The Aesthetic Value of Simplicity

by Dwight Furrow


Black Square, Malevich 1923

However, traditional Western aesthetics apparently demurs on this point since it enshrines complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value. Works of art are considered great if they repay our continued attention. Each new contact with them reveals something new, and this information density and the way it is organized to reveal new dimensions is what brings aesthetic pleasure. Achieving unity in variety is the sine qua non of aesthetic value according to most accounts of our aesthetic tradition. Unity, balance, and clarity are valuable only if they are achieved by organizing complex phenomena. Novelty and the availability of multiple interpretations in part define the kind of interest we take in aesthetic objects. Monroe Beardsley in his influential work Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958, 1981) went so far as to argue that complexity along with unity and intensity provide logically necessary (and perhaps sufficient) conditions of aesthetic value.

It's worth noting that in my own small corner of the world of aesthetics, wine-tasting, complexity is admired and simplicity a sign of inferior quality. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.

Since complexity and simplicity at least superficially appear to be contradictory criteria it would seem that simplicity has no role to play in Beardsley's attempt to codify aesthetics. Of course, as I noted above, there are art works that apparently don't exhibit complexity, and today Beardsley is regarded as over-reaching if he intended his criteria to be logically necessary or sufficient. Such definitions have fallen out of favor in most philosophical circles to be replaced by generalizations that hold only for the most part. Yet, complexity, unity, and intensity are useful reference points for evaluating works of art despite the exceptions.

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The nostalgic appeal of simplicity

by Emrys Westacott

Nostalgia is a fascinating and remarkably common phenomenon. We have all heard older people comparing the present unfavorably with the past in spite of–or even because of–obvious material improvements in the standard of living. Most of us over the age of twenty-five have probably done this ourselves. Often the fond remembrance involves some account of how we lived more cheaply, were closer to nature, were more self-sufficient, enjoyed uncomplicated daily routines, or contented themselves with humble pleasures. The underlying idea is that things were better because they were simpler. The_Golden_Age_(fresco_by_Pietro_da_Cortona)

But nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to individuals reminiscing; across cultures it is also a persistent motif in oral and written literary traditions. In religion, philosophy and literature, it has often taken the form of harking back to an unsullied past or a golden age of happiness and virtue. The biblical account of Adam and Eve in paradise is paradigmatic, but there are many other examples. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing over two and half thousand years ago, laments the sorry condition of the world he lives in compared to that inhabited by the first humans, a “golden race of men,” who lived “free from toil and grief…..for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly.”[1] The Roman poet Ovid similarly describes a Golden Age when

…..of her own accord the earth produced

A store of every fruit. The harrow touched her not,

Nor did the ploughshare wound her fields.

And man content with given food,

And none compelling, gathered arbute fruits

And wild strawberries on the mountain sides…..[2]

The lines underscore not just the absence of toil or tools but also the way people desired little and lived harmoniously with nature. In these idyllic circumstances there was no need for laws, since “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.”

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