Thursday, February 4, 2021

Aesthetic Theism

It's what's on the inside that counts. At least, half of the time. The truth is that what's on the outside, the surface level, matters a heck of a lot more than you think. We have concepts of style and eye candy for a reason. How something is presented says a lot about how you view, not only yourself, but what you think of other people.

Aesthetics are a way to please just one of the five senses, and are the hardest to get right, especially when you are creating a product for consumers. There are a limited pool of options one can go with for appealing to touch and smell, taste is limited to food itself, and hearing is a non-factor in objects like books, but sight is the one that requires the most careful planning to get right. Should you be creating a physical product, the design is unbelievably important.

Every time I create a book cover I do my best to make every piece count to please the eye, from font choice in the text and on the cover, to the paperback design, to even the way I edit the text for the print version. I post the full paperback design for the paperbacks of my books on this site because I want the reader to understand just what a difference acquiring a physical copy of the book makes. While the content of the story is of utmost importance, it is the presentation that will still cause you to sink or swim among customers. Many authors who aren't visual designers struggle with this, and deny the reality of the situation, but it's the truth. Aesthetics matter. They matter a lot.

The fact of the matter is that people have visual standards. Despite what you've heard from postmodern urbanites who believe beauty is in the eye of the beholderthemselves, beauty is actually objective. It exists as a higher aesthetic standard that we only partially understand ourselves. Part of creating art is attempting to understand what we are missing and attempt to glimpse that beauty for ourselves. If you are creating art, and want to reach the most people, you will have to strive for more than base passions and urges. You need to aim higher.

This is one of the factors as to why '80s and early '90s nostalgia still have such a striking and constant visual presence today. It is because there are no aesthetics in the 21st century.

That isn't quite correct. There are aesthetics, they are just terrible and no one likes them except the tasteless and over-socialized. What bad art and architecture does is beat at the senses, warp your perceptions of the world, and cause dour moods and even depression. Ever seen a picture of a soviet bloc? It looks that way for a very particular reason. This is what modern architecture strives for. And we let it do this.

What's worse is that we have been swimming in the same aesthetics for decades now, making us more and more miserable. That ever worsening social and political climate you're experiencing? Part of it is due to this focus of ugliness as beauty and hatred of the good.

The fact of the matter is that we were made to feel uncomfortable, as if we are missing something. What this means is that we're always striving for something better, something that will make us feel closer to the home we can only imagine. But we can never quite scratch that itch, because we weren't made for this world. That's just a fact of the human condition: we are never settled and we never will be.

What that means is that cultural stagnation belays an issue deeper than mere laziness. The lack of not only degrading aesthetics, but anything other than base ugliness as the baseline portrays a culture that no longer cares about itself or in beauty or higher ideals.

We are living in a world that has no hope for the future except an impossible pleasure dome Eden that will never actually exist. It can't exist because it misdiagnoses what makes people tick. Infinite dopamine hits and sexual gratification is not going to do anything but dull your senses and make you more miserable. Striving for a "fixed" world is impossible.

But it wasn't always this way, which is why all of these retro aesthetics have become so popular and won't be leaving anytime soon. When you can look at a picture of a 1950s diner, old art deco pulp art, or an ancient Cathedral, and marvel at the effort gone into it, then turn around and see the same cracked streets and monstrous brutalist buildings that have been around since before the twin towers fell . . . well, you know something is very, very wrong. How far gone do you have to be in order to not see this or realize how badly it reflects on our dead age?

For example, here are some old book covers I found online. Let us compare them with their newer editions. I would suggest having your eyes checked if you can't tell the difference, and if you think the newer ones are anywhere in the league of the old.

Old Edition

New Edition

Old Edition

New Edition

Old Edition

New Edition

Do you see the gap between the two, even aside from the better drawn art? The new art has a severe lack of wonder, action, or drawing power. They are flat and lifeless. No random passerby is going to see the newer covers sitting on a shelf and be drawn in to pick it up. Why would they? The covers communicate nothing to potential readers. They could be picture books for kids, science textbooks, or autobiographies, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. There is a lack of love in the presentation of the newer editions that shine through on a very obvious level.

Though you might say to yourself that those new covers were designed for ebooks first and physical second, so it not taking aesthetics into account makes a bit more sense. However, it just means that ebooks are an inferior form that you look down on and readers think of as a cheap disposable alternative. They'll buy anything as long as it says the right words on the tin. But they won't. That isn't the way we used to think about patrons.

