The Infinity of Aesthetics

“Public opinion doesn’t usually move in staccato bursts,” writes Bill McKibben. “Culture usually shifts gradually—painfully gradually for those of us who want change. But, occasionally, attitudes swing quite suddenly, as if pressure had been silently building up behind a dam until it burst.”

Consider for a moment how many build ups are bursting on this Midsummer like none other. Over the last few months it is clear that the notion of a “return to normal” has become as unlikely as resurgence in 8-track tape technology. That’s the past and it is over, folks. Meanwhile the mythical Cartesian grid, a perennial cultural metaphor that hovers over our collective belief in the redemptive clarity of logic, has been skewed out of recognition, and its origin—point 00—has gone missing.

Lots of perennials have “gone missing.” That can be disturbing, but it can also be an opportunity. Change is easier when a system is in flux. A chance to start fresh, to actually design a better future.

An essential tension emerges during these interstitial moments. On the one hand there is the urgent call to become more deeply engaged in collective life. To protest inequality. Study empathy. Read White Fragility. Align authentically with a global cause.

On the other hand, there is the flip side: retreat and remove. (“Life in a complex civilization creates a familiar impulse to withdraw,” observed Leo Marx.) The isolation and hermitizing demands of quarantining have encouraged the development of new survival skills. Many of us have become more self-resourced, more focused on the interior life.

Some hold strong. Some have gone missing. But as is often the case with forced dichotomies, there is that other option: to be a bit of both.

In her book, Second Body, Daisy Hildyard opens up a more expansive way to think about the body. We have physical forms that we feed and commandeer, but that very same physicality also enrolls us in a larger network of all living entities. At this moment you are not physically melting the polar ice caps or polluting the ocean, but your “second body” is complicit in conditions that affect the whole of life.

The idea of a human body being responsible for things which bear no relation to its immediate surroundings has a history. But climate change is creating a new language, one in which you are here and you are also always everywhere. Impact is happening far beyond the constraints of our singular human physical form. And when we truly understand that our bodies are both local and global, the boundaries between ourselves and the world begin to dissolve.

Who we are in the world matters. Many artists—in particular those who do not use their art to directly address issues of politics, identity or social change—express a strong desire to find ways to contribute to this global shift in consciousness. In addition to donating art for good causes and striving to be a more empathetic citizen of the world, they have a part to play in this shift taking place.

The artists in the Pell Lucy artist collective for example—gathered around a common belief in the intelligence of form itself—make art that employs visual language to speak directly and personally to the viewer. Their work may touch places of refined feeling, contemplation, pleasure, quiet. I know I feel more centered and clear when I spend time with their work. This is valuable to me personally, and it is not unreasonable to see how it can impact  “second body” consciousness as well.

The art world’s tendency to the theatrical has been played out over the last few years with increased high jinx stunts, blatant vapidity and deadening venality. That all seems woefully out of step with where we are now, one more reason to explore other methods of making and sharing art.

For many of us, art is highly personal. It deepens our sense of reverence and connection, reminding us of our place in the “family of things” (Mary Oliver.) There is no need to strong arm or scream that message, but just offer it up to our imaginations. Right now that feels both useful and hopeful.

From a recent message sent by Sundaram Tagore (Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Chelsea) to his collectors and clients:

This period of forced closure and isolation, coupled with the reckoning over racism, injustice and inequality, has prompted industry-wide soul searching.


It’s time for a reassessment. What kind of art and artists are we going to endorse going forward? Will the proliferation of glib, affected art forms supported by market-oriented commercial and institutional organizations face a little more scrutiny? Will collectors think harder about whether a work of art will stand the test of time? Will art that embodies beauty, spirituality and ideas outside the mainstream gain footing? Will artists who are outside the mainstream gain traction? Many important galleries, museums and art fairs are pledging to reassess their programming practices in light of recent events.

Good questions to be asked and to be answered.

In the meantime, I am allowing outsides to be insides, ups to be downs, micro to become macro, macro to be micro. We are larger than we know!

Take a moment to feast on these visual reminders of where it is we live.

Magnetic Streamlines of the Milky Way. These are the emissions of small magnetically-aligned dust grains that reveal previously unknown magnetic field structures in our galaxy. Image: ESA, Planck

Coronal loops are found around sunspots and in active regions. These structures are associated with the closed magnetic field lines that connect magnetic regions on the solar surface. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

Interstellar medium is matter that exists in the space between the star systems in the galaxy. Image: GALFA-HI

I will leave it to Umberto Eco to bring this full circle:

Achilles’ shield is therefore the epiphany of Form, of the way in which art manages to construct harmonious representations that establish an order, a hierarchy…Homer was able to construct (imagine) a close form because he…knew the world he talked about, he knew its law, causes and effects, and this is why he was able to give it a form. There is, however, another mode of artistic representation, i.e., when we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, when we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large…The infinity of aesthetics is a sensation that follows from the finite and perfect completeness of the thing we admire, while the other form of representation we are talking about suggests infinity almost physically, because in fact it does not end, nor does it conclude in form.

2 Replies to “The Infinity of Aesthetics”

  1. Di Johnson says:

    as usual, you have my mind wide open, thanks Deb!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Di. I think we drink from the same streams…

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