How a 19th-century artistic movement permeates itself in 21st-century students’ lives through the creation of aesthetic trends on social media.
BY IRIS MARK ’23
Emerging at its most prominent during pandemic-issued quarantine, the presence of “aesthetics” on social media in the form of mood boards, filters on posts, and other such collections of media, have become a way for teenagers to selectively identify with specific styles and presentations of themselves. In a similar fashion to the creative minds of Victorian England, aesthetics are used by both parties as platforms for personality and inspiration in living. However, it can become dangerous to rely completely on already manufactured identities for complete influence in all actions, and can be limiting when building oneself based solely on what’s seen online.
Championed by artists and critics like Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, the Aesthetic Movement, or Aestheticism, was an art movement that pushed against traditional ideas of the moral function of art in society. Instead of art being made to uphold a message or narrative, “art for art’s sake” claimed beauty to be the most important element in life and therefore writings, paintings and other mediums were there to reflect this.
Exalting taste and pursuing self-expression over restrictive conformity, “aesthetics” were people who were desperate to distance themselves from Victorian materialism and expectations. In a similar light, teenagers, through platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, define themselves by certain aesthetics, either by what they wear or what music they listen to. Junior Ashley He describes her opinion on aesthetics and maintaining one. “I think I like the ideas of aesthetics, [and] I think a lot of people take them very seriously, [but] I think it’s pretty so, as long as it’s not hurting anyone [I think] it’s like a cool thing to do,” He said. It is natural for people to switch up their wardrobes as they get older, just like how they change as people. Having a premade guide readily available at the tap of a screen is helpful when deciding what to do next. “I think especially if we’re talking about social media as Instagram and Pinterest, you kind of see people and it’s like, ‘Oh, I might want to dress like that,’ so there’s a lot of
inspiration influence I guess, that’s helped in perpetuating [aesthetics through] social media,” He said.
The eradication of narrative in aesthetic movement artwork made way for the creation of mood through colors, tones and certain compositions. Pinterest, especially, is built upon the collection of pictures to evoke atmosphere and aesthetic that people can then associate themselves with. Personality connotations also come with having an aesthetic and maintaining the aesthetic through personal presentation. If someone is wearing something specific, something about their personality is assumed.
“I think that if you see a girl with a long maxi skirt and one of those really cute Bolero cardigans, [you get] the impression that [you] might be talking to, like, a manic pixie dream girl type,” He said.
This adoption of personality based on aesthetics was typical of aesthetic movement artists, who took up public personas through which they lived according to aesthetic principles. But in today’s world, it is not always enough to have an aesthetic; some students feel that they must defend their aesthetic of choice to others.
“I remember especially as I was transitioning to high school, [I wanted] to find a style that suits me, because I was like, ‘God, I do not like the way that I present myself now’… [and] the Receiptifys? That you have to [post] on your story, oh my… There was a time where I was like, ‘I’ve got to stream this song a little extra so that it makes it to the top’ [or] sometimes I just wouldn’t put a song on a playlist even though I enjoyed it because I was like ‘this is kind of cheugy.’” He said.
The placing of categories can become limiting because once a person decides and cultivates their aesthetic of choice, it can feel like if they step outside of that defined zone, they can no longer be a part of it.
“You can lose your sense of self if you try to fit into an aesthetic. The aesthetic can be a part of who you are, but if you try to change everything about yourself just to be placed in a box, you miss out on other parts of your identity that may not necessarily fit into any aesthetic,” senior Lucy Cheng said.
“I know I’m not alone in purchasing clothing and accessories that I don’t need [in order] to look and feel a
certain way, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, but is definitely the result of aesthetic culture.” Cheng said.
The 1851 Great Exhibition marked a turning point in British visual art of predictable, repetitive designs that fostered a stifling environment for aesthetic artists. Students looking to escape the monotony of generic retail gravitate toward aesthetics as a way to define themselves. Individuality is hard to come by in adolescense, which is why the journey of finding oneself is hindered, especially by the environment that social media creates.
“I think [social media] makes it harder [for someone to be their own person] because everyone’s trying to be the model person that everyone thinks they should be instead of just being themselves,” freshman Matthew Schmersal said.
“I feel like they kind of feel like they have to live up to the aesthetic that they are trying to be.”
Aesthetics, the need to follow them, and the need to stand out while doing so may cause students to create a false version of themselves.
“I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of creating a false image in order to fit into social norms. It’s good to explore different aesthetics to figure out what you like and who you are, but it’s also not healthy to have the mindset that you must always fit the aesthetic, nor that anyone else is ever perfect, in that sense,” Cheng said. “Everybody is much more complex than they may appear at first glance on an Instagram profile, or from what you see every day in class, so it’s not realistic to [judge] an entire individual on just their aesthetic.”
It is not bad or unhealthy to want to have an aesthetic. It can be a chance to show creativity, or to try something new. But when relied on for a complete cast of what one’s identity should be, that’s when it can be more harmful than helpful.
“I think for one thing all of us are works that are constantly in revision.” He said. “And so [I think], in the journey to [find] oneself, at least for me it’s about consuming every- thing around you, taking it into stride and thinking about, ‘What about this do I want to become part of myself and what part of this do I want [to keep out]?’”