The Rage of Caliban: Millennials and the New Aestheticism

“No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” (Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The video opens with a typical vlog set-up: A woman sits centered in front of the camera, her pristine background out of focus. The Scandinavian minimalist aesthetic is enough to make any 22-year-old vaguely covetous. Her platinum blonde hair is styled in a pixie cut, her makeup is clean and modern. She sports soft pink eyeshadow and a bright pink lip. Her eyebrows have been shaved off. Her gray sweater almost blends into the color of the walls behind her. One comment on the video reads: “You look like the human equivalent to an Apple computer.” This comment is, absurdly, spot-on. The vlogger, a woman who goes by the name “Jenny Mustard,” practically embodies the sleek, simple, no-nonsense aesthetic of a MacBook Air. The title of the video reflects a similar objective: Below the frame, the words “WHY I DON’T WANT KIDS” run in all caps. Sleek, simple, no-nonsense.

As if a mere picture of Jenny Mustard is not enough to explain why children don’t fit into her vision for her life, the vlogger goes on to enumerate her reasons. Overpopulation. Childbirth. The disturbing thought of carrying an unknown human being inside of her. Ultimately, however, as she states unapologetically, children simply do not fit into her aesthetic. No kidding. As a montage of photos from her Instagram appears on the screen, she explains that she strives for an uncomplicated, minimalistic aesthetic. Images of pristine white walls, neat racks of clothing, and a sparse-yet-perfectly-arranged coffee table appear in sequence, and the honest viewer can’t help but nod in agreement. No, children would not fit into this lifestyle.

This genre of internet videos has become increasingly popular in the last few years. Lifestyle vlogging is one of the most watched genres on YouTube. It often entails someone (typically a female) filming her basic daily routine, offering fitness tips or organization hacks, or listing off reasons for adopting a certain regime. Vegan vloggers, fitness gurus, and minimalism proponents are steadily growing in the YouTube stats. These channels are often supported by Instagram and Snapchat accounts and written blogs, which offer similar content that relies predominantly on beautiful images. All of these vloggers appear to advocate a common slogan: Arrange your life according to these aesthetic principles and you will find happiness.

It’s more subtle than this, though, because nearly all of these videos include a disclaimer that everything offered in the video is the vlogger’s personal preference. Jenny Mustard prefaces her video by reminding her viewers that these are her personal opinions, which suit her personal lifestyle and aesthetic. She’s not making universal claims about beauty or human goods—she is an artist, and art, by her estimation, is morally neutral. She is expressing herself and doing what makes her feel good and happy. She encourages her viewers to do the same.

This statement is airtight. By making this claim of individuality, she protects herself from opposing arguments—because she’s not making an argument, she’s stating a preference. You can’t help but get the sense that this disclaimer stems just as much from her minimalist aesthetic as do her absent eyebrows: She’s leaving no loose ends for viewers to unravel in the comments below. Her lifestyle preference, like her artistic preference, is hers and hers alone. She’s not judging your aesthetic; why should you judge hers?

THE CREATIVE GENERATION

There’s little question that the artist has become the real mover and shaker of the millennial generation. In 2006, Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church delivered a lecture in which he proposed that the artist is the “representative figure” of the postmodern era. “Artists questions things,” Keller explained. “They’ve always tended to deconstruct … to be subversive.” The diversity and fragmentation characteristic of millennial culture stems from the increasing influence of the artist. In the last twenty years, we’ve witnessed a vast increase in the number of people seeking creative jobs. Picture the stereotypical millennial and notice the importance of art in his or her life. He’s that twenty-something who works at an urban start-up and will travel farther than most people to see Kendrick Lamar in concert. She’s that vegan lifestyle vlogger who films and edits all her own videos and designs all her own website content. That polyglot who quit his international business degree and moved to Paris to bus tables at a jazz club. That yogi blogger who is passionate about the Fertility Awareness Method and wants every woman to know the dangers of hormonal birth control. The life of the millennial is restless, expressive, sensitive, and deeply creative. It is, in many respects, the life of the artist.

