I recognize immediately that having any amount of space to feel safe in at the moment is an enormous privilege; a room to call your own just plain lavish. But for those lucky enough to relate to the concern of decorating a personal space in a new house, I’d like to relay my thoughts on “being aesthetic.”
The first of May marked for me the “official” beginning of both my “adulthood” (aka post-studenthood) and life in a new house for the summer. Draped across my bed in the new abode, after a long and tiresome day of unboxing, organizing, and reorganizing, my partner turned his head to look at me and asked, “have you always been so concerned with being aesthetic?”
In reflection, I recognize that my impulse reaction was pretty ridiculous, but I believe I gasped in horror, crossed my arms violently and growled, “what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Taking in his shocked expression, I glanced quickly around at the space in which I’d spent all afternoon arranging my belongings. A few black and white framed LPs. Crisp white sheets (white white, not off-white or, godforbid, cream). Matching chocolate brown wood dressers. Windowsill lined with shells and crystals; shelves with my favourite cassette tapes, art, and books. A poster indicating different types of mushrooms, drawn delicately in pastel and labelled in French. Another featuring illustrated moon cycles.
I had to admit, it was pretty fucking aesthetic.
But what does that even mean? What makes a space aesthetic vs. a space that’s not? And is this really something I’ve been concerning myself with, conscious or otherwise?
As a middle-class cis white straight woman who tries her best to maintain a healthy level of awareness of my astounding privilege, I have a tendency to go on the offensive when accused of ascribing to ‘basic white girl culture’. Why “aesthetic” has somehow branded itself to this category is beyond me (maybe something to do with Tumblr?), but it has sure resulted in the term being widely appropriated and misinterpreted (ref. my ridiculous outburst).
Referencing something much deeper than being a “try hard” in the realms of colour schemes and visual themes, “being aesthetic” can perhaps be (re)understood as being interested in the visual representation of identity.
I speak of identity as a constellation, rather than a fixed package; as something both co-determined and in constant co-evolution with the world/environment our bodies inhabit. Powered by, reflective of, and respondent to our positions on the cognitive maps of culture and politics, our identities are always in flux, based upon the culture we digest and select as “important” and the politics and moral values to which we ascribe.
Thinking about one’s room as a sort of “personal utopia” (a “heterotopia” if we wanted to go Foucault with it, which we do not), it seems pretty agreeable to claim that it is the space that feels most “our own”—the space in which we feel the greatest level of autonomy. As such, our decoration of it is, in a way, an idealized process of personal expression and identity formation.
That being said, I wonder, what does mine say about me? Better yet, what am I trying to say about me through it?
It might be useful here to hash out the distinction between an aesthetic space and a non-aesthetic space: what makes something not aesthetic?
Going off of my previous sentiment regarding aesthetics as visual representation of identity, I’d reckon aesthetic appeal has much more to do with cohesiveness than conventional beauty. When making the judgement call, ask, are underlying values and principles connecting the items in the space? Are there images those connections conjure? Are there feelings they evoke? Lack in any or all of these categories seems to me what might lessen a space’s claim to aesthetic.
Note: cohesiveness does not require surface-level "matchy-matchy!" The aesthetic of my Animal Crossing house during my adolescence was, if I had to give it a name: “mismatched mayhem.” Red velvet couch over here, folding chair over there. Ornate bird cage over here, arcade game over there. It was an accumulation of my character’s life experiences, relationships and interests, not necessarily their profit accumulation, and it was sick.
This anti-capitalist aesthetic viewpoint of mine is no more apparent than in my aversion to modern homes that flex pure space, for space’s sake. It seems to me that the sort of decor that “fills” these spaces, representative of aesthetic “maturity,” are based upon the principles of hidden consumerism, privacy, silence, and the bypassing of functionality and the satisfaction of basic needs for surface-level visual appeal and showcases of wealth. Accent pieces. Conceptual art that takes up an entire room. A grand piano never played.
Maturity means understanding the logic of capital, which means investing your money in property (in “space”) and assets. But my aversion to this modern “aesthetic” does not make it any less of one. These spaces can be read as idealized identity representation just as well as my own room can. Where they are filled with air, my spaces are quite literally filled with books, CDs, cassettes, and DVDs which I have carried with me across the country, from house-to-house, since moving out of my parents’ home four years ago.
They have stuck with me even as my anti-consumerist values have awoken and persisted. They have stuck with me even as I recognize the extreme unlikelihood many will be listened to, read, or even cracked open for years to come. They have stuck with me even as I continue to fuck up my back a little bit more and more each time I’m required to lift suitcases full of them into the back of a U-Haul.
Why? Because it is through them that I have come to understand and embrace the fragmentation of selfhood I so strongly feel.
I have carried these items, and all the others picked up along the way, with me, not as random shelf-fillers, but as the stars in the constellation that constitutes my very existence and experience of identity. Through them, my language, tastes, and expressions take form; there is something of “me” reflected in them, just as they are reflected in “me.”
I now recognize that my identity is formed and discarded in relentless cyclicality. That sometimes I experience difficulty forming it into a solid shape, and sometimes solidity is not achieved at all. That sometimes a certain formation sticks with me for days, sometimes mere hours. But always it is reformed; recycled; transformed ad infinitum as I persist in selectively digesting items of culture which fuel the persistence of “me.”
(Yes, that was a poop metaphor.)
So yeah, I guess I am concerned with “being aesthetic” because, really, I’m concerned with understanding myself, and being both aware of and surrounded by the pieces of culture and beauty I feel I am assembled by—I am concerned with feeling at home in myself.