The Pleasure of the Unfamiliar

Aesthetics concern beauty – and an aesthetic experience is a beauty experience. But what is beauty? Is beauty solely interlinked with the pleasant, the harmonious, the picturesque, the charming, the symmetrical and easily “digestible”? Perhaps so.
However, I find that the sceneries, buildings, photos and objects I feel most attracted to, and that I return to, are generally characterised by a degree of chaos, imbalance or imperfection. If things are too perfect they feel indifferent in some way. It is as if the smoothness of them makes my glance slide off them. Friction is needed in order for longevity to occur; in order for the glance not to slide off and on to the next beautiful object or image.

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The historical division between the beautiful and the sublime indicates this exact point: according hereto, an aesthetic experience is not necessarily or only linked to the picturesque kind of beauty, but can also be induced by the unpleasant, unbalanced, distorted, or even hideous. This could include a dilapidated old house or a frightening demonic figure in a gothic church.

Sublimity is interlinked with chaos, unpredictability, unbalance as well as the distorted and slightly uncomfortable. 

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In my book “Aesthetic Sustainability” I have named the aesthetic pleasure that isn’t caused by what is generally associated with beauty The Pleasure of the Unfamiliar. This kind of aesthetic pleasure is intertwined with the sublime.

The Pleasure of the Unfamiliar represents the antithesis of the beautiful aesthetic experience – but, it also its prerequisite. It makes no sense to discuss either kind of aesthetic pleasure in isolation. Simultaneously, the beautiful and the sublime are at once diametrically opposed and mutually dependent on each other. In a sense, they embody the yin and yang of aesthetics. They are fundamentally different, but existentially dependent. For instance, it is nonsensical to speak about symmetry without at the same time understanding the concept of asymmetry, just as harmony cannot be grasped completely without its opposite, disharmony.

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Challenging one’s boundaries or being pushed towards new experiences can be highly satisfying and deeply uncomfortable at the same time. Similarly, the prospect of taking a new turn in life can be both seductive and terrifying. In any case, overcoming obstacles by superseding one’s own expectations is empowering.
The kind of aesthetic experience that is connected to complexity and unusual combinations grabs us, shakes us, and challenges our expectations intentionally.
If the challenge isn’t intentional – if we are confused by an object; if we can’t figure out how to use it; or if the material is inappropriate given the context of the object’s uses or its idiom; and if, at the same time, the object isn’t stimulating or aesthetically nourishing, we are not dealing with an aesthetic experience, but rather a poor design experience. (I will return to this point in one of my forthcoming posts!)

Some objects can’t immediately be understood or decoded; instead, they challenge our immediate need to conceptualise, generalise, and organise – and the encounter shocks our imagination. Encountering complex artefacts that to a lesser or greater extent play havoc with our expectations of the world we are forced to stay with the present moment, to capture and understand what greets us. The friction that is established makes it impossible for us to continue unaffected.

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To a certain extent, challenging experiences are uncomfortable. But the sense of discomfort also contains the special unfamiliar kind of pleasure.

Human beings have a fundamental need to be challenged and pushed. This existing need might be greater, lesser, or equal to the need for safety, order, harmony, home, and the familiar. But, it is, regardless of our leanings towards the familiar and well-known, existing.

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Unchallenged, the human spirit stagnates. Human beings can’t improve or evolve without being challenged. Challenges force us to to form, transform, and re-form our assumptions about the world, thereby expanding our consciousness and horizon. 

All the photos in this post are taken in Morocco, India and Bali

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