For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.
— Vladimir Nabokov, responding to widespread criticisms that Lolita was not only immoral but also void of theme and deeper meaning
Take a quick moment to think of a famous novel, play, film, opera, or artwork that you love — anything that is creative and well-respected. Inspect it in your mind’s eye. Reflect on how it looks, on how it makes you feel, on what makes it particularly important. Now, would you define it purely by its style and aesthetic beauty or does its theme and meaning stand out most?
If an artwork has been deemed a “classic” then chances are it will fit into the latter category. Terms like “important,” “meaningful,” “thematic,” and “tragic” best define the mysterious eyes of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the existential malaise of Dostoevsky, the heart-rending deaths of Romeo and Juliet. There is always a theme behind the most respected works of art, always something to learn.
Yet, we must ask ourselves why? Why is a work’s meaning or usefulness or morality more important than pure flash and color and attractiveness? What makes aestheticism — “art for art’s sake” — less valuable than art with thematic substance?
It sounds simple enough, but whether something is beautiful with meaning or beautiful without meaning, humans will neurologically respond to it in the same way. A recent study at the California Institute of Technology rendered images of aesthetically pleasing designs in goggles worn by a college-educated, 54-year-old male, which flickered past his eyes as his brain was simultaneously scanned. The designs were an iPod, a Dyson washing machine, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Versace gown, and a black Aeron chair. The participant had a surge of synapses in his motor cerebellum when shown each of these products. The man’s brain was telling his hand to reach for the items before he consciously realized what he was doing. Beauty and design can control us from a neurological level, often without us even knowing it.
In art, beauty by itself is second-class to beauty with content, but in our day-to-day lives research shows that pure, superficial beauty leads to stress reduction, increased energy, and is often a sign of trustworthiness. Beautiful people are viewed as more intelligent, friendly and competent, and, according to a brand new study at Duke University, people tend to overstate an attractive person’s positive traits, implying that we actively want beautiful people to be smarter, kinder, and more interesting than they actually are.
In other words, aesthetics control us and shape society because our brains crave beauty even when detached from supposedly important traits like utility or theme. Yet culturally, we are often unwilling to reward pure beauty without talent or utility to back it up. Our solution: ascribe meaning to beautiful things even when it is undeserved.
Take, for instance, Duchamp and his fellow Dadaists who created works like “Fountain” — a white, porcelain urinal with a signature — meant to undermine cultural constructions of “art” as a response to the chaos of World War I. But just by doing so, the Dadaists entered into dialogue with classical art, and without meaning to, their faux-art became “modern art” chalked full of significance. Even 21-year-old Kate Upton — when seen from the viewfinder of prominent photographers like Terry Richardson or in front-row seats at Paris fashion shows — became a significant “creative” entered into a historical conversation on fashion as “a modern-day Mae West-meets-Marilyn-Monroe,” according to a recent article in Vogue.
That’s to say, so deeply do we hate the idea of beauty without meaning — a car that shines on the outside but has no engine inside — that we graph on our own silly values, values that do little to change how we’re responding to the beauty in the first place.
Given our general insignificance — we live for eighty years on a planet that has existed for four-and-a-half billion — it’s understandable why we crave meaning even from things that aren’t meant to have any.
The anxiety of living without purpose inspires so much of what we do in life: from finally writing that novel to following a religion. But a problem arises when we entirely ignore beauty for beauty’s sake. Life is short, yes, and meaning is important, also yes, but it has been proven that beauty really does give us pleasure. Aestheticism is a call back to our biological roots, and when we push aside utility and thematic meaning and simply pay attention the beauty around us, the way we experience life can paradigmatically change for the better.
In his controversial “Conclusion” to The Renaissance: Studies of Art and Poetry, Pater writes that because human life is a whirlwind of impressions and interpretations, we must appreciate beauty regardless of its greater meaning or the affect it has on our lives. Pater, of course, was not working off of any neurological findings, but he still understood that because life is brief we must accept beauty as it comes, no matter its form. He wrote:
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life.
“Classic” artworks — “classic” being code for thematically meaningful — tend to be the most culturally revered types of artworks. “Classic” works, the reasoning goes, are about more than just beauty, they are a conversation about morality and humanity, which help us to determine how to act or what is right and wrong. Life, however, is too short to confine greatness to things that have handy take-away messages and themes. Life is about, as Pater said, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself.”
Life is not about sitting and reflecting upon our own (in)significance. It is about the feeling of rain pitter-pattering upon your head as you wait for the bus or about the first bite of a sandwich or about the coup de coeur you feel when first seeing a splendid artwork. These moments of aesthetic power are not necessarily superior to moments and artworks with thematic meaning, but they are certainly not inferior, and they are what our brains most crave. Moments of pleasure, just as much as works of meaning, deserve appreciation.
In his last sentence of “Conclusion,” Pater wrote, “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” To ask for anything more than a few beautiful moments in a lifetime is to ask too much of the universe. If meaning can be found in life or in art, then that is a wonderful treasure, but one must realize that all meaning is constructed, graphed on as a human attempt to create significance and purpose. Our brains are content with pure beauty, so perhaps our culture should take a cue and follow suit. And the first step is admitting that the beauty is a pleasure in and of itself. Or in John Keats’ words, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
**Cover photo: Frederic Leighton’s Pavonia, oil on canvas, Rome/London, 1858-59. One of the first and most important artworks in the Aesthetic movement, 1860-1900.