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Aesthetics, Beauty & Loss

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I struggle with the concept of “good taste.” On the one hand, I like things to be aesthetically pleasing: I crave ambiance and a careful curation of objects (rather than ordinary clutter), I seek out sensory pleasures like natural fabrics and mood lighting, and I criticize design that is without thought, purpose or intention.

But I’m also aware of the darker side of taste. Taste is snobbish and classist. It drives commercialism and infects us with a hunger to make-over our worlds. The aesthetics of people – form, fashion and faces – creates hierarchies where some bodies are valued more than others. Considering all this, I'd rather not take pride in my aesthetic tastes.

The concept of taste began as a philosophical idea in the 18th century as a response to rationalism, which dominated the understanding of aesthetics. The rational explanation of aesthetics said that we determine that something is beautiful through rational thought. But the theory of taste completely contradicted this, saying that beauty is an immediate experience, something we know through our senses. (The most famous example used to explain the theory of taste is a ragout: we know at once whether it’s good, just by tasting it.)

So, to know that something is beautiful: do we tease it out through systematic mental reasoning, or do we arrive at it instantly through sensation? Surely there’s something in between.

Rebecca Solnit writes about desire and longing and how distance is something to be cherished. She explains this by way of a potent metaphor: the blue of the horizon exists only in the space between us and that far-off place. If we arrived at that far-off place, the blue would disappear. We’ll never fully experience the beauty of the horizon, be completely engulfed by that blue. We can only admire it from afar.

That beautiful things can be forever elusive may seem sad. But, says Solnit, accepting that melancholy is a necessary part of beauty allows us to be “rich in loss.”

“If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not what Nabhan calls abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.”

In other words, our ability to see beauty in something that’s gone or far away is an aesthetic exercise – it’s an act of molding or remaking our experiences so that we’re not overwhelmed by the pain of loss. Described in this way, beauty becomes not only a lens for viewing a moment in a certain light but a tool for resilience.

Some would say that Solnit and I are talking about different kinds of beauty. She: the beauty of an experience; I: the beauty of objects. But what I’m saying is that these are one and the same. Objects become beautiful out of our need to shape experience, and experiences become beautiful out of our need to shape the narrative of our lives.

Aesthetics and taste, then, lie somewhere in between the rational and the sensory, in a place where we work to recolour our worlds with meaning.