There's something jarring about contrast. Something about the way harsh steel lines slice through foliage and boulder, the way the linear imposes a biting two dimensionality on open skies, a finiteness and finality to what appeared infinite and irreducible. For months now, we've spoken of this contrast with a sly sarcasm, plastered it on signs, draped it from windows in Rand and even printed it on t-shirts: Ithaca is Fences.
As the University moves ahead with designs for permanent bridge barriers, the student body should ask itself the following questions: In decisions that can have a dramatic effect on life and death matters, is there any room for a discussion of aesthetics? And, why do we place such a premium on aesthetics in the first place?
Last semester, the reaction to the fences was strong and immediate, generally revolving around two primary complaints about effectiveness and aesthetics: 1. The fences are not an effective means of suicide prevention because they do not address the underlying causes of depression, do nothing to prevent other methods of suicide, and only further dampen student morale. 2. The fences detract from the natural beauty of Ithaca.
The first complaint seems rational and makes good common sense. The fences do not address the underlying causes of suicide like depression, and a suicidal person could theoretically seek alternate methods. That being said, ample research proves that fences do act as effective deterrents. Suicide numbers drop dramatically and do not correlate with higher numbers elsewhere. Moreover, only a small percentage of would-be-jumpers (just six percent at the Golden Gate Bridge according to a San Francisco Chronicle story) go on to make second suicide attempts. The claim that prevention barriers only worsens morale and contributes to further depression is not substantiated by fact and horribly simplifies a complex mental illness. While it can certainly be argued that the University should do more to address the underlying causes of suicide (and they have definitely stepped up their mental health resources), research does back up the claim that the fences are an effective prevention strategy.
Just as the first reaction exposes our flawed understanding of suicide prevention, our second reaction — that the fences detract from the natural beauty of Ithaca — exposes a flawed understanding of aesthetics. Aesthetics is not in the gorges but in the perception of the gorges. Aesthetics is not a scenic view or a painting on a wall. It's a way of processing, of living.
Where do aesthetics factor into this discussion at all?
There's something jarring about contrast. Something about the way we objectify the aesthetic to concrete things and places while we carry out the mechanized routines of our own lives, the way we separate ourselves from the aesthetic and place it on a pedestal far removed from the daily ebb and flow. We cycle through the steps, check things off the list, awake to re-runs of our own lives and distance the mundane motions of daily living from our own ideals, our own distant goals, our own aesthetics. And I think it's this divide that's gotten us to this point, teens and 20-somethings masquerading as mature adults but really just wandering around in an unrelenting march of confusion and uncertainty. In divorcing the aesthetic from the self, we have separated the end from the means, the conception from the practice, externalized what should be intrinsic to everything we do. The result resembles the fences: shallow, disjoined, empty, harsh — and ugly.
There's no denying that the fences destroy an aesthetically pleasing view. But I think the reason we care so much has more to do with what's lacking elsewhere in our lives — aesthetics, quality, a unity of intent and action, form and function. Do we pocket time as we slide down an assembly line or greet the day with reckless zeal and sincere reverence? Do we savor the climb's burn and rush of adrenaline or just race blindly ahead to the summit? Do we speak of ideas and beliefs with mixtures of conviction and vulnerability or merely siphon echoing ghosts of small talk into the ever-deepening void? Is there a unity between the intentions and actions of our lives — or just a jarring contrast?