Which "Aesthetics" Do You Mean?

A glance at the recent literature about Beauty suggests that theproper way at the subject is in small doses. Ways of Seeing likely set the standard for the small book about aesthetics; forall 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 RogerScruton’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 itsexcise of fascination. Think Audubon’s Double-Elephant Folio, the Book ofKells, and the September Vogue. Beauty is perhaps the one idealthat makes itself most acutely and ubiquitously manifest in life. The True andthe Good are shadowy and elusive, but the world brims over with beauty.

Perhaps the little book on beauty is a reaction to the bigbooks that came before. The Romantics’ mystical cult of beauty and thefiendishly difficult aesthetics of Immanuel Kant spawned a moralizing temperamong the Victorians, expressed with sprawling prolixity by John Ruskin and themore inwardly turned essays of Walter Pater. Or perhaps the small book onbeauty is a defensive, under-the-radar reaction to the modern art world’ssavaging of beauty as a value.

Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean? is Leonard Koren’s fifteenthbook. In previous works he explored haggling, meditation, the arrangement offlowers and other objects, the raking of leaves, and, most famously, wabi-sabi,the Japanese stylistic principles that take in the simple, the lonely, and thebeautifully broken. They have all been small books, all of them gesturingtowards the cosmic with a humble economy.

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

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

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

But this rather clinical description does scant justice tothe charisma exuded by this simple, inexpensive paperback. Printed on thickstock in two colors, black and sepia, from cover to cover the book makes asubtle movement towards stillness, towards origins. Taking the images in order,we begin with charred bone fragments at the end of life; the next image depictsa grater and colander, tools of dissolution. Next, a broken book, buildingfacades, and then a nude woman pressing her ink-covered body against a sheet ofpaper 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 RakeLeaves—which depict a woman going through the ritual of fall cleaning inreverse: first, bathing in a heated steel barrel set among autumn trees,then resting in a smoke-misted wood, leaves falling, the woman watching smokerise from a pile of burning leaves, and the woman watching leaves swirl againstan empty sky. (The drawings, gentle and spare of line, were made by MaruoSuehiro, an artist best known for violent and sexually graphic manga.)Through the afterword are interspersed full-bleed spreads showing details takenfrom the crayon scribbles of Koren’s toddler son, Marco. This pageant ofimagery throughout the work effects a kind of aesthetic Pilgrim’s Progress inreverse—a journey back from death through representation, impression, andself-regard, through playful activity, to the pure cognitive and sensuous playof image-making.

After the autobiographical section come endnotes andcaptions for the illustrations. “Children seem to be thoughtfully engagedin, and genuinely enjoy, selecting colors, making marks on pristine whitesurfaces, and creating pictures that, in their minds anyway, capture thelikenesses of things they know and like,” Koren writes in the captiondescribing Marco’s drawings. “How is this different from what grown-upartists do?” These are the last words in Koren’s book. Although he set outproposing to help us “think about and discuss aesthetic phenomena in yourlife and in your work,” in the end Koren’s book gestures toward theimpulse to beauty itself, a foundation deeper than and prior to discussion,where all is noticing, and all noticing is aesthetic.