Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.


Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.

Dream Big, Do Big: an example of inspiration, imagination & perspiration

Creativity represents a miraculous coming together of the uninhibited energy of the child with its apparent opposite and enemy, the sense of order imposed on the disciplined adult intelligence. ~Norman Podhoretz

artists Nicole Bailey and Trisha Lee enjoy their interactive sculpture

artists Nicole Bailey and Trisha Lee enjoy their interactive installation

This week I have watched some friends bring a crazy-wonderful dream to life. I am so excited about it because their project was the perfect storm of imagination and perspiration, creativity and scientific thinking, dream and action, madness and wonder. For this year’s Sculpture by the Sea exhibition at Cottesloe beach, they have brought together Aboriginal art, sand, sea and colourful PVC fit balls to create an artwork. As it says on the Water Dreaming webpage, “Water Dreaming is an Aboriginal dot painting installation in which the dots are represented by 250 inflated PVC balls embedded in beach sand. From terraces overhead the viewer will see a Dreamtime dot painting. Up close it’s an interactive play space where art and fun collide and visitors can bounce on and around the dots.”

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things. ~ Leonardo da Vinci

filling balls with sea water and air; work in progress

filling balls with sea water and air; work in progress

The artists Trisha Lee and Nicole Bailey collaborated with Indigenous artist Shorty Jangala Robertson, of the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, to design the concept of bringing a Dreamtime story to life on the beach. The beach is an apt location for a depiction of an artwork from a tribe whose artists traditionally make art on sand and appreciate its transience and changeability. As an interactive artwork, it may well change during the exhibition, which runs from the 6th to the 23rd of March.

balls at sunrise, ready for installation

balls at sunrise, ready for installation

Not only do art and fun collide in this installation, but so do art and community. The installation is crowd funded, crowd created and will be crowd enjoyed. People will be told the artist’s Indigenous Dreamtime story and be able to play between, around and on the bouncy balls (which are filled with sea water and air).

To create this interactive sculpture, one lone water pump pumped 17,500 litres of water from the sea, across a sandy beach, up a hill to water tanks and all the way back down, to fill 246 big colourful fit balls. A digger dug a trench perimeter and helped to shift 30 cubic metres of sand, covering 290 square metres. Over two days, an army of one hundred volunteers filled and laid 250 sandbags and filled, rolled, hauled and placed balls. You can see it being installed in these time lapse videos of Day 1 and Day 2 of installation.

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. ~Lewis Carroll

installation involved a digger and 100 volunteers

installation involved a digger and 100 volunteers

This was an example of risk taking in full flight and dreams come to life. What sort of inspiration and perspiration does it take to create a painting on a huge scale amid moving sand and with balls able to be bounced on and interacted with? What sort of people, what kind of force, can make that happen through the power of people, nature, art and technology? This project required not only blue-sky imagination, but also systematic experimentation, trial and planning in order to make it work.

The finished work - a dot painting on the beach, against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean

the finished work – a dot painting on the beach, against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean

This artwork stands as an inspiration to me as an individual, parent and educator. Shouldn’t we all aspire to making improbable dreams possible, to bringing vision to life, to dare to do something others might think crazy? Here’s to being creative, wildly imaginative, joyful and experimental, but also systematic, pragmatic, scientific and dogged enough to make moonshot ideas tangible reality.

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try! ~Dr. Seuss

weeks of interactive bouncy fun!

weeks of interactive bouncy fun!

Art journal pages: scribbling as therapy, thinking & anticipation

An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached. Irwin Greenberg

New York City is the subject of much art, literature and creativity. As I explained in this blog post and comments, for my upcoming professional trip I am using a range of traditional and new media to explore, express and develop my thinking. I find that keeping a visual and written record of my observations and thoughts helps to anchor me in the moment and focus on really seeing, hearing and experiencing what is around me. My creative packing list can be found here; it outlines the ways I am intending to flânerially experience and capture my trip.

So, inspired even before I take flight, here are my collagey art journal scribblings so far …

art journal page: curiouser and curiouser!

art journal page: curiouser and curiouser!

art journal page: I heart New York

art journal page: I heart New York

art journal page: New York is always a good idea

art journal page: New York is always a good idea

NYC art journal page by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

art journal page: don’t quit your daydream

art journal page: Perth to New York

art journal page: Perth to New York

Your walls, New York, hold up heaven, parapets of beauty stabbing into the stars! / Pillars of the universe. / Oh music in stone, poetry in sculpture, song in architectural marble, prayer in granite, an ecstasy in steel and iron and gold, singing city of the great heart, singing city, / You are Manhattan! Edwin Curran