It makes sense, then, that aesthetics are more important to millennials than they have been to the past few generations. Sure, every age presents us with new trends, but aesthetic trends have never been as much of a driving force of daily life in the U.S. as they are now. Part of what has led to this is the growing accessibility of the internet. Fashion trends and dieting fads aren’t just things we see on the covers of grocery store magazines anymore. With apps like Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr. constantly in our pockets, these sorts of things are all the more pervasive. Beautifully-photographed images of clean kitchens, someone’s European travels, and our friends’ breakfasts fill our news feeds. Not only do we have better access to these trends, but it’s far easier to participate in them with smartphone technology. Snap a photo of your acaï bowl on the dark wood table at your favorite urban-chic café and you’re instantly health-trendy (and the photo need not include your outfit). An Instagram filter can transform your iced Americano into a work of art. Whether or not you’re actually fashionable, healthy, fit, creative, or coffee-savvy, it takes no time at all to make your online self appear these things on social media.

The impulse towards the curated life does not remain online, though. It alters the way we interact with the world as a whole. Millennials will drive the extra twenty minutes to go to a coffee shop that has the right aesthetic vibe when there are two other coffee shops a block away from where they live. Aesthetics direct our money, our time, and our relationships. Perhaps we see this best in the growing popularity of what we might call the “lifestyle industry.” More and more people are beginning careers as professional vloggers, bloggers, and Instagrammers, in which they make money by filming or photographing their daily lives and promoting their personal aesthetic taste. The result is that these twenty- and thirty-somethings often become brands in and of themselves, such that the external appearance of their lives—the way they eat, work out, and organize their homes—turns into a model for others. Within the lifestyle industry, personal aesthetic preference becomes one’s very livelihood, serving as the focal point of one’s desires and ambitions.

THE NEW AESTHETICISM

In his 1981 book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre proposed that, in light of modernity’s embrace of emotivism, wherein all moral claims crumble into statements of personal preference, the modern world had three options moving forward. He presented these options in terms of character types: the Bureaucratic Manager, the Therapist, and the Rich Aesthete. Each of these characters, he explained, embody emotivism in its different variations. Questions of moral evil and moral goodness are irrelevant to all three. The Rich Aesthete is primarily concerned with gaining satisfaction through aesthetic and material pleasure. Drawing from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, MacIntyre depicts the aesthete as one who sees himself as having two exclusive choices: either the ethical or the aesthetic. Thus, in this philosophical framework, aesthetics is morally neutral.

All three of these characters disregard the existence of a telos, of ends of human life. Questions of ends are ultimately questions of values, MacIntyre explains. Rather than being able to identify and pursue objective human “goods” in life (which, as the word implies, have inherent worth), these characters understand life as a series of choices based on what they “value” (that is, the things to which they ascribe worth). Goodness becomes arbitrary, and with it, choice. The decision to have children or to not have children no longer entails the use of reason, the evaluation of goods, and the assessment of reality. Rather, the question becomes self-centered: “What value do I ascribe to children?” Jenny Mustard’s decision rests on her preference alone. There are no moral or ethical implications to consider, because good and evil are subjective.

This absence of moral laws lends itself to disorder, so that it is up to each individual to establish order for themselves. Each of the characters MacIntyre presents represent a different means of establishing a kind of order in place of moral order. The Bureaucratic Manager turns to economic “laws” of efficiency, while the Therapist turns to “laws” of behavioral psychology. The Rich Aesthete turns to self-made “laws” of aesthetics, which vary according to aesthetic preference. Hence we see fitness Instagrammers who organize their lives around the gym and practice intermittent fasting. We see Paleo fanatics who budget an extra $30 for almond flour and medjool dates to make their refined-sugar-free and grain-free desserts. We see animal-rights activists who take the extra time to find cruelty-free household cleaning products. We see Jenny Mustards, who wear only black and white and buy furniture in one of three shades of gray so as the fit their aesthetic rules. We see the growing popularity of minimalism, veganism, and a whole array of other “isms” meant to establish order in one’s life and render it meaningful in some way.

