One of the things I collect is people’s odd little invented aesthetic categories. They’re usually personal, often work-related, and usually arise from a human soul being endlessly confronted with the same set of relationships and experiences, in the work-grind, and trying to cope. I, for example, have a very private list of the most tragicomically overreaching introductory sentences from student papers. (“Since the time of the dinosaurs, man has yearned to define the Quest for Truth.” Etc.)
Here’s a particularly satisfying one I just collected, from a therapist friend who asked to remain anonymous.
(Photo credit: Peter Barker)
“Top ten facial tissue handling patterns by patients engaging in psychotherapy:
1. The relieved post-sobbing messy scrunch ball.
2. The careful triangle; unused.
3. The careful triangle, folded before crying; used for gentle dabbing at gentle tears.
4. The careful triangle, folded after crying to hide the snot.
5. Messy, self-conscious, post-sobbing squares.
6. The anxious rending.
7. The anxious and methodical balling-up into equally-sized tissue balls.
8. The careful pyramid of many tissue scrunch balls.
10. The anxious refraining from using any tissues at all; tears and snot akimbo.
11. The twisting into elegant, anxious tissue rods.”
I think I delight in these lists because they’re a place where people get to mess around with their own made-up aesthetic categories. They’re where we get to actually invent our categories for ourself.
They’re in this odd in-between space, for aesthetics. On the one hand, with Official Art Stuff, we tend to appreciate things in terms of historically established and very public categories, like “Grecian architecture” and “Impressionist art”. As Kendall Walton ultra-famously argued, aesthetic appreciation of an artwork crucially depends on which category you perceive it in. The category tells you which features to pay attention to, and which to ignore; it also tells you which features are standard for that category, and which stick out. Total flatness is unremarkable for a painting, but quite bold for a sculpture. On the other hand, for Totally Not Official Art Stuff, we can just ignore any standard and established categories. This is Yuriko Saito’s line, in Everyday Aesthetics – nobody tells us how to aesthetically appreciate housework, we just pay attention to whatever we please, and notice whatever we like.
These little personal categories are something halfway in-between, where we get to play around with the categories themselves, and try on for different ones for size. They’re aesthetic categories that we can tune to our own private interests, cut free from the requirements of art history. And a good one can be weirdly effective for interrogating other people’s aesthetic souls. For example: asking people to list the “best restaurants in the world” tends to yield dullness. But “favorite places to eat when depressed” yields, not only a deep insight into other people’s particular emotional relationship with food, but, when deployed regularly, the beginnings of an understanding of the differences between fine dining, and, say, comfort eating. And the list of “favorite things and places to eat alone” yields something even more interesting: an awareness of how place, eating habits, and socializing interact; an awareness of what kinds of food are convivial and which ones are deeply private pleasures, and what about them makes it so.