While scrolling through social media such as Instagram and TikTok, one often encounters the word “aesthetic” that predominately applies to areas such as fashion, home decor, music, or books. Examples of these internet aesthetics include, dark academia, neo-Victorian, bisexual lighting, or fairycore (Glamour has kindly provided its readers with a “comprehensive glossary”, however the possibility for new categories seems infinite). These “aesthetic categories”, for the lack of a better word, are in reality just another set of labels for people to identify themselves with in this presumably label-less world, and the term “aesthetics” has been hijacked and distorted in the process.

Aesthetics, originally being a branch of philosophy, explores the realm of beauty and taste, and it is a subject that has been discussed at length by numerous philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, G.W.F. Hegel, and more recently, Roger Scruton. The primary questions that occupy the field of aesthetics include “What is beauty?”, “What is the value of beauty and art?”, and “How does one make aesthetic judgments?”. Keeping in mind that answering these questions is far beyond the scope of the present article, I would like to only briefly draw on Kant’s aesthetic theory to buttress my own argument on the importance of beauty, and how contemporary society with its materialism and consumerism have denigrated the study of beauty to an obsessive form of self-expression that is recognizable in other areas of being as well.

In his Critique of Pure Judgment, Kant argues that one should approach beauty in a disinterested manner, which is not to be confused with the uninterested one. Kant’s disinterest refers more to an attitude of selflessness in the appreciation of pure beauty that excludes sensuous gratification and possessive desires. The pleasure that is derived from aesthetic experiences is therefore distinctly intellectual. As such, pure beauty should wholly occupy the attention of our minds where our only form of participation is through a selfless contemplation of the perceived object itself. The selfless attention that is cultivated through aesthetic appreciation, according to Kant, is also the first step towards understanding morality since Kant’s moral theory demands of each of us to go beyond our own self-interests and to act in accordance with universal values. Because of this close connection between his aesthetic and moral theory, Kant also suggests that shared aesthetic experiences can lead us to appreciate a universal harmony that brings the world together.

When reflecting on the idea of universal beauty and its ability to lift a person to the plane of a collective experience of humanity, Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony comes to mind. In it, Beethoven uses Frederich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy (An die Freude) as the chorus of the final movement (with some slight alterations). Although the theme of universal harmony runs throughout the poem, the last two parts of the first stanza and the beginning of the second particularly stand out,

“All men will become brothers
Under your protective wing.

Let the man who has had the fortune
To be helper to his friend”.

Schiller’s poem and Beethoven’s music, both breathtakingly beautiful in their own forms, embody the universal human spirit and desire for transcendence that pervaded the Enlightenment, and till this day, Beethoven’s final symphony remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of music.

At the same time, when a person reads Dostoyevsky or Tolkien, they immerse themselves into the world the authors had created, imagining themselves to be a character of the story. When a person goes to an art gallery and sees a painting of Van Gogh (preferable without soup or paint over it), they see the French countryside as the tormented artist had perceived it. When a person listens to Beethoven’s final symphony, one hears the agony provoked by the composer’s deafness had led him to contemplate suicide but also the human spirit that ultimately triumphs over suffering. And so, true beauty, when it is properly experienced, has the intrinsic ability to transport individuals beyond their finite physical and temporal existence, and plunges them into the lives and imaginations of those who came before. In other words, beauty in art acts as conduits for its admirers to come into contact with the kaleidoscopic spirit of humanity that continues to evolve.

However, when looking at the content that is on Instagram or TikTok, one sees caricatures of contemporary humanity. Concepts of beauty, as studied in aesthetics, seem like old photographs that have faded, become blurred and indistinct; they have become distant memories that one can hardly recall. Meanwhile, these forgotten ideas have been replaced by an obsession with “style” and a paradoxical desire to simultaneously stand out from the others and also to feel like one belongs to something beyond oneself. Immersed within a materialist and consumerist structure, the final product of this obsession and desire is an endless self-fashioning that does not go beyond the façade and meaningless categorisation according to coincidental similarity of “styles” (after all, people get their so called “inspirations” from the same media).

