It may well be because of our city’s recent Festival of Hot Hot Heat but I’ve been thinking alot about a certain phrase: the morality of aesthetics. Yes, it does sound like the title of Peter Singer’s latest, but it’s been hounding me, it’s been making me twitch, it’s even been keeping me up at night. So I’m afraid that I’m going to exorcise it right here, right now, in this column, in public. Hopefully it won’t be too gross an operation.
I’ve never been great at understanding the first word in my phrase – morality. What’s the difference between morality and ethics? The thesaurus that can be raised by pressing F7 on my computer believes there is none. God help the world’s youth! (I am forty years old now so I am officially allowed to say such things.) My Oxford dictionary gives better definitions: as an adjective a moral means to be concerned with goodness or badness of character; an ethic is a set of moral principles. But this is all sounding like a Grade Seven General Studies class, so let’s move on to the good stuff.
Aesthetics. Now that’s a word that really spins my nipples. It looks spectacular, it feels divine in the mouth and on the lips, and it is everything in which I believe. If aesthetics was a religion I’d be its most devout member, perhaps even a fanatic, but – shhh! – don’t tell anyone otherwise I’ll have taps on my phone and men in black suits at my door. Although Mr Gates doesn’t seem that interested in it: his thesaurus offers only two words in response: ‘artistic’ and ‘visual’, both of which seem far too prosaic. Again, reach for the Oxford. As an adjective aesthetic means concerned with or sensitive to what is beautiful; as a noun it refers to a branch of philosophy (religion would be better) dealing with the principles of beauty and tastefulness, though let’s ignore that last word – taste in this context also sounds overly ordinary.
No doubt you’re wondering why the morality of aesthetics has been bothering me and you’re not at all convinced it’s because of temperatures nudging forty degrees. Well, this is the reason: quite clearly we are nearing Economic Armageddon; we are also nearing Environmental Armageddon. And this is a bit of a problem and requires attention. However, where does that leave those of us who like beautiful sounds, or beautiful objects, or beautiful stories? Where does it leave those who like beautiful faces? Or beautiful souls?
It was Stendhal who said that beauty is the promise of happiness. And despite the coming of the end of the world I want to be happy, goddamit!
Time to bring in the big guns, one of my top-five personal heroes, the High Priest of Aesthetics, Mr Oscar Wilde. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, ‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.’ (Can’t you just imagine him saying that at a dinner party, leaning back in his chair, red wine in hand, his arm around a young…well, never mind.) Mr Wilde then adds this, and it’s a cracker: ‘Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.’
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, February 28 2009)