The most fashionable and defensible position on aesthetics is to maintain that beauty is entirely subjective. Beauty doesn’t exist, we are assured, at least as a quality uniting such diverse phenomena as a painting, a comfortable old house, a song, and an attractive human being. To each his own taste.
Still, even though beauty doesn’t officially exist, beauty talk persists as a human universal. Sometimes it goes by euphemisms like “aesthetics,” so as not to offend beauty deniers; most of the time, it hides in the jargon of specific domains. A friend in Helsinki tells me that people in Finland love to build their own saunas, and that there are hardware stores on practically every street. And they love to talk about it, she says, for hours. For every domain — music, books, television, food, quilts, vintage bicycles — groups of connoisseurs talk about beauty in their particular vocabulary, limited to their particular domain. For guitar nerds, “aesthetics” refers to the visual appearance of an instrument; but for the beauty of the music that a guitar makes, there is a rich vocabulary that rarely includes such a general word as beauty. All this domain specificity makes it easier to maintain that there is no one quality uniting these diverse phenomena.
Roger Scruton says that beauty has been assailed by two forces: the cult of ugliness in the arts, and the cult of utility in everyday life. But, as he points out, utility itself has also suffered from the focus on pure usefulness, on form allegedly following function. Buildings are boarded up, he says, because no one has a use for them; no one has a use for them because they are ugly. It is my contention that beauty and utility are profoundly connected. In Japanese aesthetics, the concept of wabi-sabi unites utility and beauty. Both beauty and utility are qualities of “fit” with the human context.
In design terms, the form is what is under control of the designer, and the context is everything else that will come into contact with the form. Fit is the property by which the form and its context are in harmony. A teakettle that heats up quickly, is easy to lift, doesn’t burn your hand, and doesn’t cost too much exhibits fit; a teakettle that burns you, or costs a thousand dollars, or weighs fifty pounds, or is hideously ugly, exhibits misfit. The most important aspect of the context for most design problems is the human being: his eyes and senses, his mind and body, his time and resources, and his social nature. Beauty and utility meet in the notion of fit.
Considering beauty as fit gives us a measurable, non-mystical axis by which we might unite the diverse phenomena that “beauty” describes. Things that are visually beautiful exhibit “fit” with our visual neural apparatus, and there are many universal patterns to be found. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or at least in the fit between the eye and the object, but both the eye and its fit are measurable. Flowers optimized to appeal to the perceptive apparatus of pollinating insects still appear beautiful to us. Mathematical theorems are beautiful to the extent that they exhibit enlightening fit with other aspects of their complex systems, and with the human mind.
We might, if we liked, measure this “fit” in many ways — in the sweat of the skin in response to something, or heart rate, or breathing, or cortisol (stress hormone) levels, or brain scans, or smiling, or any number of outward signs of inner states of mind. I would not like to do this, since these forms of measurement are themselves ugly and uncomfortable; I merely suggest that it is possible to do so, and that the response to beauty (as fit with the human context) is in theory measurable. While there is disagreement in ideas and opinions about beauty, there is likely wide agreement in physiological responses to stimuli — in feeling. The human body and mind are complex, finely-tuned instruments for detecting beauty, and we each have one. And fit has measurable effects. The stooping and stunting of 10th century peasants are outward signs of poor fit with their environment; obesity and depression are such outward signs for moderns.
Just as there is a tendency to deny the existence of beauty, there is also a tendency to lock it up in art museums, to segregate it from everyday life. If beauty is understood as exclusively a property of old paintings and sculptures and perhaps Shakespeare plays, it cannot intrude into our mundane lives, in the form of doorknobs and socks and the motions of unloading groceries. Indeed, segregating beauty from everyday life seems to excuse the fact that most objects and contexts in our lives are quite ugly and poorly-fitting. Commuting is not beautiful; billboards and offices are ugly; the doorknobs we are obliged to use fit our hands poorly.
On the concept of fit, let me digress for a moment about the humble sock. One kind of “fit” is the quite literal “fit” of clothing to body part. Sometimes too close a “fit” is not desirable from the social context; if we all wore form-fitting clothing, we would go around eliciting emotions from sexual attraction to disgust that would interfere with the ordinary process of social interaction. But socks are at their best when they fit quite exactly. And proper fit may be different for every set of feet, but it is a measurable property in any case.
