Monday, April 20, 2015

Realism and ugliness

I want to talk about something which is far far away from math, and far far away from science.  I want to talk about aesthetics, and my own sense of aesthetics in particular.  (Of course, I've already written my magnum opus on aesthetics, but perhaps the subject would benefit from a less facetious treatment.)

I've realized that what I like in art is a reflection of reality.  Not a realistic reflection of reality necessarily, but a reflection nonetheless.

For example, my favorite novel of the past year was The Unconsoled, which takes place in a sort of nightmarish dreamscape, with the story frequently wrapping around in a circle only to contradict itself.  That book had some deep things to say about social obligations, and the lies we tell ourselves to justify random happenstance.

The idea of reflecting reality, without being realistic, is also embodied in another aesthetic, that of "gritty realism".  I think of the ur-example of gritty realism to be The Dark Knight.  I think you'll agree that The Dark Knight is not realistic, but is perhaps meant to invoke uncomfortable truths about reality.  Like when Batman is forced to choose between his girlfriend or the mayor, that's keeping it real, or something.

One justification for the realism aesthetic:  "Yes it's ugly.  But the truth is ugly."

But that sounds wrong to me, or whatever the equivalent of "wrong" is when we discuss aesthetics.  For me, it's not that the truth is ugly.  It's that beauty is ugly.

What is beauty?  Beauty is a subjective judgment we make about real objects, even though the objects themselves have no intrinsic beauty about them.  Beauty is a lie.

It's more than that.  Beauty is a social lie.  When something is beautiful, we are all supposed to find it beautiful.  For instance, as a scientist, I am supposed to sing praise for the beauty of science.

The Pale Blue Dot, a famous image of Earth as viewed from space.

The above image is ugly.  Because beauty is ugly.  Beauty is social coercion.  I don't need to share Carl Sagan's aesthetics.  Fuck that.

Of course, I say this while simultaneously recognizing that Saturn's rings are actually very pretty.  And don't you know that even as I profess the ugliness of prettiness, I post a lot of pretty photos of origami every month.  No one said aesthetics need to be logically consistent.  It's not mathematics.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of value in subverting conventional aesthetics.  On the social level, popular aesthetics can be a great evil.  Like the idea that white men are, aesthetically speaking, the best hero protagonists, and the most relatable characters in general.  Or the cultural designation of a particular body type as attractive.  Or the fact that culture which is popular among lower classes or marginalized groups is systematically considered uncool (for example, see what happened to Disco).  The beauty we have here in society is ugly.

Aesthetics are an expression of inner emotions, a thing that cannot be fully justified, or countered, with rational argument.  Sometimes the best way to fight aesthetics is with aesthetics.