What Are Aesthetic Ideas?

“What are aesthetic ideas?” asks Alice, a young fashion addict who is quizzed by her mother about what she should wear for her big night. Alice replies with practiced nonchalance, “Nothing…I’ll wear whatever my favorite color is.”

But Alice soon discovers that her aesthetic ideas do more than quell her fashion thirst. They define her. Her aesthetic responses to the world around her–her environment and her self–shape her values and her sensibility. Just as her answers to what are artistic ideas shaped her view of herself, so does her approach to fashion and the fashion industry. The questions that Alice poses help her understand her own aesthetic response to the world. It is through her interpretation of the aesthetic elements of fashion that she can link her ideas about herself and fashion to her own observations of the world around her.

To address the question, “what are aesthetic ideas?” one must turn to the work of linguists like David Delaney and Richard Soran. These two linguists have done extensive empirical research on the nature of aesthetic ideas. Their analyses reveal how aesthetic ideas are formed by humans and how these ideas influence their social and communal life, even when such ideas are not consciously articulated. In The Wounded Healer, one of Soran’s books, for example, he describes how a group of college students relates to a graphic painting that they see in a museum.

The students identify with the painting because it reminds them of something that happened in their lives. The image of a mangled body–a victim of violence, perhaps–reinforces their own feeling of helplessness and despair. They relate to the imagery of the injury because they have felt the pain themselves. But the beauty of the work, which they take as a work of art, triggers an aesthetic response in them. In a similar way, people’s visual perceptions of a video game may be explained by their own aesthetic responses.

There are aesthetic features of things, such as color, shape, or size, which people find attractive. But there are also other non-natural aesthetic features of things, such as the quality of the material used to make a cup or a chair or the form of the hand held controller. Aesthetics then combine with psychology to produce a complex blend of meaning. People tend to share aesthetic features and experiences as they combine them with their interpretation of what they are feeling at a particular time.

Aesthetic impressions therefore influence social behavior and also determine the course of human development. Freud believed that aesthetic ideas played an important role in human evolution and believed that aesthetic ideas formed the basis of modernity. But then he wrote matter-of-factly: “Aesthetic impressions, properly so called, merely correspond to certain occasions and to certain needs.” He then went on to say that art and feelings had become independent of each other and that the one had replaced the other.

Aesthetic impressions, however, do not vary from one person to another. An impression, whether pleasing or unpleasantly unpleasant, is felt by one and not by another. It therefore follows that, given the fact that aesthetic ideas and feelings are personal, the ability to form an opinion about such impressions is limited. Aesthetic ideas thus form the foundation of determinate thought, the faculty of determining what is good or bad through personal experience. We then have the idea that aesthetic ideas and feelings are determined by personal experiences and that the good or bad impression which we form about such impressions is either true or false.

Derrida defines this as the “influence of the sense of sight over that of the sensibility” (ibid., p. 245). The conviction that beauty lies in the eyes being present is, he says, a “permanent illusion” because it is dependent on the sensibility and its ideas of beauty which are themselves dependent on the presence of objects. We can see then that there are no ideas of beauty in Derrida’s sense; rather there are only ideas of what are aesthetic sensations, the subjective experience of pleasure, an impulse acting upon an object that can be controlled by will.