On Ice-creams, Van Gogh and (the power of) Aesthetics: Part Three – The Aesthetic Path Forward


The principle reason for the existence of human societies is the need to ensure human survival. Once we can cover our needs for survival, and only once those needs are covered, human beings are allowed to make choices. Freedom, therefore, is conditioned by the obligation of having the problem of survival properly cared for. It is enclosed in spaces of time that are not occupied by the chores required to guarantee our continued existence. These survival-task liberated spaces are commonly called periods of free-time. It is the temporal area in which we are able to apply our faculties of judgement to activities and concerns that have nothing to do with the problems of survival.

Because of this basic dynamic, underlying all complex human societies, the educational programmes of our called civilised communities have to deal initially with teaching survival skills and secondly with the fields of activity emerging in the area of freedom, which is the space of freedom to make judgements, which, in principle, are high-aesthetic judgements, by which we mean judgements that are free from the burdens of survival needs.

In our civilisation, this simple separation between the necessity for survival and freedom from those necessities, has been complicated through the development of economics. By confining our sapiens instincts to the needs of the homo economicus, humanity has been moulded into a being capable of survival in the complex structure of the economic matrix. Within this area dominated by the marketplace, time spaces enveloping survival needs and those other spaces of freedom are no longer clearly defined. Economics has spread necessity out rather than reducing it, and this of course pushes survival needs into the spaces of free time, putting stress on freedom and diminishing the system’s functionality in an anti-civilising way. If civilisation should be geared to reducing our concerns for survival in order to liberate our time for judgement, then we must begin to accept that our current civilisation is not a civilising process at all. The spreading out of necessity occurs through our dependency on money to survive. A dependency that encourages necessity to seep into the area of the superfluous. In fact, the homo economicus is never satisfied with the mere covering of authentic survival needs, he or she needs the superfluity of an ever-expanding survival-need field, and is prepared to sacrifice freedom in order to dedicate themselves to gathering the superfluous, in order to obtain more and more superfluity.

Superfluity closes doors into the area of high-aesthetics judgements and by doing so actually reduces freedom as well by enslaving us to new, superfluous necessities, many of which are falsely imagined to be necessary for survival. This is of course a decadence. The superfluous world is always a decadent one.      

To be human (sapiens) is to know that one is. The principle desire of all living things is to keep living, what we call the survival instinct and the first profoundly felt conscious desire of human beings is the first time one is consciously aware that one wants to keep living. A desire and will that is constantly with us, albeit in a subconscious way. Even the choice of eating an ice-cream has a profound, subconscious basis to it, which is incipiently one of judgement and therefore moral: I want to eat something in order to energise my existence or even perhaps survive (my hunger indicates that I must) but if this is so why not eat something that will be enjoyable; if I am going to survive in this world I may as well do it in an enjoyable way, by eating ice-creams for example, although then again, the nutritional value of ice-creams is limited, whilst the sugars and fats in an ice-cream could depreciate my health, so perhaps I should eat something else … Through this example of ice-cream eating we can see how judgement is embedded into our world of desire. We are no longer subject to the necessity of survival alone – although the ice-cream carries a vestige of survival it transcends it. Ice-cream exists not for survival but for pleasure, and so it is basically an aesthetic decision that we are making when we desire it, complicated in an aesthetic way by the decision we need to make when we choose the flavour. So, beyond the necessity for survival we immediately enter the terrain of freedom and of aesthetics. Yes, what we are asserting here is strange: no-one, surely, could seriously consider ice-cream eating an aesthetic act, and yet, really we can see no reason why it should not be.

There is certainly a great difference between Van Gogh’s decision for the colours and brush strokes applied to his Starry Night and the decision someone makes as to the topping given to their vanilla ice. A difference that resides primarily in the purpose of the result embedded in the decision, and secondly in the permanence contrasted with the ephemerality of the outcome in accord with that result.

For example, the purpose of the decisions related to ice-cream eating are related to the pleasure of the senses (primarily taste) in what will essentially be an ephemeral event. Ice-cream eating is like watching theatre, the pleasure and the beauty of it reside in the moment of its consumption (and, if it is good, in the desire for that moment to endure). Memories will linger and more ice-creams will probably be enjoyed later on, each recollection competing with an ideal reconstruction of something which is considered the best of all the ice-creams ever consumed.