AESTHETICISM AS A MEANS OF CONTROL

This phenomenon is not new. The aesthetes of the Victorian age pursued this lifestyle with more intentionality and self-awareness than millennials do now, though not as a collective movement. Walter Pater, in his 1873 manifesto The Renaissance, laid out the fundamental principles of aestheticism in its emphasis on “art for art’s sake” and meaning as derived from sensual experience of beauty. The aesthetic critic, Pater said, asks, “What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?” The value of art, then, begins in the viewer’s immediate sensual experience. But Pater goes on:

And he who experiences these impressions strongly, and drives directly at the
discrimination and analysis of them, has no need to trouble himself with the abstract
question of what beauty is in itself, or what its exact relation to truth or
experience—metaphysical questions, as unprofitable as metaphysical questions
elsewhere. He may pass them all by as being, answerable or not, of no interest to him.

Thus, according to Pater, a person’s encounter with art does not just begin in immediate sensual experience; it ends there. Metaphysical questions about the essential nature of beauty are not only unnecessary, but “unprofitable”: They have no use in the life of the aesthete. The viewer thus has the ability to define beauty however he likes, according to his aesthetic preferences. Art simply becomes “a form of autobiography,” as one character in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray puts it.

Wilde’s novel, in fact, stands as the paragon of aestheticist fiction from this era, fleshing out in narrative form much of what Pater describes in The Renaissance. Following Lord Henry’s example, Dorian learns to treat the people and objects in his life as “art,” picturing his life as an exhibit of aesthetic sensations of which he is the sole curator. “Live!” Lord Henry tells Dorian, “Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations.” Dorian’s life becomes a collection of sensations aimed at what Lord Henry calls “self-development” (as the sole curator of his life, the aesthete’s highest duty is to himself). All other people and goods in the aesthete’s life become subservient to his own pleasure and aesthetic expression. What Dorian calls “love” and what Lord Henry calls “courage” really mean the aesthetic appeal of love and courage. Virtues are reduced to their external appearance—to how they, at a glance, make one feel. Other people, like Dorian’s love interests, become mere tools of artistic expression. The aesthete’s friends are less a testament to his moral character than to his aesthetic vibe (though in this sense, and as Basil famously points out, they are still a testament to his moral character). Simply put, Dorian’s life becomes his art, and the things in it mere pieces in an exhibit of self-expression.

The aesthete’s lifestyle thus revolves not around beauty, but around a sense of control. He attains meaning by manipulating his surroundings. Throughout the novel, flower imagery recurs in both the characters’ language and the author’s scenic descriptions, serving as a symbol of the aestheticist mode of behavior. The image of the aesthete is the image of him holding a flower in his hand, twisting it this way and that, feeling its soft petals, bringing it to his nose to smell its pleasing aroma—allowing it to fill all his senses. All power is in his hands: He can choose to hold it as close to himself as he wants, or to crush it. Once he has had his fill, he can discard it—and receive no moral judgment for doing so. The aesthetic experience is pleasurable, yes, but moreover it is controlled, ordered, and morally neutral. The aesthete is invulnerable; he is free from constraint—except that which he places upon himself.

Aestheticism, then, becomes a means establishing order in an otherwise disorderly life. This is no less true for millennials than it is for Dorian Gray. In choosing an “aesthetic” to which she feels connected and which she feel expresses her identity, the millennial puts certain boundaries in place so as to add structure to her life. Ethical rules are out, since they make no sense in an age governed by emotivism. Self-made aesthetic rules establish order in the millennial’s life, but a kind of order that place no moral claims on her behavior. It is the kind of order that has the best defense from external judgment: that of personal preference. The rules of veganism, minimalism, fitness routines, or fashion tastes mimic the quotidian order of monastic rules, but without the ethical and moral implications. The millennial’s daily routine, guided by her aesthetic preferences, establishes a sense of control and direction for her life. Thus, the rise of contemporary aestheticism represent an attempt to reconstruct an individualist religious order that renders the solitary believer impervious to moral judgment.

