According to Webster 1913, aesthetics is the theory or philosophy of taste; the science of the beautiful in nature and art; especially that which treats of the expression and embodiment of beauty by art. That said, an aesthetic is a particular answer or response to that. When you look at a depiction of classical Greece you see diaphanous robes and ionic columns. You can identify it as ancient Greece even if you don't know what diaphanous or ionic mean. You just know what they look like. If Plato appeared in a Norman Rockwell painting it would look off. Hellenistic and Americana are different aesthetics. This begs the question: when does a collection of elements cohere into an aesthetic? I have no idea. When does a movie develop a theme? How many songs make a musical genre? As far as I can tell none of those questions have answers which makes talking about aesthetics in general tricky. I think this is more of a problem than most people would grant because a ton of our economy, ethics, and cognition is tied up in them without most of us having the language to express it.
Where general definitions fail a series of illustrative examples must suffice. Gothic is a dark, somber aesthetic grounded in night, regret, and a fear of what waits in the dark. Maximalism is a busy, decadent look from an era when visual complexity signaled expense. Solar punk is a portrayal of the future with an emphasis on renewable energy, independent sustainability, and smoothly curving white surfaces and exists as a counter point to gritty, dystopian cyberpunk. None of these things have clear boundaries but you know them when you see them. Most aesthetics carry a certain default mood: resentful punk, stuffy Victorian, lackadaisical stoner, peppy preppy. In this way aesthetics carry implications about people's approach to life and their views on society and socialization. Headphones and a hoodie say leave me alone. Open office layouts proclaim the importance of communication and collaboration. Colorful playground equipment signals the space is for children. New dark wood paneling shows up in court rooms, law offices, and some churches expressing the respect do the space. The thing about each aesthetic mentioned is that the elements could be transplanted from there contexts and it would still come through. Liberal use of bright primary colors in an office space would signal that either this was an especially fun work place or the interior designer went off their meds that week.
Aesthetics aren't strictly visual since they dip into all senses but it's next to impossible to divorce them from their visual elements since were a primarily visual species. That said, I'd argue that aesthetics are only about their sensory components in so far as that visual, tune, smell, or texture gets the abstract or gut feeling across. Programmers like clean code. Fortune five hundred companies don't use comic sans. Coffee may look and taste like someone figured out how to burn water but it brings most of us comfort.
The formulation of disparate things into a tonally, thematically, aesthetic whole is an alchemy beyond my power to explicate but I feel confident it has to do with certain dualities and modes. I'll list some of the obvious ones:
If after all of that I've failed to paint the picture of what an aesthetic is I apologize. It's the most "I know it when I see it" notion that I can think of. Whether you've gotten it or not I submit this link to the Aesthetic Wiki as the single best base to work from in understanding the wide range of phenomena that belong under this term. If you find a new favorite aesthetic message me about it.
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