Beauty is best appreciated when it’s not vying for attention. A beautiful object, in a sense, demands attention, but competition with surrounding objects often diminishes its impact. The aspect of beauty that guides decisions about coordinating objects or parts of objects is called fittingness. The specific act of deciding exercises what philosophers call practical reason. Life presents us with a lot of choices among similar things—just think about the range of styles and shapes that could count as “black shoes.” Human beings possess the ability to justify our choices with reasons. This justification is not the guarantor of correctness, but we do it anyway. And we often think that we’re right because of our justifying reasons.
To help illustrate the concepts of fit and practical reason, we turn to a scene from the movie High Fidelity (2000). John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, discusses the “rules” for making a mixtape—what we now call a playlist—for someone. The person makes a bunch of decisions. He says, “You gotta kick it off with a killer … to grab attention. Then, you gotta take it up a notch … Then, you gotta cool it off a notch.” In other words, his character describes that each song has to fit in a proper relationship with the previous song and the one that follows (and with the whole thing). But multiple songs could potentially work, which is why the maker must find reasons for picking one over another. Another facet of this example is that, depending on purposes, someone may want a playlist to be aggressively powerful all the way through. For example, a playlist for working out might not have a minimalistic, meditative song on it. But this concern further illustrates that the idea of fit is relative to a person, community, or context. And we are certainly conditioned by our culture and biology to favor certain aesthetic relationships more than others.
Often when discussing the importance of aesthetics for our lives, people begin by asking what life would be like without aesthetic properties. Without colors, shapes, smells, and sounds, our pleasure would diminish greatly. This deficiency would be problematic. But the notion of fittingness focuses on the other extreme, an excess of aesthetic properties and objects. Too much breeds confusion and an overstimulation of the senses, leaving people unable to rest in the beauty of any object because the next one is equally crying out for attention.
We rely on our intuition to help us grasp how things ought to appear to our senses. When hanging pictures on a blank wall, for instance, we may repeatedly step back to see if it looks right. What do we mean by right? Not surprisingly, people have failed to discover an absolute metric, so we rely on our feelings. Something about this table’s location does not feel right, so we should move it a few inches to the left. Those types of decisions involve judging an object’s fit within a larger context or set of relationships. Philosopher Roger Scruton explains: “This attempt to match our surroundings to ourselves and ourselves to our surroundings is arguably a human universal.” We try to harmonize spaces, clothing, and objects with our image of ourselves, since our taste reflects aspects of our identity.
If you think about clothing, lots of different garments fulfill the most basic function of covering our naked bodies. Many would also keep us warm or protect us from rain. These trivial facts do not mean that any garment is sufficient for us. Not all clothing makes us feel the same way, and not all clothing works well together. We sometimes change outfits multiple times before leaving the house. What felt right one day may feel completely off the following day. We need our clothing to suit us and fit our current feelings and purposes. All our adornments—clothing, hats, shoes, jewelry, beauty products—need to work together for our look to fit. The choices individuals make are subjective, but there are ways to apply the notion of fit to communal contexts.
The notion of fittingness applies to larger-scale environments that are rarely (if ever) controlled by one person or family, such as a city. Imagine building a city from scratch with the main goal of making every building supremely beautiful. Rather than this becoming the most beautiful city in the world, it would have a different effect. The buildings would be in tension with each other, creating disorder, as they tried to capture the attention of every onlooker. The same thing happens with your physical beauty. If you tried to highlight all of your features at once, then the look would likely yield a chaotic effect. By making objects compete with each other, they no longer appear to fit together. Objects and their parts need to work together to fit well.
Beauty involves more than just how a single object or person appears. Frequently, the beauty of one object (or part of an object) is enhanced by its position near another object. In the context of makeup, trying to highlight all of one’s features leads to a pantomime effect, most likely looking a bit clownish. In the context of our homes, decorating so that every object is the center of attention leads to a chaotic space, hindering the possibility of repose. In the context of a city, every building and structure striving for attention will make it difficult for any building to actually stand out as worthy of our attention.
People exercise practical reason, a kind of intuition developed by experience, to make choices about how aesthetics draws people’s attention and which objects or features are best to highlight. We make mistakes, since there isn’t a formula. But those with developed experience—which is why we need to practice and develop our taste—often have finer intuitions about what fits. Experience takes time, but it is not necessarily connected with age. A younger person may devote more time to expanding their taste than an older person. As aesthetics has important consequences for creating a harmonious fit, it is something we should all devote some attention to developing.
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