In her 1970 work, Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone attributes the delay of second-wave feminism partly to what she called “the obsessive modern cultivation of ‘style’” during the 1920’s and considers it to be a “cultural disease”.[i] She argues that this “search for a ‘different’, personal, style with which to ‘express’ oneself replaced the (old feminist) emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience.”[ii] One must admit that there is a certain sense of sadness coming with the realization that, amidst all the scientific and alleged moral progress that has been made over the years, this malaise of obsessive self-expression through “style” remains true, and perhaps even worse a century later. The immediate question to ask would be: Well, why haven’t we, as a society, become more focused on character development, rather than obsessing over materialistic self-expression?

The first major reason, it appears to me, is that society, by and large, decided that this obsession was not entirely unbeneficial, after all. In a consumerist society that sees excess as a sign of progress, the endless chase for social recognition supported by the need to express oneself differently through fashion, music, or even home decor, ultimately comes with a price (literally and metaphorically). A good example of this phenomenon would the recent trend of moving away from fast fashion companies and the turn towards vintage clothing. Living in a university city, I constantly hear people around my age sanctimoniously declaring to their friends that all their clothes were second-hand, vintage, and bought from a charity shop, while feeling the moral impulse to condemn fast fashion in case others were not already aware of their position. Some might argue that this is not just a trend, but a movement towards ethical consumerism. That would be true if being ethical meant putting the burden of being unethical on others, so that we can wash our own hands from sweatshop products and feel morally superior. In reality, the level of consumption among these “ethical” consumers remains high and to make matters worse, according to my own anecdotal observation, prices of clothing in charity shops, which were meant to cater to people in need, have slowly increased. As a consequence, more people are driven towards fast fashion where prices for essential items are lower, and ultimately increasing the profit and demand for companies that exploit workers in impoverished countries.

The second major reason for the exacerbation of the cultural obsession with “style”, I believe, is that self-expression as an act has become misdirected and our over-emphasis on it has made us incontinent. Self-expression in one sense relates to the idea that one should be able to express one’s thoughts and opinions without obstruction from exterior forces, although this does not exempt them from the attendant consequences. This is often thought to be a cornerstone for democracy and progress; however, as we have seen in the effects of social media, an incontinent form of self-expression can be discombobulating. Self-expression, in the other sense, is to show others how we understand ourselves and the world in which we live. This form of self-expression is positive and necessary as it allows the world-sharing that is an indispensable function of any artwork embodying beauty and shaping the collective experience of humanity. In other words, experiencing beauty in the manner proposed by Kant could be a way of developing one’s character through learning experience as described by Firestone. However, the misdirected and obsessive self-expression of contemporary culture combined with the unending stream of media consumption have only reinforced what Guy Debord calls “the society of spectacle”. The preoccupation with frivolous “aesthetic” trends exposes the masses to lifeless representations of the images that they see on the internet, and the legitimate desire for authentic self-expression is met with the illusion of “style” which anyone with the slightest introspection will find unfulfilling.

Where will the path of spectacle lead us then? I believe that this way of living is evidently unsustainable, and it will inevitably lead to a sort of identity burnout. It is not unfathomable that in the process of trying to find their identity through incessant trend-chasing and self-fashioning, people will become listless and ultimately resort to losing themselves to the devouring waves of consumerist trends and conform, both physically and mentally, to the insatiable demands of collective desires. However, another outcome of identity burnout is also possible. Realizing the sterility of contemporary culture and its deceivingly glamourous images, you will hopefully conclude that it is through beauty and art (and I am paraphrasing Josef Ratzinger here) that you can come to yourself by moving away from yourself and finding your way back to the primal relatedness that you have with the world.


[i] Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectics of Sex. (Verso, 2015), 24.

[ii] Ibid.