On Ethics and Aesthetic

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

We are living in the age of #aesthetic. Not ‘aesthetic’ ('Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty’) or ‘aesthetics’ ('a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste') but very much the hashtagged version of the word, which is probably best defined by the 36.6 million pictures of selfies, sunsets, and latte art that come up when you plug it into the search bar on Instagram.

The expression “that’s so aesthetic” has become a (grammatically questionable) endorsement of our times - you can wear it on a hoodie! - among a generation of self-identifying aesthetes ('One having or affecting sensitivity to the beautiful especially in art'), who seem blissfully unaware that their #aesthetic looks just like everyone else’s. I’m far from the first person to note that contemporary visual culture feels like one massive Instagram feedback loop - everything from book covers to restaurant interiors is designed for the ‘Gram these days, it seems - but I do wonder why we are not talking more about the insidious effect this homogenisation is having the ways we create, live, and see.

In his seminal Critique of Judgement (1790), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that ethics and aesthetics are intrinsically linked: our perception and judgement of sensory beauty, he argued, is an extension of ways we judge and perceive the world itself. Over two centuries later, Susan Sontag updated this idea in her essay collection On Photography (1977) in which she described the medium as "an ethics of seeing”, and argued that "photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe”. (Sontag also foreshadowed the fallout of camera phone technology with her prescient observation that: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” God knows what she’d make of the state of dependency we find ourselves in now).

In the field of work, #aesthetic finds expression in the 'personal brand’: Our generation's attempt to synthesise the entire spectrum of our daily labour into a visually-cohesive grid format (The Google search "how to create an Instagram aesthetic" generates 123 million results). As someone who has breezily advised people not to overthink personal branding in the past, I am now reaching the conclusion that anyone committed to building a social media presence into their career plan should think about it very carefully indeed. See, what I'd failed to understand in the past is that when you neglect to consider the deepest connotations of what you are saying with your 'personal brand’, then other people will do that thinking (assuming) for you.

As we blindly stumble forward as the amateur designers of our public lives, it feels like time to think and act according. Architects, graphic designers, and visual professionals of all disciplines are taught to work with a set of principles in mind - to have a conceptual proposition - in order to ensure that the finished product has integrity, impact, and purpose. If we cannot yet see a way to recover from our addictive "aesthetic consumerism” then perhaps the only antidote is to intellectualise the entire exercise. It's time to take responsibility for the ethical proposition of our own visual storytelling, and to decide what we are using the #aesthetic to say to each other – and to our ourselves.


On Photography, Susan Sontag Greenlight Books

Ten Principles for Good Design, Dieter Rams Vitsoe

Aesthetics, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Link