The Effects of Aesthetic Obsession and their Entanglement with Art


Welcome to the Restaurant of Art. We serve everything you may like, whether you prefer painting, poetry, music, art, dance or fashion. If we do not have it on our menu, we would be delighted to learn to make it – from you, of course! Welcome, dear guest. We hope to see you smile.

This peculiar restaurant is a carousel. Each guest is greeted at the front, and they jump on when they find something appealing, something that tickles their fancy. Once they hop on, everything is immaculate. The service is quick, but not fleeting. The colours are easy on the eyes, the food satiates you like a meal after a long, hard day. Your eyes can’t take in enough. Your mind can’t preserve the memory perfectly enough. Yet, here you are, a guest on the carousel, eating every morsel, clearing away the leftovers. The ride is glorious.

It is at this moment – you slip because you cannot remember how you got here in the first place. The ground underneath you is revolving, seemingly getting faster. The plates are piling up, and your eyes are red. No! There’s just too much – and not enough time. The servers are giving you side glances, and your company thinks you’re boring. The ones in line outside glare at you, wondering why they don’t just kick you out.

Then, in a flash, you remember – you wanted to belong here. Everything you are wearing is planned. It is meticulously orchestrated, like the performance of a rare piece of music. Each nail is painted precisely as it should be, and not a single hair is out of place, But slowly you begin to realise that the hole you filled long ago has emerged again. It is gaping, and wide. It asks to be filled, so you start eating again. Remorsefully, but you must.

You look up to see that your audience is smiling again. They like you – what a relief! Then horror strikes. Not a single one of them looks like you. The horror melts into anger, the anger spreads out into grief. You want to jump off and hope that you will feel like yourself again.

Then again, who are you?

Aesthetics are always appealing. To the vast majority of its consumers, they provide a safe space, a place where one can indulge in their interests without fear of judgement or persecution. However, in the same way, that it can free us from our chains, it can also trap us.

Social media platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and Youtube have been the key catalysts in the birth and promotion of these styles. The most mundane activities and practices are becoming aesthetics, churning out new trends daily. Undoubtedly, this aesthetic culture is giving rise to opportunities for self-expression and allowing people to be creative with their style and, consequently, their identity. For instance, the Plant Mom aesthetic involves activities and hobbies such as gardening, growing house plants, reading and spending time with nature, all proven to affect one’s physical and mental health positively. Furthermore, adopting an aesthetic like Minimalism and its sub-genres create less clutter which is good for the environment and gives people more time and freedom.

Most of these aesthetics and trends lack any diversity and pertain only to caucasian cis-gendered males/females. This widespread euro-centricity further reinforces the ideas of white supremacy and recolonisation. They reinforce age-old beauty standards that are so narrow, a tadpole couldn’t swim through them. No amount of transformation is enough. Romanticising these aesthetics further leads to people chasing after a castle in the air, as if to dream of it enough means that it will materialise. Take, for example, the clean girl aesthetic. Hair slicked back with oils, gold jewellery, minimal clothing, a form of elegant simplicity. What makes it so different from the way persons of colour (POC) have been dressing up for centuries? After all, the underlying principles are the same, aren’t they?

The Clean Girl Aesthetic: Appreciated or Appropriated?

Image Credits: (Left) Allure, (Right) The New York Times

Obsession is destructive in the most stealthy way. An identity shaped purely for external validation disregards personal and cultural history. In most cases, it asks us to ignore the consequences that will eventually befall us. We slowly yield to the smallest of demands, until we are but a fragment of who we once were. Like a fleeting cloud, we float into the future, unaware of who we were yesterday. Social networking sites collect data about humans, their race, age, activity, education, politics, and buying habits to allow companies to target us with more refined advertising and to shape generic forms of algorithmic identity.

However, we cannot disregard the importance of visual appeal in our lives. As Oscar Wilde puts it in The Picture of Dorian Gray,  “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible….”

It is a mystery because we may never truly understand what it means to define ourselves if we do not look for inspiration outside us. And yet, we do not know when we will collapse because we have been outside for far too long.

Speaking of hauntingly terrifying portraits, art is usually the medium of expression in any aesthetic. It is interesting to see how heavily definitions of an aesthetic rely on some form of art, whether it be writing (Dark Academia), dance (Balletcore), etc.

 Image Credits: British GQ (Top Left), The Tallenge Store (Top Right), (Bottom Left), Encyclopedia Britannia (Bottom Right)

The above melange of images is, perhaps, unsettling. Some of it appeals to us, while others may not. The top left image is a still from Wes Anderson’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015). The top right image is a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Anderson’s films are appealing for their focus on cohesive colour palettes and striking visual symmetry. Basquiat is appreciated for the exact opposite. The chaos is endearing, the bold strokes force us to question what we consider to be appealing.

The bottom left is a still from Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2015), one of whose defining aspects is the spectacular lighting; Sunlight floods most frames, dancing with the water around it, painting the scenes beautifully. The bottom right is a still from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). This film, once again, sharply contrasts the image next to it. The intentionally dark-lit stills convey the mood of the scene as no one could have before. Dark versus light, Organisation versus chaos – art over everything.

Likely, only one of those ideas is visually appealing to one person. They might associate more than just the colours with the images. It can be intertwined with music, dialogue, emotion and experience – it becomes an aesthetic. Art is inescapable. Its very nature demands freedom. It asks its receiver not to judge the artist harshly, just to consider it from an individual perspective. An aesthetic cleverly subverts this by not looking deep into it at all. Controversy may plague the statement, but there is a clear distinction between appreciation and appropriation of an art form. The current trend of aesthetics recycles pieces of art as tokens to be swapped and waved about, a declaration of how much one knows, not to what depth one knows of it or supports it.

Trends inevitably bring us to cycles. Trend cycles are an integral part of aesthetic appreciation. They are a time capsule of sorts, reminding people of what the idea of beauty once was. The only flaw with the cycle is that, in this age of hyper-consumerism, trends last about as long as a bag of open chips. They quickly become unappealing, the longer they are left exposed. This is harmful, as it perpetuates a cycle in which no art is beautiful enough after a while. There isn’t enough time to look at it, flaws and all. The carousel spins faster and faster; for all we know, the apparatus itself might fall one day.

Art has birthed a vast number of aesthetics. It is perfectly alright to use the form of art as a basis for an aesthetic, but reducing the form to a superficial reflection of its heritage is, to say the least, disrespectful. In the fields of philosophy and aesthetics, the term philistinism describes the attitudes, habits, and characteristics of a person who deprecates art and beauty, spirituality and intellect. Individuals who use art to create an aesthetic that pays no heed to the art form itself can arguably be called philistines. Our culture encompasses art, music, clothing and media. To disrespect art is to disrespect the culture. While aesthetic culture as a whole is harmless, it is important to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a toxic game of what is and what isn’t, as has been the case with so many trends online.


Written by Rachana Raman and Vanshika Jain for MTTN

Edited by Shivraj Herur for MTTN

Featured Image by Albert Antony for MTTN

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