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Beauty in Brains: Understanding the Mind Through Aesthetics

“The task of art is to transform not perception into feeling but feeling into perception.”

It is rare that one who comes in touch with art doesn't feel anything. They may be awed or amazed, they might get bored or disgusted, but art never fails to evoke a response. For instance, some people look at The Starry Night and think of the insignificance of man in the face of the universe, others admire it for its simple beauty while some possibly just enjoy getting lost in the various spiralling strokes. However, for some, it is a portrait of meaningless colors and lines and a few probably anchor a deep dislike for it because it's not sophisticated enough.

An attempt to define beauty

It is difficult to understand what makes something beautiful, because there is nothing in the world that can be unanimously called beautiful. Beauty is undefinable, but everybody has a definition for beauty, and in a sense, this beauty defines them right back. The most elementary way to understand this connection is through Aesthetics, which, put simply, is the attempt to categorize beauty according to the ambience it creates. Aesthetics are an amalgamation of different responses from the human brain- the emotional and cognitive components, some interest element, some awareness or reflections and so on. They are not limited to any division of art. Different manifestations of art like paintings, poetry, architecture and music attract and affect different parts of the human mind. An affinity towards a particular ambience aids in the process of individuation or creation of a stable personality and as such, aesthetics can be used to predict and understand personality as a concept. Personality, however, is not a concrete, unchanging label assigned to someone but rather a process of becoming which involves radical experience and growth. Engaging with an aesthetic is hence, in a way paradoxical, because an aesthetic, a finished entity, still feels like a unitary transformative experience- an experience that uniquely belongs to one but can be shared with others of the community. To quote Heraclitus, “Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.”

The mind is a curious thing and its perception of aesthetics is no different. It assigns an emotion to fiction, to beauty and can recreate that emotion in another setting, through another medium. Logically, it was easier to name the feeling rather than the genre. Alexander Baumgarten was the first to use the term ‘aesthetic’ in the modern sense. A piece of art that can inspire the suitable thematic response from an individual is a part of the corresponding aesthetic. Conditions for the same have remained uniform over time, however, the elements that evoke that feeling and are consequently assigned to an aesthetic have changed. By analysing those elements, it is possible to witness the growth of a community’s mindset.

Aesthetics in the Past

Before the advent of modern technology, the imagination of the mind was limited to the perception of natural beauty. The divine was represented by humanoid figures fused with animal-like features such as horns or wings. The unknown was yearned for and there was an enthusiastic academic drive to uncover the secrets of the universe. This sets the stage for two very contrasting aesthetics- Etherealism and Dark Academia.

Etherealism is the feeling of being other-worldly; of delicate, halo surrounded, bright and mystical heavens. This would be a feeling more traditionally attributed to God owing to the Crusades. With the heavy influence of the Latin Church and their fantastical notions of Divinity, many of the cultural beliefs of ethereality were overshadowed and the spiritual wonder toward an omniscient God increased. This suggestion is supported by the presence of a majority of ethereal elements in paintings like “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo Da Vinci and various other poems and essays written on Biblical figures. The paintings on the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo in particular, depict the closeness of Man and God. “Adam and God” is one of the literal delineations of this. Ethereality was a direct synonym of religious faith, of transcending the physical plane to be closer to God’s Kingdom.

While Etherealism is the acknowledgement of a Higher Power, Dark Academia is the relentless desire to uncover the mystery that shrouds this Higher Power. It is the romanticisation of the thirst for knowledge. It has always been human nature to quest for answers, sometimes to questions that have yet to be asked. Perhaps from a verbatim viewpoint, art under this aesthetic usually involves dark themes and literal dark shades wherever possible, such as in paintings. Memento mori, Latin for ‘remember you will die’, is a genre of still life paintings including symbols like blown out candles, unwritten scrolls and skulls. The purpose of these paintings was to provoke a feeling of mortality in the viewer, to make them question the next step on the ladder of life.

Aesthetics in the Present

While many people hold onto their religious faith in the twenty-first century, faith isn’t the only conception of other worldly entities. Reaching back into mythologies and with the new question of life outside the planet Earth, ethereal encompasses everything from fairies and magic to aliens and sci-fi. A good example of ethereality today is movies by Studio Ghibli. The aim of Etherealism today is not safety through belief but rather escapism from the ever moving competitive society. This is highlighted in most of Studio Ghibli works through appreciation of simple things like the clouds in the sky or the friendship of a stranger, something that while simple has been pushed to the margins of rarity.

Dark Academia on the other hand seems to have shifted its drive to learn about the future, to the adrenaline of discovering the histories of the past. There is a strange nostalgia for the older days, though not without the thrilling and mysterious trademark themes. It is more reminiscent and appreciative of underrated artists of the time and has a special focus on mythologies and ancient cultures, particularly the Greek. This is perhaps reflective of the wish of a simpler time where worth wasn’t defined by productivity and art and literature could be appreciated at leisure. The romanticisation of the past is sometimes hinted at with dystopian concerns. Modern Dark Academia is focused on art works of the past or at least involves a setting of a similar time. Most music in the genre of alternative rock is redolent of this aesthetic. Bastille’s ‘Bad Blood’ mirrors this aesthetic through various Roman and Greek references in the songs, comparing them to modern day dystopian hypotheticals.

Relevance of Aestheticism

Comparing crowd mentalities across centuries, it is peculiar how despite a difference in portrayal, an aesthetic can remain timeless. Aesthetics are now not just limited to contemporary forms of art but to individualised pinterest boards, spotify playlists, tumblr dashes and fan pages on instagram. “Art for art’s sake” has never rung truer than in this century of interacting with art in a manner unique to each individual, with no set regulations or boundaries of civility.

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