue that aesthetics have stagnated recently is nothing more than a battle of opinion.  What I regard as beautiful is something someone else may regard as trashy, gauche, avant-garde, chic, or maudlin.  It all depends on one’s perspective.

Furthermore, the argument that there is less innovation today than before is also somewhat misleading because trying to objectively define innovation in aesthetics is impossible.  Doing so requires some subjective assessment of what constitutes a step in the right direction.  More clearly, one cannot state that a development in aesthetics is innovative without first having subjectively defined what direction aesthetics should move in.

Second, art has become remarkably niche in the age of the internet, to the point that anything mainstream is going to appeal to the largest common denominator.  Incidentally, there isn’t much variance with that.  Most Top 40 hits are all going to sound rather similar to one another since Top 40 music is quite formulaic, mostly for the purpose of pursuing profit.  The best-selling cars are going to look similar and be similarly specced (cf. the Accord and Camry, e.g.).  Affordable, mainstream clothing is going to look similar year after year (knit clothes and jeans all remain popular, and generally come in lots of drab blue).  Network television shows are especially formulaic because they have to appeal to a very broad audience; the same is true of movies.

That’s not to suggest that fashion, music, movies, and television shows can’t be aesthetically innovative; it’s just that innovations are likely to occur in niche markets and will thus be overlooked.  I consider Blue Chandelier to be a somewhat innovative band, but they are so niche (libertarian noir rock) that hardly anyone has heard of them.  I think that Justified is a rather innovative TV show, but it airs on FX and appeals to a narrow niche as well.  My point is that , if anything, innovation is occurring in the margins, and it is impossible, given the scope of the market, to keep up with it all, let alone consider the entirety of it coherently.

Anyhow, that’s enough of the pretentious philosophizing for the time being.  The real issue at this point is not whether modern aesthetics are innovative; rather, the issue is whether modern aesthetics are pleasing.  And the market is the best judge of that.

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