Which "Aesthetics" Do You Mean?

A glance at the recent literature about Beauty suggests that the proper way at the subject is in small doses. Ways of Seeing likely set the standard for the small book about aesthetics; for all its epochal impact, John Berger's volume weighs in at a modest 166 pages. Elaine Scarry's more recent On Beauty and Being Just runs to 134 pages with index and acknowledgments, while Roger Scruton's 2009 Beauty barely manages to reach its 177th page.


Why should this be? Beauty, after all, is perennially big. It's the quality that sucks the proverbial air out of the room, demanding its excise of fascination. Think Audubon's Double-Elephant Folio, the Book of Kells, and the September Vogue. Beauty is perhaps the one ideal that makes itself most acutely and ubiquitously manifest in life. The True and the Good are shadowy and elusive, but the world brims over with beauty.


Perhaps the little book on beauty is a reaction to the big books that came before. The Romantics' mystical cult of beauty and the fiendishly difficult aesthetics of Immanuel Kant spawned a moralizing temper among the Victorians, expressed with sprawling prolixity by John Ruskin and the more inwardly turned essays of Walter Pater. Or perhaps the small book on beauty is a defensive, under-the-radar reaction to the modern art world's savaging of beauty as a value.


Which "Aesthetics" Do You Mean? is Leonard Koren's fifteenth book. In previous works he explored haggling, meditation, the arrangement of flowers and other objects, the raking of leaves, and, most famously, wabi-sabi, the Japanese stylistic principles that take in the simple, the lonely, and the beautifully broken. They have all been small books, all of them gesturing towards the cosmic with a humble economy.


In his earlier and best-known work, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Koren dashed off a definition of aesthetics, saying that:

…the term refers to a set of informing values and principles—guidelines—for making artistic discriminations and decisions. The hallmarks of an "aesthetic" are (1) distinctiveness (distinction from the mass of ordinary, chaotic, nondifferentiated perceptions), (2) clarity (the aesthetic point has to be definite—clear—even if the aesthetic is about unclearness), and (3) repetition (continuity).

Even for a small book, the actual text of Aesthetics is slight. The ten definitions of "aesthetics"—exploring tensions of the word "aesthetics" as customarily applied to appearances, styles, taste, philosophy of art, language, and several other considerations—run altogether to fifty pages, many of which consist of full-bleed illustrations. This semantic exegesis is followed by an afterword recounting the genesis of the work, which came together when Koren was engaged in a bitter dispute with his former wife.


But this rather clinical description does scant justice to the charisma exuded by this simple, inexpensive paperback. Printed on thick stock in two colors, black and sepia, from cover to cover the book makes a subtle movement towards stillness, towards origins. Taking the images in order, we begin with charred bone fragments at the end of life; the next image depicts a grater and colander, tools of dissolution. Next, a broken book, building facades, and then a nude woman pressing her ink-covered body against a sheet of paper and (in the next image) regarding the resulting impression with a smile. A series of drawings follow—these taken from another Koren book, How to Rake Leaves—which depict a woman going through the ritual of fall cleaning in reverse: first, bathing in a heated steel barrel set among autumn trees, then resting in a smoke-misted wood, leaves falling, the woman watching smoke rise from a pile of burning leaves, and the woman watching leaves swirl against an empty sky. (The drawings, gentle and spare of line, were made by Maruo Suehiro, an artist best known for violent and sexually graphic manga.) Through the afterword are interspersed full-bleed spreads showing details taken from the crayon scribbles of Koren's toddler son, Marco. This pageant of imagery throughout the work effects a kind of aesthetic Pilgrim's Progress in reverse—a journey back from death through representation, impression, and self-regard, through playful activity, to the pure cognitive and sensuous play of image-making.


After the autobiographical section come endnotes and captions for the illustrations. "Children seem to be thoughtfully engaged in, and genuinely enjoy, selecting colors, making marks on pristine white surfaces, and creating pictures that, in their minds anyway, capture the likenesses of things they know and like," Koren writes in the caption describing Marco's drawings. "How is this different from what grown-up artists do?" These are the last words in Koren's book. Although he set out proposing to help us "think about and discuss aesthetic phenomena in your life and in your work," in the end Koren's book gestures toward the impulse to beauty itself, a foundation deeper than and prior to discussion, where all is noticing, and all noticing is aesthetic.

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