Is everyday aesthetics actually a form of resistance, or is it just a comforting balm to counter the guilt we feel when we act aesthetically in an ugly and cruel world?
We don’t like to think ourselves as the rich people on the Titanic, sipping champagne in black tie while the water rises. But while there are good reasons to fear complacency, aesthetics is fundamentally different than turning a blind eye. I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time and I believe there are some ways that aesthetics can truly sustain action.
Aesthetics is a sign of vibrant life, of thriving. It is one of the things that makes us truly human. The more dehumanizing the circumstances, the more we need these markers of our humanity. In World War I, there were soldiers on both sides that cultivated gardens in the trenches, while some of them wrote home requesting flower seeds to plant. The pursuit of aesthetics amid great struggle is a way to tend our humanity when it is most threatened.
Nature, whether it refers to the wild forest or a well-groomed garden, has the power to soothe anxiety and restore the ability to focus. One example of this phenomenon is prison gardens. The New York Times once dealt with the power of the garden at Riker’s Island, which is managed by inmates. The article states that those gardens help repair the damage that people have been through, both in prison and in their earlier lives, because they are quiet places to be alone with their thoughts away from the cacophony and stress of the prison environment.
Aesthetics seems to be a form of care that contrasts with traumatic circumstances and helps cultivate the resilience needed to counter oppression. So, when I think about the question, if it is ok to act aesthetically while the world is on fire, then I think yes, because Everyday Aesthetics can be an act of resistance.