In the old days you could buy a pulp paperback cheap and get great art and formatting, then when done you could hand it off to a friend or a used bookstore to keep the copies circulating. Or you could leave it on the shelf for future re-reads if you are big on it. The point is that the book is let out of containment and allowed to affect readers. Personally, I'd prefer copies of my own books floating around used stores instead of sitting at the bottom of an old hard drive in a desk any day. I put more effort into the presentation of them and they would have a longer shelf life out in the real world instead of as an interchangeable file hidden in some folder.

I don't think I'm alone in this. The appreciation for physical editions still exists. From author Alexander Hellene on physical copies:

"I’ll never forget when my friend Danny and I were playing StarTropics on the Nintendo when we were eight or nine, and actually had to dip the letter from the main character Mike’s uncle to Mike that came with the game into water to reveal a secret code needed to advance in the actual game. Or using the manual to old Sierra adventure games to progress, like the spell recipies and incantations in King’s Quest III or proper police procedure in the original Police Quest. Or the strategy guide and map that came with the original Final Fantasy. Or the care and humor that went into every Quest for Glory manual (along with the really nice paper they were printed on!). Or the sheer whimsy and attention to detail in every old Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest or The Legend of Zelda manual.

"You get the point. It’s such a shame that games don’t come with manuals anymore and just have in-game tutorials or tell you to just look online.

"Having a thing is fun. I’m like that with music and books. Though downloading albums and books onto a Kindle or other device is convenient and often cheaper, album and book artwork and a physical, tangible thing can’t be replaced. Someone took the time to put these songs in this order for you, and include this imagery on the cover and interior of the disc, along with photographs and maybe lyrics. A book had this cover for a reason.
"These things enhance the experience more than faster download times. They also make the creative work you are about to enjoy feel real."

More than feeling real, it also shows a level of care and love into what you're creating when you put work into the aesthetics. You want your product to be the best it can be, and that includes making it look the best it can. Whatever gives the customer the greatest experience is the way to keep them pleased and for them to keep coming back to you. That's exceedingly difficult to get across without having a physical product to hold in your hands.

The focus on aesthetics also works with establishments and scenery. Architecture has a way of pulling people out of their comfort zone and pushing people into public to interact with their neighbors. It has a way of attracting people of all shapes and sizes.

As Alexander Hellene also mentions:

"The GameStop situation, along with that of AMC, has a relatively unreported dimension: the soullessness of modern culture as we march deeper into the 21st century has unearthed a powerful nostalgia for–wait for it–big box retailers and mall culture.

"Would anyone ever have guessed that people would pine for the days when you actually had to go to a store instead of the convenience of purchasing something ephemeral with a click? I thought about this during a recent visit to GameStop with my son, and another to our fantastic local comic store/”pop culture emporium,” the interior of which is the featured image of this post. At a store, you can browse for things you my not have heard of before, or weren’t necessarily looking for, and discover new stuff by accident. Maybe it’s overhearing another customer speaking, or people working at the store, and asking them what they think of this album or that book or game. Maybe you bump into a friend. Maybe you make a friend."

Focusing on aesthetics can be a positive social gain for everyone. No one benefits from making something as ugly as possible, or from deliberately shunning humanity, and yet this is exactly where we are as a society. We are completely backwards and unwilling to turn around to see it.

Art made for a purpose, a higher purpose, will always offer more to the patron. The more it offers the patron, the more he will be willing to come back for more. It's a win/win for both parties. This is how you sustain an art scene.

However, it is difficult to gain the inspiration to create such a positive climate when the world you are living in is obsessed with ugliness and emptiness and looking internally at the expense of communicating with others. One of the reasons so much bad art pushed with big money comes from old urban centers is because cities are no longer than jaw-dropping wonders they were nearly a century ago. Large cities are outdated relics of the 20th century that harbor the worst attitudes and habits of humanity and don't offer much in return for losing true aesthetics and relaxing silence for noise pollution and an endless variation of the color grey. 

Here is an example from the Canadian city of Montreal. I picked Montreal because it is looked at as the most progressive city in the most progressive western country, which means it perfectly captures aesthetics that should be forward looking. If it doesn't then how can it be considered progressive? This is what we are always told is the example others should follow by those in charge of billion dollar corporations. Does it match up to the high standards that these moderns foist on it? Are the aesthetics so good that everything should drop what they are doing to mimic it? See for yourself.

These pictures are all taken from Google Maps and are all from the same location general location, over a decade apart from each other. This location is smack dab in the middle of downtown Montreal where all the action is.

Take a gander at how forward-looking it is.









If I didn't put the years under each picture, would you be able to tell the difference? Heck, would you be able to tell they weren't from 1999? The answer is no. Over a decade of "progress" and the most progressive city on Earth looks exactly the same as it did before the 21st century began. All the people are even dressed the same as they were back then. Nothing has changed.

