Humans and the aesthetic

I’ve been watching bonsai videos lately. I don’t know why. There’s something about taking a straggly adolescent tree, shredding it to its core and produce something humans would find beautiful. There’s the time aspect too, the fact that once you strip some seedling down to its naked trunk, chop its arms and head off, bend it sideways and command it to “sit and stay!” that you have to wait years while the pathetic Charlie Brown’s bonsai either handles the trauma and flourishes — or dies.

And I got to thinking, a dog wouldn’t give this tree a second thought, that is, right after it pissed all over it. Nor would a robin, or a gecko, antelope or a mountain lion. Too small to provide shade, too nasty to eat, maybe there’s some bugs to be found crawling through its diminutive branches… But other than that, meh, just another woody green thing to be ignored.

We humans seem singularly adapted to layer an aesthetic sense of beauty, or the lack there of, over top of everything we experience in the world. The most mundane items of everyday life may be imbued with the qualities of feng shui, chi/qi, or wabi-sabi evoking the true essence of their purpose — or not. There’s some ugly shit in the world.

I’m reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comment that, of the billions of species that have existed since the rise of complex life 500+ millions years ago, higher intelligence evolved just once as an extended species (Homo). “I guess higher intelligence must not be all that important for survival.” Sharks and crocodiles would agree.

And with this “higher intelligence” it would appear we got the added bonus of arbitrarily assigning an aesthetic quality to anything within our environment. I look at these bonsai trees (bonsai literally means “planted in a pot”) and I can immediately distinguish which exude elegance and charm and which are gnarled witch-sticks leaning toward the fire. And I’m convinced my dog couldn’t care less.

But then, maybe she does care… Care about other things. “Oh my, what a wonderful smell that is, wafting in through the open car window.” Or the corvid perched on the rooftop, “That’s one clean, white ground roller there. I think it needs a bit of aerial deposited decoration.” What of a dolphin’s delight in the curve of the surf, or the standing pulse of a bow-wave? How about the sweetness of a strawberry or banana for a chimpanzee?

Perhaps our delight or disgust of that which we experience, and how they influence our behavior is not ours alone.

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink then you’ll recall how our subconscious, our first 1/2 a second of experience can instruct us in our aesthetic judgement. It’s a thing we cannot stop. We instantly “know”. But I ask myself, why should my interpretation of the world and my personal opinion of its beauty or ugliness have meaning beyond my own mind, beyond my own life?

My dog rolled in something again. Damn, that’s some skanky shit.

“You’re joking, right?” she whines, “That was the best smellin’ dead-thing I’ve found in many moons.”