Positive and Negative Aesthetics

An aesthetic impact is powerful. From advertising influencing our decisions to political leaders instigating action, aesthetic motivations form a core compulsion of our lives, including for ethical or global issues. People often want to believe that they act only with good reason, since our emotions are frivolous. In “Taste, Foodways, and Everyday Life,” Tim Waterman writes, “This common inability to see ourselves as sensate, sexed and sexuate, and emotional as well as reasonable—as part of the constitution of reason—refuses us access to the whole of the human decision-making apparatus, involving, as it does, complex multi-layered, often simultaneous assessments of psychosocial and cultural value.”

We underestimate the emotional, often subconscious, dimension of our choices. As a highly individualistic society, we convince ourselves that our decisions and actions culminate from a process of reasoning. But our communities impact our actions, along with our emotional responses. This is not to downplay reason, but we often overstate its influence. Waterman surmises, in the context of aesthetics, this is why some people prefer the word ‘judgment’ to the more subjective idea of ‘taste.’ Judgment carries the air of authority or objectivity.

As a rhetorical tool, people use positive and negative aesthetics to enhance, advocate, condemn, or oppress. The advertising industry might not use the term “positive aesthetics,” but they know that the way a product looks (and makes people feel) matters a great deal for sales. Likewise, whether or not they connect it with aesthetics, leaders trying to oppress people will use negative aesthetics terms, such as disgusting, to describe or refer to those people. The goal for either positive or negative aesthetic approaches is to evoke a visceral response, reaching to our subconscious instincts. Associating our emotions with people or things changes our interactions with those people or things.

Emotional appeals also drive many social issues by employing aesthetics. This doesn’t mean that people do not have reasons for their beliefs, but just that emotions have a greater impact than we would like to think. We may recall having a discussion about the death penalty, and, inevitably, someone will ask, “What if it was your mom falsely accused?” Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty, this argument hopes to elicit an emotional response. After all, it isn’t a fact, but merely hypothetical. Such examples are not completely without merit, but they don’t stand alone. Beyond these kinds of directly emotional appeals, there are what we might call aesthetic appeals. The thing that is supposed to elicit the visceral emotional response has an aesthetic origin or connection.

Lots of environmental or animal advocacy revolves around landscapes or animals that exude aesthetic qualities (like cuteness or beauty) or inspiring qualities (like majestic). Delicate seascapes gain protection, but swamps tend to not be considered for the same attention. Similarly, we comprehend why people work to protect dolphins, eagles, or elephants. Yet we would be surprised to learn if an organization was dedicated to protecting slugs. In other words, to get people’s interest in environments and animals, an attractive image usually works better than facts alone.

These aesthetic arguments work for social issues too. Pro-life advocates show people pictures of aborted fetuses to induce a visceral feeling of disgust. Organizations working to provide aid to people often show images of children to induce our empathy from our deep-seated instinct to protect the helpless. Animal rights advocates show images of cute animals, sometimes younger animals. Our emotional responses are powerful, which is why aesthetics are also so powerful. Positive and negative aesthetic reactions connect with something deep in our biology, and it can be difficult to overcome their influence.

It’s doubtful that positive or negative aesthetics are the only force at work in any particular decision or change of mind. But the aesthetic aspect strengthens a tendency toward a belief or idea. So, regardless of precisely how much it contributes, which probably varies among people, aesthetics is involved in our decision-making at a primal and emotional level.

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