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A Study of Beauty: A Q&A With Michael R. Spicher

July 31, 2022
July 31, 2022
Valerie Elash via Unsplash

Here at BeautyMatter, we enjoy looking outside the industry. After all, the history of beauty is as old as the history of humanity, so why not give the subject matter the broad focus it deserves? One professional approaching the subject through a wider lens is Michael R. Spicher, whose background in philosophy primed him to pursue and teach aesthetic theories. In 2016, Spicher founded the digital think tank Aesthetics Research Lab, which harnesses research ranging from product design to neuroscience. The company has completed various projects such as the “Is Your Business Beautiful?” workshop with the Executive Design Studio, and the “Art and Aesthetics in the Healthcare Environment” webinar with the Applied Neuroaesthetics project.

Spicher will be delving into aesthetics as it relates to the beauty industry for BeautyMatter in the upcoming months. Before reading the inaugural piece, explore the following conversation with the philosopher and writer about where his interest in the subject began, and how aesthetics and the beauty industry are intertwined.

What is your earliest memory of beauty?

I’m not sure about my actual first memory, though it may be the time an elementary school teacher ripped up my drawing of a Christmas tree, despite me thinking it was beautiful (or however I would have described it at a young age). In my early teen years through high school, I reached an age where I began to make conscious decisions about my own taste in art and music. I heard one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs, “Pearline” by blues musician Son House. His slide guitar seemed both chaotic and ordered. And I also fell in love with painting, both making paintings and seeing the works of people, like Marc Chagall.

What led you down the path of aesthetics study?

About 2002, a professor mentioned an idea about beauty off the cuff—the course had nothing directly to do with beauty or aesthetics—and I wrote my first paper on beauty. People don’t always realize the influence professors have on students. This one comment shaped the rest of my life so far.

What does the study of aesthetics entail?

The answer depends on someone’s starting point, whether it is from architecture, product design, psychology, or, in my case, philosophy. It begins, for me, with the belief that aesthetic experience is a basic motivation for human action. In its broadest sense, aesthetics implies what we take in with our senses. Since this is a common human capacity and experience, aesthetics requires an understanding of the human condition.

"People accuse the beauty industry of exploiting beauty standards, and that holds some weight. But the industry, because of its money and pervasiveness, is often an easy villain."
By Michael R. Spicher, Founder, Aesthetics Research Lab

What is the relationship between aesthetics and beauty?

Aesthetics is the umbrella under which fall certain properties, like beauty, the sublime, and even ugliness. Those are the most common properties, but others include dainty, graceful, and dumpy. However, I agree with something that philosopher Arthur Danto wrote in his book, The Abuse of Beauty. While beauty may not be necessary for artwork anymore, it is certainly necessary for life, as it is not just an aesthetic property but also a value.

How can the beauty industry at large benefit from academic findings on the subject?

People accuse the beauty industry of exploiting beauty standards, and that holds some weight. But the industry, because of its money and pervasiveness, is often an easy villain. All people make judgments about beauty; it’s wired into our biology. To overcome some of their pitfalls, the beauty industry should consult philosophers, scientists, cultural theorists, and sociologists about their practices, and how best to truly help people with their products. Diverse influences on the industry will help them critically assess their practices and products.

What can you tell us about your work at Aesthetics Research Lab?

I founded it in 2016 because I came to a realization. In light of my background in art and music, I often connected my interest in aesthetics with art. Two people on two occasions both mentioned that maybe designers and architects would be interested in my research on aesthetics. Then, I figured, why stop there? I decided that I wanted to seek out people interested in aesthetics wherever they may be found, in business, science, philosophy, architecture, activism, and industry. I found lots of pockets of people, who felt isolated in their industries or professions, and I try to bring those ideas and people together. So, the Aesthetics Research Lab exists as a resource and digital think tank to showcase aesthetics in all its possibilities.

Is there ever such a thing as objective beauty? Why or why not?

Loaded question. Yes and no. People consider proportion to be a common aspect of beauty. And people have thought this for nearly 3,000 years when Plato and Aristotle wrote. Proportion, therefore, seems to be a common attribute of beauty, regularly present in objects or people considered beautiful. However, it’s highly unlikely we will ever discover a formula to guarantee the creation of beautiful things. Traits, like proportion, can be applied in numerous ways, which helps explain why different groups of people around the globe have different kinds of artifacts they perceive as beautiful. But natural things, like human faces or sunsets, have a high amount of agreement across cultures. I think trying to limit beauty to either subjective or objective is a mistake; it involves both aspects.

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