Thursday, June 7, 2012

Aesthetics: An ordered, well-organized, disciplined life

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

As I was sitting having breakfast before dawn one morning (on many mornings!), I enjoyed subdued lighting, gentle, comforting music, and a clean, neat relaxing dining room ambiance.  Suddenly, as I enjoyed this incredibly satisfying environment, I realized that it was aesthetics — characterized by an appreciation of beauty or good taste — that was engaging my senses and providing the balance that an ordered, well-organized, disciplined life can bring.

At the very top of Abraham Maslow’s original five-stage model of his Hierarchy of Needs (1943-1954) was self-actualization.  Below that was esteem, preceded by love/belonging, safety, and physiological needs.  Never, in his models did the term aesthetics appear.  (N.B. “Although Maslow referred to additional aspects of motivation, 'Cognitive' and 'Aesthetic,' he did not include them as levels or stages within his own expression of the Hierarchy of Needs.” —Source: Chapman, Allen. (n.d.). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Businessballs.com Retrieved January 30, 2011.
    
In my ordering of needs I would place aesthetic needs at the pinnacle on Maslow’s Hierarchy — above self-actualization needs.  For the most part, it is only after physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs are fulfilled (whether on purpose or by accident) that people can turn their attention to aesthetic needs — a search for beauty symmetry and closure.  I would suggest that most people do not reach this stage; however, I’m certain that those who do attain this (as I believe I have, not to be immodest), they are likely to find it desirable, pleasing, and satisfying.  My opening paragraph of this essay demonstrates why, but let me offer several other examples to make my point.
    
Often, I think it takes a meta-perspective to realize or observe aesthetics in our lives.  That is, we must stand outside ourselves as objective observers of our own life to actually see and appreciate it.  That is because so often we take it for granted, fail to notice or observe it, or simply disregard it as unimportant.  Indifference is, of course, likely if you consider that most of our life has been consumed (to the degree that it has) with the lower needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It is possible that those who have not struggled as much are likely to be in the best position to appreciate aesthetics when that time comes in our lives.
    
Let me give some examples of where (not how) aesthetics can show up in our lives.  
    
As a preface to what I am going to write here, I have to admit one caveat.  I am a perfectionist, and there are many times when I regret it (especially when it costs me extra time to achieve the level of perfection I demand of myself!), but the difference between aesthetics and perfectionism is sometimes hard to discern.
    
I want order in my life, and when I see order, it is pleasing.  I was recently leafing through the pictures in the book, Ansel Adams at 100 (Linen Slipcase edition, August 2, 2001).  What I noticed in Adams’ pictures was the balance, perspective, and detail.  He had the ability to frame a picture to bring out features not seen by the untrained eye.  This is what pleased my aesthetic sense.
    
I am fulfilled in the same manner when I listen to great music.  Often, when I eat I have music playing in the background.  It doesn’t have to be Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven.  I find delightful and satisfying artistry in van Cliburn’s piano playing, Enya’s vocal recordings, and even in the works of James Galway and George Winston.  I don’t have to be a critic, offer in-depth analysis, or even understand all of the nuances and intricacies of the music (or artwork, as the case may be) to appreciate it.  I like it because it pleases my senses and, thus, my aesthetic needs.
    
When I read a good book, I get a rich sense of aesthetics.  When an author can put words to ideas and construct an outstanding, well-supported narrative, for me there can be no better aesthetic.  It is precisely these books that win my approval.  It is why, too, that I read so widely (non-fiction only), but it is a continuous search for aesthetic satisfaction.  (I post my book reviews every Monday on my blog, and there are more than 100 of my reviews posted at Amazon.com.)
    
Nature, just as you might think, offers so many opportunities to appease my aesthetic needs.  I have traveled around the world and, honestly, the possibilities for aesthetic satisfaction are endless.  We went on a waterfall tour in upstate Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one year, and the variety of waterfalls we saw was staggering — all different sizes and shapes, with quantities of water that varied from dribbles to gushers, and at surroundings that varied from rural and secluded (where we had to hike into a forest to find the falls) to urban (where the falls were located within a city and surrounded by buildings, bridges, or other structures.
    
We have walked in forests, jungles, and through wetlands. We have been in banana plantations, nutmeg-tree plots, and taro fields.  We have visited botanical gardens in Hawaii, on some Caribbean islands, and in Ann Arbor and Toledo.  The views have been astounding, the sights staggering, and the variety remarkable.
    
When we were in Shanghai where the shapes and colors of the buildings were unique, just as the architecture in Columbus, Indiana, catches the eye.  Despite the filth and pollution in downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Ming City), the spaghetti snarls of the overhead electrical lines dazzled the imagination.  And, in great contrast to Saigon, the cleanliness and size of he buildings in downtown Singapore is astonishing.
    
One web site that discussed graphic design briefly mentioned aesthetics: “People consider aesthetics as a basic need. They like to work in environments that meet at least basic aesthetic requirements. They dislike ugly environments. As a result, they are more motivated and perform better if their aesthetic needs are met.”
    
I totally agree with this comment, however, I have also discovered that there is surprising beauty in everything with which we have contact.  It may need us to look more closely; it may need us to draw back to see the greater picture.  Once we have satisfied the lower-order needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy, the likelihood that we can see and appreciate the aesthetics in everything we encounter becomes more likely.  And when we get to that point, we get closer to achieving the balance that an ordered, well-organized, disciplined life can bring.
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At wikiHow, the essay there by Rob S, Ben Rubenstein, and Sondra C, “How to Appreciate Modern American Architecture,” offers instructions that could apply to anything we encounter in life.

In an essay at the eHow web site, “What is aesthetic impotence?” Fraser Sherman writes that Fredrich von Schiller, the aesthetic philosopher, said (and he paraphrases him): “He believed that the growth of our capacity to appreciate beauty was linked with the growth of our dignity and freedom as human beings.”  Sherman’s essay supports the contention in my essay that we begin to appreciate beauty once we feel secure in the lower-order needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
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Copyright June, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.



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