Do aesthetics count? - The Visual Experience
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From the exhibit :
which took place from SEPTEMBER 4–NOVEMBER 28, 2010 at the Witney Museum, NYC

Here’s a tough question, but it came to mind as I was listening today to Benjamin Dickinson’s interview on The New York Times video channel. Dickinson was discussing his first movie “First Winter” , shown this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and he said, “you know, I think aesthetics have values inherent in them…”, which struck a chord because aesthetics is a very slippery subject which is often confused with taste or style or beauty. All four having to do with photography and film I thought it would be interesting to think through this question once again.

My personal understanding brings me to differentiate between all four terms because each of these words does have a specific and separate meaning, even if they all are like electrons flying around a nucleus, which in my mind would be visual culture. I think this mental model is the key to understanding the relationship between the terms and their relationship to our own personal vision.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of daily use, aesthetics, and all the other words mentioned above, influence how you use visual languages and what they might eventually mean. Of course, there is no regulation as to what aesthetics is, or should I say, as to what is aesthetic or beautiful or trendy or stylish but everyone in a certain historic period and in a certain geographical and psychological situation seems to agree quite easily on what is and what isn’t aesthetically accepted. Certainly, my fourteen year old daughter knows what is and isn’t aesthetic although I must admit, I couldn’t’ agree less.

I haven’t seen First Winter, so I can’t judge the conflicting comments already in the press about the film, but it’s easy enough to think about how precarious post-modern aesthetic judgment really is. Separating personal taste from aesthetic judgment is practically impossible and it brings us back to the mental model of an atom. Whatever meaning you give to an aesthetic choice (poetic or pathetic), the nucleus of the discussion lies within the values of visual culture shared. It’s like the meaning of fashion; it’s a question of culture and of groups. Some aesthetic choices are widely shared, others are far less so.

So if I can’t even agree with my fourteen year old daughter as to what is beautiful (obviously) then that brings me to the heart of understanding the slippery question, do aesthetics count? The answer is, obviously yes and in a very big way. The problem is that no one seems ever to agree on what we’re talking about.

Link dalla NYT:
Video Library Player:  Benjamin Dickinson on ‘First Winter’

Benjamin Dickinson, the director of “First Winter,” discusses his film about a group of friends who become stranded while on a yoga retreat.

Edward Rozzo

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Fabiano Busdraghi May 23, 2012 at 18:03

Yes, in my opinion aesthetic is extremely important. Photography is a visual media, so the visual quality of the image really matter. This is why I dislike (usually ugly) pure conceptual photography. If you just want to express an idea, without any visual quality, photography is not the best media, you should write a philosophical essay, it's much more effective.

I think a photographer should always find a balance between aesthetic and meaning.


Edward Rozzo June 2, 2012 at 06:43

Well Fabiano, your point is well taken, although for those who love concepts, awkward visual expression lacking any kind of visual harmony is exactly what excites some people about conceptual photography – the negation of an aesthetic. So if we want to be honest, we have to accept all decisions on taste although it is more exact to criticize the lack of harmony, balance, equilibrium or, if you will, poetics, in a visual expression instead of using the slippery term "aesthetics". I do believe that there are certain visual aspects which agree with the human mind, as in music there are certain "harmonies" which are pleasing to the ear. In this sense, Ellen Dissanayake's book "Homo Aestheticus" is fairly illuminating. Her point is that "aesthetics" is a visual quality which "excites" the mind because it is not natural, but special. The alignment of three pebbles is something magic, finding two pebbles together is quite natural, but three makes a very straight line and this in itself is an "aesthetic" event which brings us to special, magical and spiritual meanings. So I would say, aesthetics certainly do count, like harmony in any musical composition. But, as in any musical composition, is the use of silence, harmony and discordance which create a truely great musical event.


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