So what is forward-looking about this place? It doesn't show in their aesthetics.

It's the sign of a dead culture when it looks this bad and no effort for improvement is made. How can anyone see the above pictures and see nothing wrong? This isn't 2003, folks. It's nearly twenty years later, and it still looks this bad.

In 1956 down in the states, Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act. This encouraged more people to travel from their homes across the country. What it did was cause more business to spring up "Roadside Candy" for tourists to check out. What did they use to attract passersby? The top photo of this post should give you a clear hint. They used the opportunity to connect with potential customers. They went all out in presenting beauty and awe to those that might come by. They appealed to their innate sense of beauty.

In other words, these restaurant owners were attempting to attract, not repel, customers. And they were doing it by simply appealing to their senses. Present something impressive and striking to the naked eye. Pleasant and welcoming designs. Bold and warm colors. Wild signs and store names. Something that will give the customer the urge to return for repeat visits. You do this by giving them what they want, not what you think they need. All of this is in service of connecting with you, the customer. This is how it is supposed to be.

It didn't used to be as backwards as it is today. Back in the day, these places went all out.

Mimetic Architecture, establishments and signs crafted to look like products the store sold such as hamburgers or coffee pots, became common. Influences from Art Deco and big bright neon colors were meant to instill a sense of excitement in those passing by. The business had to appeal to the customers' sense of style and taste in order to get them through the door. Beauty attracts.

They accomplished all this, because anyone can look at a building from the 1950s and instantly see its appeal today. Even if it might not personally be your sort of thing you can easily acknowledge its objective beauty and how impressive it is to look at. This is known as art made to connect with an audience. It's a foreign notion today, but there it is. The style is attempting to achieve an effect, and in order to do it they are appealing to your aesthetic sense.

There is a reason this style is still mimicked today, even though no one alive really has any nostalgia for it. There is nothing else quite like it. The design just works, and it is attractive to the eye.

Today, we not only have architecture that hates the people looking at, the people looking at it have accepted the ugliness as normality. They have essentially accepted garbage as the baseline, and it reflects in everything from the art produced to the attitudes displayed around it to the vapid morality they operate with. Not to pick on city dwellers, but if you have have ever been in a crowd it is a very dehumanizing experience, akin to being swept up in a sea that won't kill you if you trip but probably won't even notice that you fell. It's a place that rewards you for not being human. And these are the people trying to foist their ways on everyone else.

Will this aesthetic death continue, or are we due for a revival? I hate to tell you this, but after 2020, those in charge are rubbing their hands together for their next move to kill aesthetics further. First it was destroying small businesses while boosting up the megacorps, and next it will be to control where you spend your time outside your job.

No longer allowed out of the house? Don't worry, now you can walk into a completely dehumanized and bankrupt digital store where employees are a thing of the past and you can get what you need with the click of a button! Now you don't even have to interact with human beings ever again! Hooray! Once the megacorp restaurants get their excuse to finally add in machines to replace cashiers (coming very soon!) you'll never have to leave the house or interact with other people ever again. Isn't that just perfect? Clearly the way society was meant to function.

All joking aside, this is pure aesthetic nihilism. This is not only saying presentation and attractiveness don't matter, but that they don't even exist in the first place. What you get instead is an empty experience of a computer-like menu and pushing buttons while you shuffle back to your government mandated pod to sleep for the night. There is no life here. Where do you interact with other people? Where do you find shared experiences? When do you meet new people? Why would you ever do anything other than eat and sleep? How is this going to make your life more fulfilling? What will this do to a whole generation of kids that can't interact with others?

If it's not already clear, this way lies disaster. It is pure death.

This is what you can look forward to in the future:

Digital stores. Sure to fix that alienation problem! As if the massive increase in suicides over 2020 didn't do enough. Now we can make more excuses for people to stay away from each other in exchange for convenience. Let's just keep going in this direction and see where it will end up. We already know where this all ends.

Streaming entertainment, ebooks, online shopping and groceries, and working from home. When do you go out, and what would you go out for? Who would you interact with and how would you ever meet another human being? Why would you need to bother when all your wants and needs are a click away? Why is this a future worth striving for?

We need a return to aesthetic theism, when things mattered, when everything mattered. When part of the point was supplying the best experience because you wanted the other person to have it. When you wanted to connect to the human race and understand more about the way things are. When you thought beauty mattered. when humanity mattered. When everything mattered for a greater purpose than it does today.

