Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Aesthetics of Ethics

A lawyer colleague, who wrote a book entitled Moral Capitalism and who runs an organization devoted to business ethics, wants someone with an architecture or design background among the contributors to an online journal he wants to start. While the journal seems needed in an era of one business-related scandal after another, having a designer among its writers raises the question of what an aesthetically oriented field has to contribute to ethics.

Western culture, said the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, cycles between periods of order and disorder, calmness and wildness, or as Nietzsche put it, between the Apollonian, referring to Apollo, the Greek god of reason and truth, and the Dionysian, referring to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy. That idea echoed the notion of the 18th century writer, Edmund Burke, that the West has embraced two opposite ways of thinking about aesthetics as either a search for beauty or the “sublime.” We sometimes admire the orderliness, proportion, and balance that have traditionally characterized beauty, and at other times, we like the messy, disturbing, and overpowering that Burke called the sublime.

Such theories say a lot about our own time. While we can find both Apollonian and Dionysian qualities in contemporary culture and both the beautiful and sublime in the current art world, it does seem as if the Dionysian sublime has had the upper hand over the last century. Just read the news, rife with stories of street violence, foreign wars, political scandals, and business swindles. Or look at contemporary art and architecture. From intentionally outrageous musicians and actors to emotionally raw paintings and novels to phenomenally twisted or shard-like buildings, our aesthetic tastes – like our ethical expectations – definitely tend toward the sublime.

Both Burke and Nietzsche recognized that cultures couldn’t maintain such an extreme for very long. We eventually tire of the sublime and start to see it not as inspiring, but as simply ridiculous. Many causes no doubt contribute to this turning away from the sublime, but certainly one has to do with the economic and material conditions of a culture. The sublime seems inherently wasteful and excessive, which in turn reflects a degree of confidence among people that we have enough excess to waste without worry about running out of things. While that may have characterized the 20th century, with its oil-fueled economics and its nuclear-powered politics, it does not mirror the 21st century. Ours seems, at least so far, to be a time of conservation rather than waste, of environmental and social concern rather than personal excess and outrageousness.

Many people, though, have not yet gotten that message. If anything, our world seems even more extreme than in times past, with politicians more polarized, businesses more powerful, and artists more personal than many commentators can ever remember. It’s as if we have to push excessiveness itself to such excess that we can no longer sustain it and find ourselves forced to change. To use Nietzsche’s allusion to Dionysus, the god of wine, we seem like an alcoholic who has gone on one last binge before becoming sober.

So what might a designer contribute to a journal about business behavior? What might aesthetics, in other words, contribute to ethics? Just this: the aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful, of Dionysus and Apollo, offers not only a way of understanding art. It also helps us see why we find ourselves surrounded by so much excessive, unethical behavior on the part of so many people in positions of power in both the public and private sectors. It explains their ridiculousness.

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