I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cascade effects of mass production. The unintended consequences that happen when you mass produce and distribute stuff. Some artists capture this theme extremely well. Charles Sheeler, whose painting titled “Water” is pictured above, was commissioned to paint American factories in the early 20th century. His paintings position the buildings like cathedrals or, in this case, natural elements. They are beautiful to look at and terrifying to think about. (Water?? Really??)
A contemporary photographer, Ed Burtynsky, photographs landscapes that have been altered by industrialization. His images of mined quarries, for example, are beautiful in their geometry but terrifying when you stop and think about the hyper-consumption that created that geometry.
Another example of this aesthetic, from music, is the work of composer Steve Reich who is known for his work with phasing. He plays small units of melody in synch and then slowly, over time, moves the units out of phase. The results are neat and mechanical even as the pieces start to come apart. The whole effect of his work is a beautiful terror.
Which makes me think of this phrase from The Declaration of Independence (today is July 3):
All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
This “beautiful-terrible” aesthetic that so many of us in the 21st century are accustomed to is an aesthetic that highlights “out of phase” and our willingness to suffer through it. Our industrial systems are beautiful in their efficiencies and tolerable in their familiarity but are wildly out of phase in the negative social and environmental impacts they create. Yet we continue to embrace an aesthetic that says, “It’s complicated. Just go with it.”
What I wonder is, what aesthetic will push us to free ourselves from this beauty-terror trance that we’re in?