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Xenoaesthetics: Redefining the Mundane

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Xenoaesthetics: Redefining the Mundane

            It is half a mile since I began running this morning, moving steadily down a long, steep hill that turns into a rural paved highway a short distance out of town.  Nearly three miles of straight white lines lie before me before the road turns toward the Missouri River.  Line after line after line, each one similar to the others, painted in stark relief against the weathered, pale gray cement, stretches out upon the canvas of newly harvested fields.  Stark.  Plain.  Functional.  Few people would perceive a deeper, intrinsic beauty in something as mundane as a line.

Nonetheless, with each stride I make, I cannot help but to marvel at the continuity and monolithic beauty of this modest stretch of highway.  Ancient civilizations often designed similar geometric patterns of lines or angles that reflected not only the art and architecture of the time, but some greater essence that spoke to the minds and creativity of the culture as well.  Cities of antiquity, often constructed for defensibility to confuse invading foes, have been superseded by repeating grid patterns of streets and highways that say more about function than form. 

Art itself – and, in essence, beauty – has undergone transformations in interpretation as seen in the evolution of form and function from civilizations like Egypt and Crete, to the classical Hellenistic styles, and onward through the middle ages, the renaissance, and into the modern world.  Yet throughout  all these eras, throughout every culture, one form has seemed to remain unchanged, possessing both utility and – through it sheer common occurrence – function that transcends subjective ideals of art and aesthetics in general: the straight line.

Aesthetics, the study of what makes something beautiful – or ugly – relies upon one’s ability to both observe an object at the sensory level as well as the ability to distinguish or to discern an object’s properties that make it pleasing or otherwise.  It is distinguished from the study of “art” in subtle and hotly contested ways that I shall not attempt to lay out in this brief essay.  Yet suffice it to say that under the philosophy of aesthetics, beauty – what is inherently agreeable to all - and taste – what one learns that they should find agreeable – are two separate things.  Still, what one finds beautiful and what is inherently beautiful may certainly differ when we observe various cultures over varying times.  However, even more fascinating to ponder is the abstract question as to whether or not aesthetics is determined by a single species or whether there is some universal, transcendent characteristic to beauty and aesthetics upon which any species, anywhere, can agree upon, whether terrestrial or from another world.

So as I run down this little used highway, watching as line after line stretches for miles ahead, I imagine what art must be like if another culture on a world far away from us was to consider the straight line the highest form of beauty, the greatest form of art.  In our culture today, the straight line, whether it is a long stretch of road, the edge of a skyscraper, or the sheet of notebook paper, is considered rather mundane and “normal.”  The aesthetic value of the line is seemingly taken for granted, although physicists and mathematicians alike may perceive a different kind of utilitarian beauty in it.  In curved time and space, both scientists and mathematicians understand that the straightest line in the universe is actually a curve.  Why, then, wouldn’t the line be considered sometime, somewhere, the greatest aesthetic achievement?  Some of the greatest sculptures and paintings – whether classical or post-modern – are valued as such because of the play of light or the notion of symmetric or asymmetric curves and forms that delight the senses.  Yet the line, the plain, old, straight line, is arguably downplayed as beautiful in and of itself, a form unworthy of serious consideration as Art unto its own end. Still, there are many places where lines may be found that can give one pause for reflection on the inherent beauty of the form.

Driving into school this morning, I was mesmerized by the contrasting play of wispy, randomly formed cirrus clouds dotting the eastern horizon crisscrossed by a dozen relatively straight lines formed by the exhaust of jets that have passed overhead.  The puffy, narrow trails of white lines intersected one another at curious angles while others appeared perfectly parallel or perpendicular to each other like graffiti on the canvas of an impressionist sunrise.  What was it, I pondered, that would compel our culture to prize the random shapes and colors of this sunrise while minimizing – or even detesting – the haphazard white lines strewn upon the morning sky like fatal strokes across an otherwise perfect picture?  Or do we, in fact, count these long, straight lines as equally compelling aesthetic virtues? 

Imagine a place, if you will, where the line is revered as the highest aesthetic art, where mile high, pencil-thin sculptures erupt across an alien skyline like glass straws emanating with light.  Art forms minimizing or altogether eliminating the straight line are sold and collected, but not with the same intensity of interest or fervor.  The greatest works of architectural and aesthetic renown are structures comprised of converging or diverging lines, enmeshed with perpendicular, parallel, and parallel-like forms that splay forth in symmetrical and asymmetrical designs.  Would such an aesthetic value have any influence upon a culture’s development, its epistemology, or its metaphysics?  Or, would these latter have, instead, an influence upon the culture’s aesthetics?  A culture, alien or otherwise, whose aesthetics are influenced most by the form and function of the line would be a fascinating one to observe.  Regardless, each time I drive, each time I run down that lonely highway, I will ponder the value of aesthetics and what it means to define the mundane as beautiful.

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