BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

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POEM: Beauty

People prefer a face that can launch a thousand ships to one that can stop a clock. But did the clock-stopping face break the clockwork mechanism or halt the steady increase in entropy?

[Speaking of entropy, and it’s insistence on increase, a more disordered face reflects a more advanced state of progression, and yet that advancement isn’t honored.]

Back to the clock-stopping face. Breaking the brittle plastic gears of a mass-made clock is no great feat compared to ship-launching. But binding up the inexorable flow of the universe? That’s power.

POEM: What Is this Thing Called Beauty?

We see beauty in nature, but we see more in nature reigned in — kept in check by the hand of man. Why should a fresh-cut patch of grass please the eye more than its shaggy state of nature?

What soul doesn’t sore at the sight of a Japanese garden? It’s nature, but micromanaged in the slightest details of distance, shape, light, and order. Not a leaflet out of place. Gravel pads equidistantly furrowed with great precision. A bonsai tree could be called grotesque in its gnarled, shriveled deformation, but — instead — the bonsai has a universal visual appeal. Is it because they are stunted and deformed in precisely the manner man has chosen?

We see beauty in the human form, as well — but too rarely in our own. We like them depilated — plucked to the point that not a hair stands out of place. Biology tells us our eyes should seek the figure capable of staying strong while chasing prey across the savanna or gathering nuts and berries through wastelands where those foods are sparse. But our eyes covet those leaner than that — that leanness expresses our beloved ordered angularity.

Pure nature is frisson-laden — ever uncontrollable, unpredictable, and disordered. Its beauty is never separated from the fear it inspires.

Manicured nature offers a pleasing feel of dominion — an illusion of control that puts the mind at ease.