The Negative Effects on Society
I hope the title “Pernicious Aesthetics” got your attention. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot more about lately. As a college lecturer, I have taught multiple courses over the years on the history of aesthetics, aesthetic taste, the philosophy and science of beauty, and aesthetic theories. I was once told that teachers teach what they were taught. This is how certain narratives, absences, or biases continue in the educational context. It takes an intentional effort to branch out into new territory, and I realized that this was necessary in my teaching for the sake my students. But it was also necessary for me for myself, but also in my capacity as a writer, researcher, and speaker.
It was to much delight that I found out about a recent book, The Routledge Companion to Beauty Politics, edited by Maxine Leeds Craig. And having only read about a half of it, so far, I thought it might be useful to share some issues that they discuss in this book. These three examples are ways that people have been discriminated against for aesthetic reasons that the contributors to this volume explore in greater detail. But it seemed good to use this platform to make others aware.
What is colorism? It may help first to say that racism is discrimination based on racial identity, and it comes from someone or group outside of that identity. Colorism, on the hand, is discrimination based on lighter and darker skin tones, and it arises within the same racial identity. How does this relate to politics? People with darker skin tones are discriminated against at a higher degree than those with lighter skin tones. For example, the so-called paper bag test was once used as a metric for whether someone was an acceptable applicant for a job, marriage, and other purposes.
Most people presumably have heard about the use of blackface, especially in its original usage during minstrel shows. But this new version of ‘digital’ blackface arose to help influencers gain even more of a following by using Black features. The basic idea behind blackfishing is that a white woman makes herself appear to be of mixed race through hairstyle, makeup, tanning, and digital filters. As a white woman, she implicitly believes that she is entitled to use Black features to gain followers and popularity. Shirley Anne Tate sums the problem up concisely when she writes: “…white people can be anything/anyone but blackness remains just that, fixed, essential, immobile, white stereotype.”
Ann M. Fox describes that “what the disabled body disturbs in the moral universe, the redeemed, healthy body recuperates.” This prejudicial idea isn’t new. Disciples once asked Jesus who sinned to cause a man’s blindness, and, to their surprise, Jesus replied that no one did. But we still assume something is wrong morally or aesthetically as we pit different bodies against each other. One problem that arises in this context is that nondisabled people have spoken for disabled people for too long, according to Fox. Human bodies offer a lot of variation, and aesthetics needs to account for all the different bodies.
Upon hearing the word aesthetics, people tend to think about positive experiences of beauty, art, and nature. And that’s great! But there’s a negative side to aesthetics as these brief explanations point out. Emotions control more of our actions and thoughts than we would probably like to admit. And aesthetics taps directly into the subconscious emotional aspect of ourselves causing visceral reactions, both positive and negative. Think of a dictator conjuring up hate against a particular group of people by describing them as disgusting. Some uses of aesthetics are more overt, like direct discrimination, but other types may not infiltrate our awareness as easily. That’s why it is important to expand our thinking and dialogue about aesthetics to include people from many different perspectives.
*New Project Alert*
I have been teaching a course called, “History of Aesthetics: Putting Theories into Practice” at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Multiple people expressed to me that they wish they could take a course like this. If you would be interested, then please do me a favor. In your email, there is a button to “pledge” support. This does not charge you, but doing this would indicate to me that there is sufficient interest to move forward.
When ready to begin, I would announce and then turn on paid subscriptions. People would continue to receive the regular posts for free, but only paid subscribers would begin to also receive this new project expounding the history of aesthetics for contemporary applications.
What I’ve been up to.
Here’s my latest article for BeautyMatter: What Do We Mean by Aesthetics?.
I’m now part of the collaborative network for the Artful Banyan Tree, empowering individuals and organizations to reimagine the future through art and aesthetics.
I’m an invited speaker for a lunchtime session at the inaugural Intentional Spaces Summit in Washington D.C., November 9-10, 2023.
I started work on a small book project that addresses the question: Is Your Business Beautiful?
To invite me to write for or speak to your group or organization, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org