The Decadent movement in the late 19th century, which affected both literature and art, was one of excess. It favored aestheticism, devoid of anything with political, spiritual or moral value. Edgar Allen Poe, a notable Decadent writer of the time, thought the only purpose of poetry was to be beautiful to read. It should be separate from truth and feeling — an “elevation of the soul.” The focus of his poem, “The Raven,” is not his dead wife, but rather the musicality of language and the way the vowels and rhyme scheme sound when read aloud. There is no significance behind the name “Lenore” beyond the fact that it rhymes with the repeated word “nevermore.” He wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” to describe poetry as an impersonal process, the largest emphasis being on technical and lyrical composition, so that the final product would be one with the greatest aesthetic value. Decadent artists wanted to experience everything to the utmost degree, to experience all the pleasures that come from beauty.
Although “decadent” would not be the word I would use to explain the way we live now, there is an appreciation of a different kind of aesthetic that has grown more noticeable. The aesthetic I talk about is not a visual or artistic one. It is an interest in the aesthetic experience. As I have spent my summers, school breaks and occasional weekends wandering the streets of East Village or strolling through Chelsea thanks to my sister’s job in New York City, I’ve noticed a new desire for a particular aesthetic experience. The idea of the “trendy” place to eat seems to permeate the minds of young people living in the city, especially in the bustling, vibrant borough of Manhattan. The tendency to choose a place that has the most visually appealing food and the most charming ambiance seems to trump all other factors.
Take, for example, waiting two hours to get a table at Jack’s Wife Freda. Was the two-hour wait just to eat the sunny side up egg or the green Shakshuka? Or was the two hour wait to instagram a photo of the dishes on the notorious menu? Was the desire to go to Cha Cha Matcha driven by the actual craving for green tea or was it to hold the cup against the bright neon pink “matcha gracias” sign or boldly printed “Cha Cha” wall and post for others to see? Did the brightly dyed rainbow bagels with funfetti cream cheese from The Bagel Store look so appealing and delicious, or was it the hope that they would make a striking picture?
I don’t think there’s something completely wrong in wanting an experience because of a certain aesthetic. Recently, I based my decision to go to MUD Coffee, a trendy brunch spot, solely on what people told me about it — it was a place that had my favorite brunch foods but was still deemed aesthetically “cool.” And the exposed brick walls, mismatched tables and chairs and low-hanging lights didn’t disappoint. But most of the time we don’t question why we go somewhere in the first place. With a growing desire to aestheticize experiences, sometimes we’re lured into an experience based on appearance alone. What I see as the driving force behind this desire for aesthetic experiences is social media, which ends up removing what real meaning we have attached to the actual experience. There is a danger that comes from losing touch with meaning. Unlike the Decadent artists and writers of the 1800’s, we’re not quite doing these things for ourselves anymore. We aren’t indulging in the aesthetic in order to explore all the feelings of pleasure that are available to humans, like Baudelaire or Poe did (although that, too, had its own problems). I think many young people — although certainly not all — go to these places with the hope that they can get an Instagram post or Snapchat story out of it. The number of times I’ve seen the food come, the phones whip out and the immediate ferocious editing that follows is far too many. The enjoyment of the raw, human experience is lost.
Some of the most “trendy” spots have the longest waits, the most expensive prices and the loudest and most crowded seating areas. Imagine going to a small restaurant that doesn’t have the so-called “aesthetic” and focusing on the company you’re with and the conversations you have. There’s something we can gain from that.
The aesthetic experience extends beyond just trendy restaurants and cafes. When we do things for the appearance alone or to capture and project an image, we fall into a trap. It’s easy to lose sight of the realness of a situation when we simply want for things to look a certain way. As long as we stay aware of the meaning and intent behind our decisions, we might be able to avoid the long-winded search for beauty to which the Decadent artists fell victim.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.