From Professor Ian Johnston's Lecture on The Tempest:
Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.
The debate between art as the stuff of life at its highest (living aesthetically) and art as the "detergent of life" (to hijack Jacques Barzun's phrase) is only raging all the more furiously these days.
Here is what I imagine could be a counter-argument to the concept that life cannot be lived aesthetically. If more of our "real" lives are becoming "virtual" (as anyone with a phone can tell you), and more of the aesthetics we cultivate bleed over into the real world (as any cosplayer can tell you, or better yet show you), doesn't all that mean we are de facto creating more of a life that is being lived aesthetically as well as historically? And in time wouldn't that mean we could choose to live as aesthetically as we do historically, and maybe in further time even more so?
The key difference, though, between living aesthetically and living historically is that we ultimately have no choice in the matter. Aesthetics are how we choose to look at and filter life; history is how it is lived, regardless of our ideas about it. If we eventually do develop our aesthetic living to the point where we can envelope ourselves from birth to death in an aesthetic of our choosing, that will only prevent us from knowing that much more about the way things work outside such an envelope. We will have that much less to be artful about. We will have diminished and blinkered our vision, not expanded it.
It sure seems like you can, though. When Lester Bangs interviewed Richard Hell in '77-something, the former noted a statement by the latter that seemed like a key conceit in the punk aesthetic: " ... if you just amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely reinvent yourself. You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards." Never once before reading those words did I twig to the idea that the safety-pin-and-torn-T-shirt set were not only closet Utopians but closet transpersonalist psychologists. But there it was: scratch Richard Hell and out comes Abraham Maslow.
Unlike its Utopian predecessors, though, Punk Utopianism smartly avoids the trap of seeming too Utopian for its own good: surely no philosophy of aesthetics and society that came from vomit-splattered back alleys could be too high-flown for its own good. And Punk U, tendance Hell*, has stuck around in our culture in ways we don't immediately notice. "Reinvent yourself and to hell with the onlookers" covers just about everything from punk to the aforementioned cosplay. And haven't we started paying that much less attention to overrated appearances and that much more attention to substance, of which a diversity of appearance can be a profound personal expression? (And doesn't that, in turn, make our lives that much more ... well, artful?)
But here again I see the Bad Old Utopianism rearing its head, where life as a set of constant tensions between irreconcilable elements is not so much resolved or transcended as it is ignored outright. It's not that I don't believe we can't live aesthetically instead of historically — it's that I believe we can, all too well, and the cost of doing so will not even be something we can appreciate immediately.
None of this should be construed as an argument against people wanting to beautify their lives, or to make our world a little less drab. If I was against that, I'd be out of a job or three. What I'm bothered by is the idea that we can develop our aesthetics to the point where they can be used to supplant (read: ignore) all the parts of reality that bother us — art as not just the detergent of life, but the antibiotic, and you know what happens to people who overuse antibiotics. We would be much worse off without our art, but we cannot let our art do our living for us.
The most transcendent view of this problem, that of historical living vs. asesthetic living, is that the problem only exists because we insist on it. In his Lecture on Something, John Cage hinted at the idea that it was not even necessary to try and merge the two. Our life is history and aesthetics, whether we like it or not; it is we who break them up and then try to fit the two together again. "What does this ... masterpiece have to do with Life? ... [T]hat it is separate from it." Or so we tell ourselves. To put this masterpiece up on a pedestal above everything else and then aspire to make everything else a little bit more like that is, in his mind, a mistake: all it does is remind us of the distances between us. The solution is, as Stanislavsky put it, to love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.
* According to Theodore Roszak, back in the Sixties, the barricades of Paris were sometimes seen adorned with the slogan Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho ("I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety").
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