Morality and Aesthetics Don’t Mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

Morality and aesthetics don’t mix.  Since when?  Since forever.  People continually try and mix them with nothing but problematic results.

If I say, “for the best experience of this wine, you should pair it with this food,” it sounds like a moral statement because of the word “should.” Of course, it is not a moral statement simply because it has nothing to do with well-being.  In this case, I’m recommending that for a pleasant aesthetic experience, a certain combination of elements is “necessary.”  Perhaps, it has been seen from repeated and corroborated experience, these elements work well together and better than some other combinations.  But better for who?  We also recognize that for some people, this experience won’t be the same – it won’t amount to a preferred experience.  We call this subjectivity.  What I’m NOT saying is that it is morally right to pair said wine with said food and conversely, that it is morally wrong to avoid this pairing.  Such statements would be absurd.

Likewise, if I say, “if you want a consonant harmony, don’t place an Eb against a D major chord,” I’m giving an imperative based on aesthetic criteria.  I could very well make a similar statement and make it sound like a moral imperative.  People do this all the time: you should do this; you shouldn’t do that – in circumstances that have nothing to do with well-being and everything to do with aesthetic taste.  Again, aesthetics are entirely subjective, yet not without “principles,” which can be repeatedly verified and corroborated, sometimes based on science, sometimes based on conventions. It bothers me that claims based on aesthetic criteria or principles often are stated as if they are based on some immutable moral standard (problematic because morality is itself subjective – a whole other story!).

In the musical case I’ve mentioned, varied context means a different experience, “preferrable” to varying degrees.  In some situations, an Eb against a D chord will sound “wrong” (or inappropriate, to avoid moral language).  In other circumstances, the uninitiated or untrained won’t even realize an Eb just passed them by!  Astute musicians will know that an experience of said Eb will be dependent on how it is approached and how it is resolved.

Aesthetics (of music, say) make for interesting discussions. However, I’m becoming increasingly tired of aesthetic claims coming off as something akin to truth. There are, of course, acoustic principles, for example, as well as matters of repetition versus contrast that make for both justifiable creative choices and listening preferences.  However, sometimes experience boils down to simple matters of “taste.”  Taste is not only subjective, but dynamic – it will change over time – and is influenced by understanding.  Yet, if you like green best and I prefer blue, that’s really the end of the matter.  Only an immature person turns this into “green is better than blue,” claiming one aesthetic experience is inherently better than another. Again, such statements are absurd to me and I’m growing so tired of hearing them.






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