This is Jenny Mustard. Having established a set of aesthetic rules by which she orders her day-to-day life, she has fashioned meaning for her choices. The disclaimer she inserts at the beginning of the video—the reminder that all her statements merely express her own personal preference—makes her invulnerable to criticism. She can say whatever she wants, claim whatever she wants, and make her video titles as ostentatious as she wants, because, ultimately, no one can judge her taste. Her pristine, minimalist, childless aesthetic has wrought her perfect autonomy, and she is all the happier for it.

BEAUTY’S DEMAND ON THE HUMAN PERSON

Jenny Mustard does not mention beauty at all in her video, because aestheticism isn’t about beauty. The difference between the aesthete and the normal beholder of beauty is that the aesthete keeps her distance, unwilling to let her experience of the beautiful touch her in any personal way. The aesthete’s appreciation of beauty is an appreciation of the beautiful thing “on my terms,” and “according to my aesthetic preferences.” It is therefore not an experience of beauty as such, but a controlled, surface-level experience of beauty (“aesthetic” comes from a Greek word denoting not beauty, but sensory perception). Beauty becomes the mere means to sensual pleasure. Because her true aim is to make herself invulnerable to unpleasant sensations by ordering her life according to her preferences, the aesthete cannot let beauty actually touch her. In order to maintain control, she must always hold beauty at arm’s length.

This much is true: Beauty places moral demands on its beholder. Vulnerability is necessary for a true appreciation of a thing, and thus for a true experience of beauty. The child gazing at the sunset, the bridegroom beholding his bride, the old woman surveying the dining room filled with her children and grandchildren all understand, whether consciously or not, that they are not in control of the beauty they see. It comes not from within the beholder, but from without. A true appreciation of beauty, then, recognizes beauty as something other than and outside of oneself.  It demands a posture of wonder and humility which springs from the realization that beauty is pure gift. These demands are not aesthetic, but ethical, and deeply personal.

By rendering her morally autonomous, Jenny Mustard’s aestheticism makes her unable to truly experience beauty. Her minimalist, childless household is aesthetically pleasing and places no unwanted demands on her—but it is a sign of her unwillingness to relinquish control. A true experience of beauty demands that we sacrifice our stingy notions of what is and is not aesthetically pleasing. It requires us to live with hands open to the messiness of reality, and an acceptance of human imperfection.

*****

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde offers two rather profound statements about the artistic sensibilities of Victorian culture: “The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” This is to say that while the Romantic is disturbed by the accuracy with which the realist renders his grotesque nature, the realist is disturbed by the Romantic’s failure to represent that reality. To demonstrate this, Wilde invokes the image of Caliban, Shakespeare’s subhuman monster who is ugly, immoral, and base—but who recognizes these qualities in himself. Whether they like the mirrored image of themselves or not, both the realist and the Romantic are able to recognize the image in the mirror as monstrous. Despite their disagreements, both are willing to examine themselves through art.

This is more than can be said for most millennials. By removing from view anything that might possibly place ethical demands on them and disturb their aesthetic sensibilities, they refuse to look in the glass altogether—for the glass itself pronounces judgment on its subject. Caliban looks into the glass only if he is willing to risk this judgment.

Jenny Mustard cannot risk this. Because a true experience of beauty makes her vulnerable to personal demands, she opts for a purely aesthetic experience over which she has ultimate control. If maintaining her aesthetic means eliminating the possibility of having children and partaking in the beauty of family, then so be it. She stands as a spokesperson for a renewed form of aestheticism, replacing the ethical life with the curated life. Hers is a life that runs contrary to beauty, for true beauty threatens her sense of control. If Wilde’s propositions about the 19th century are true, perhaps we may say the following: The 21st century dislike of beauty is the rage of Caliban stripping the mirror off the wall.

It doesn’t fit his aesthetic anyway.

 

Lara Forsythe is a senior studying English.

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