Socks are mostly made in factories, in an enormous variety of colors and patterns. They are made, however, in only a few sizes; if your feet are an unusual shape (or even if they aren’t), you may never find socks that fit your feet perfectly. Elastic is woven into these socks to compensate for the limited range of sizes and shapes, and elasticized socks often fit so tightly that they leave marks on the ankles and arches of the wearer. Elastic degrades over time, so factory socks decay quickly, and must be replaced regularly, even though the fabric has not worn out. I noticed this recently when I started gradually replacing my factory-made socks with hand-knitted wool socks. Socks knitted to the exact dimensions of one’s feet do not require elastic to keep them on. Their toes can be asymmetrical, just like human toes. I find I would rather run in socks I have knitted than in my fancy elasticized Merino wool factory-made running socks. And hand-knitted socks do not degrade so quickly; strings of thread or elastic are not constantly emerging to be clipped.
Of course, the cheap, soft, washable, high-quality yarn these socks are knitted from is made in factories (even if you spin yarn yourself, as I sometimes do, most of the roving you can buy is processed in factories, and bless them for it). There is always a balance, a “sweet spot” in the use of technology. There has been much talk lately about the $3500 shirt; a shirt in the Middle Ages would have taken over 400 hours of human labor to make. Almost all of that time was taken in spinning and weaving the cloth; the author of this article estimates only seven hours were required to actually sew a shirt (and that figure would be much lower today). Now we have an abundance of factory-made cloth and materials, but even the final cutting and assembly of the cloth is performed in factories, completely disconnected from the dimensions and needs of the final wearer. Clothes and shoes are made for various gradations of average people, not for you. Despite our tremendous wealth, we have lost a degree of “fit” compared to the peasants of the Middle Ages. I do not suggest that everyone needs to knit her own socks; rather, I propose that the current incarnation of the factory system does not hit the “sweet spot” in balancing human labor and resources with this very concrete aspect of fit. (Meanwhile, labor participation in the United States is at its lowest point in decades.)
Clothing is an intimate domain, but perhaps a small domain in the context of human life. But this same process has transpired in almost all areas of human life. The buildings we live in are made with very little sense of how we will use them. Christopher Alexander says (in The Timeless Way of Buliding, p. 236):
If I build a fireplace for myself, it is natural for me to make a place to put the wood, a corner to sit in, a mantel wide enough to put things on, an opening which lets the fire draw.
But, if I design fireplaces for other people – not for myself – then I never have to build a fire in the fireplaces I design. Gradually my ideas become more and more influenced by style, and shape, and crazy notions – my feeling for the simple business of making fire leaves the fireplace altogether.
So, it is inevitable that as the work of building passes into the hands of specialists, the patterns which they use become more and more banal, more willful, and less anchored in reality.
When the process of production is utterly disconnected from the final use of the item, the item will become less useful and less beautiful, and will fit its human context more poorly. And this is increasingly the case not just for the products of the factory system, but for things we produce ourselves. Seligman and Weller say, “Recipes let anyone bake a cake, but they let no one bake a perfect cake” (in Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambituity). That is to say that recipes encode some of the information necessary to make food, but not the experience, sensations, and skill necessary to make it really well. When we make clothing ourselves, knitting or sewing, we usually use patterns, so that the clothes fit no better than if we bought them from a factory using the same patterns. Traditional knitting (whether British or Peruvian) was more a matter of measurement and arithmetic than following patterns, with each garment designed on the fly for its wearer. One jazz music writer has suggested that this is also the case with music; using “real books” or “fake books” (books containing written notation for songs) is essentially playing music with one’s eyes, instead of with one’s ears. Listening is not required, and improvisation becomes impossible. It’s the equivalent of a recipe or a pattern, distancing the producer from the process of creation, and making genuine fit less likely. And of course there are software equivalents.
Earlier I mentioned time as an important aspect of the human context. Technologies such as washing machines, automobiles, and factories give us more time that we need not spend cleaning, walking, raising food, or making clothes and objects. This gift of time is only a benefit to us if we use it for activities that are more fitting to us, not just as individuals, but also as social creatures. For many people, time is not a gift, but a burden, to be filled with alcohol and television and other palliative technologies. Loneliness and anomie are as ubiquitous as are closets full of poorly-fitting clothes.
There is fit and beauty to be found in the production of things as well as their use: music not just listened to but sung and played, food not just eaten but cooked, clothes not just worn but made for ourselves and for each other. There is value in chopping wood as well as burning it, in ritual for its own sake and for the sake of community. In addition to our material needs, we need to feel useful and effective, and to belong to each other. We need all kinds of beauty. Our complex technological factory system gives us unprecedented wealth; it remains for us to use it wisely, to find the “sweet spot” of fit between effort and leisure, between mass-manufacture and personalization.
Sarah Perry is a housewife in San Antonio, Texas. She studied urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide was released by Nine Banded Books in December 2014. She blogs atCarcinisation, Ribbonfarm, and The View from Hell.