Fortunately, everything does matter, so you can easily get that feeling back again. Support and promote good artists, establishments, and entertainment, that remember to promote the good and the true and wish to give you something more than a sugar rush or dopamine hit. These people exist all over, and they all want to give you something better than what you have today. There is more to life than consuming product or thinking of human beings as junkies looking for a fix. We are more than the sum of our parts, because all of this was made for more than what we see before us. However, what we see can help point the way forward. This is what makes aesthetics so important and why they matter.

This means aesthetics need to be true to connect. What isn't true is the empty and ugly brutalism of the modern world shoved in our faces everyday. And what do you know? It doesn't connect with anyone. It doesn't inspire and it doesn't lift. It is hated and only kept around because no one can imagine anything better than the dour world they live in.

But we can change that. We can show aesthetics that mean something, that aim for something much higher than what we have today. We can have aesthetic theism again. We even have many examples from our rich past to work from.

And at the end of the day, the truth wins out. Always will. But truth can only win if it exists. We all know it does, so let us start showing it again.

It is what is on the inside that counts, but the outside is what draws others to said inside. Without a love for the other, without a purpose in showing yourself as the best you can be, your inside will never be all that it can be. you are missing half of yourself. Everything works for a greater purpose, so it is time to act like it.

We've got better things to look forward to and, hopefully, look at. Aesthetic theism is the past, and it will be the future. Count on it.

Now, I'm in the mood for a burger and fries. I wonder why?

For some tips on reaching aesthetic theism, check out the Pulp Mindset. The future is now!


  1. This was how I felt when a local McDonalds we frequented tore out its 50's diner decor and replaced it with this bland, modern "plants and natural" aesthetic. It didn't look like McDonalds at all anymore, more like a new age jewelry shop in a mall. Also, I'm with you on unattractive book covers. The artist James Gurney has been sharing book cover designs that he painted in the 80s for sci fi and fantasy book covers. They blow my mind, even just simple designs of a guy in a space suit with his helmet under one arm. You don't see that anymore. I read another blog with someone doing their urban fantasy books in this YA graphic design style that trad pub is doing right now. It looks like a kid's book, and it's not. I think it's trad pub's way of trying to distance themselves from the indie covers with a leather-clad heroine on a purple background letting off hand farts. But you know what? Hand farts are prettier than these weird paper cutout designs. And they convey the idea of the genre a lot better.

    1. We need to get back to the idea of handcrafted products and personal attachment to the aesthetic. There is no love in modern design and it shows so very strongly.

  2. Great essay! I agree that current aesthetics are usually terrible or bland at best. Many hyped western AAA games are good examples of this bland aesthetics to me.

    1. Thank you! AAA has looked more or less the same for well over a decade, at this point. They are in desperate need of a facelift.

  3. The death of aesthetics is such a tragedy. It’s a direct consequence of the diabolical postmodernist idea that there are no objective standards of beauty, or of anything else. People are instinctively drawn to beauty, but we have entire generations that need to be taught what these standards are and why they work.

    Your example of cities is perfect. Cities instill agitation and a bad mood and many are hard-pressed to explain why. But we are products of our environment, and if our environment is actively uninviting, then what do we become?

    Works of art and culture need to be the whole package. We can’t move on and achieve true progression if we’re stuck in the fake progressive past. Even the thing called “progressivism” is fake, just like everything else.

    It’s not exaggeration though. Whenever I have the misfortune to see anything on cable, I’m struck by how cold and soulless and inhuman it feels, like everyone is wearing a skin-suit and trying to act like they’ve read humans act like. Very depressing.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      We have fallen a long way, for sure.

      When I was a boy I took special note when new structures were built or new buildings erected. Today all of those surfaces that were new at the time are falling apart and creaking, and nothing new has been put up since.

      It's a microcosm of the overall feeling of living in the 21st century. It's sitting around and watching everything rot while nothing is fixed.

      I can't imagine what is like growing up in this environment. What hope do you see in the future when your present is crumbling around you?

      Something needs to be done.

  4. Greetings. I discovered your work and your blog through Corona-Chan, and the brand of noir fantasy in "Someone is aiming for you" quickly became one of my favorites. Currently reading The Pulp Mindset.

    This article reminded me of Paul Joseph Watson's great series of videos about modern architecture, art, and theatre. It's something anyone interested in the subject should check out.

    Being a modernly trained architect, I was already privy to the fact that most modern architecture is shit, only not that the problem was modern (philosoviet brutalist) and contemporary (neomarxist deconstructivist) architecture itself. Rediscovering Gothic, Art Deco, and Cristopher Alexander's work on the Timeless Way Of Building has been a transformative experience.

    Now that social media sucks, it's nice to have blogs with great ideas like DVS Press, Kairos, and this Wasteland, with all their Pulp, to fall back on.