Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The study of aesthetics favors the top end of the artistic spectrum. The majority of attention is devoted to examples seen as great, groundbreaking, or otherwise distinct. With minor variation, consensus lists develop of the best architects, the leading composers, the foremost sculptors, the finest actors, the distinguished poets, the extraordinary painters. Big names and well-known works are referenced again and again in lectures, textbooks, classrooms, concerts, television programs, and the like. Their popularity demonstrates the human attraction to standouts: specimens that soar above the unremarkable background. However, without that background, there would be no greatness.
It is easy to ignore the aesthetic minimal; its very minimalness leads to anonymity. Yet, without the subtle, everyday expression of beauty, our lives would be diminished and our appreciation of the “greats” would perhaps disappear. Higher displays of beauty grow from a landscape seeded with beauty in lower degrees.
Aesthetic minimalism is exemplified in all sorts of seemingly mundane things: a nicely laid table, a tidied room, a paved sidewalk, a clean shirt, a smooth tabletop, a navigable website, a fresh coat of paint. Because they crowd the context in which we live our lives, their beauty usually goes unnoticed. Few stand in awe before a well-dimensioned traffic sign or a flawlessly functioning folding chair. If anything, they are recognized as the serviceable result of craft and design. But, on a deeper level, they express and confirm our innate desire for harmony, symmetry, order, intention, symbolism—those qualities that are exploited in art galleries and concert halls.
Unlike the high-end of artistic achievement, which dramatically catches our notice, minimal beauty tends to stand out only in its absence. The offensiveness of a patchy lawn or a dirty street is proportional to its distance from minimal beauty. The standard by which such things are called “ugly” is set by the basic pleasantness of our everyday environments. Likewise, the exceptionalness of celebrated artwork derives from its augmentation of the base standard. An architectural marvel is still recognized as a building, the elements of which are determined by ordinary structures: doors, windows, stairways, roofs, and so on. The same is true of intricate symphonies, complicated ballets, and ornamented silverware. Without the foundation of minimal beauty, these achievements would be excesses lacking substance.
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