For the artisan creating the ices, the ephemerality is a bonus. His or her purpose is to sell as many ice-creams as possible and his or her skill is to create a positive memory and through this a desire to repeat the experience in the minds of those who try one of these works of art.

Yes, the ice-cream is a work of art, but the purpose behind it is the profit obtained by selling as many examples as possible. It is art in the world of the homo economicus whose basic purpose is accumulation of wealth. The process strives for a permanence, but a permanence (wealth) gained through replication (commercialisation). To be successful, each batch of strawberry ice-cream must taste like the previous one. Of course, the art of ice-cream making is vastly different to what Van Gogh was doing.

Van Gogh painted in the realm of beauty, to produce that which defies the ephemerality of the experience of its discovery. In other words, he wanted to make paintings that people would want to be preserved and made available for all to see, forever. The art of Van Gogh is the art of creating an original singularity which demands to remain throughout time. The Starry Night can be copied, but it is not the same when it is, and the informed spectator knows this and will yearn to experience the beauty of the original.

This art is hugely different to ice-cream making. Its purpose lies in perfecting an original masterpiece that demands permanence. It is anti-replication. However, despite the difference in value between the Starry Night painting and ice-cream, let us not presume to say that one is more valuable than the other. The loss of ice-cream or the loss of the Starry Night would be equally disappointing for humanity. The homo economicus could make a calculation and show us that more money has been made from the selling ice-creams than from all of the auction sales of all of Van Goch’s paintings, and conclude from this that ice-creams are more valuable, whilst art lovers would demand the originality and impossible repeatability of Van Gogh’s opus elevates his art’s value far beyond that of any ice-cream, but again, let us stress the idea that the loss of either would be a tremendous disappointment and always a sad loss for humanity itself. Humanity is the sum of what it has created and managed to preserve.

However, in order to understand the real, abysmal difference between making ice-cream and the works of Van Gogh, we need to return to our original premises that: (a) artistic choices are judgements; (b) artistic choices are a demonstration of freedom; and, add a new element (c) judgements are formed through questioning.

From the latter, we can easily find the difference between manufacturing ice-cream and painting Starry Night, we merely have to ask ourselves: What questions are being asked here? Once we do, we find that we have to ask quite different ones. The questions involved in ice-cream making are centred around what pleases the senses?, whilst the questions that Van Gogh was asking were metaphysical and existential ones as Starry Night was painted during a crisis period when Van Gogh was suffering from hallucinations with acute depression and suicidal thoughts. Ice-cream needs to please us, but it will not actually change us (except perhaps to make us fat). On the other hand, Van Gogh was examining who we are and what our relationship with the universe is, and the answers to that kind of questioning can change us – they can even improve us.

Through these examples we have found two vastly different purposes for aesthetic judgements: (i) to please the senses, and (ii) to change and improve us by enquiring into our existential nature. The first has no pretensions of changing or improving us, only rather to make our experiences of the world more pleasurable. It is the kind of aesthetics that can be most profitable for business ventures and its creations are usually elaborated with the idea of a massive replication aimed at enormous sales and profits. The art of ice-cream making is profoundly commercial and aesthetically pornographic. It is a form of aesthetic prostitution.  

Van Gogh’s kind of questioning, however, hardly ever brings great profit for its creator (but then again, that was never that artist’s intention). The work involved is centred around creating original works. It does not forbid replication (in literature, for example, replication of the original is a normal and desired result), but its replication is never the main purpose behind the creation as it is in ice-cream making. If it is involved in the sensual realm, it will be erotic rather than pornographic. It abhors prostitution.

That which pleases the senses is far more successful than that which strives to change and improve us. This is due to the replicating nature of sensually pleasurable objects, and also because immediate, ephemeral pleasure is far easier to produce and its creations are more visible and perceivable than anything designed with the intention of durable satisfaction or long-term improvements. Likewise, the will to luxuriate is one of humanity’s strongest drives, and this, mixed with the capitalist system of consumerism and conservative political ideologies that concentrate on the day-to-day experience of life rather than a progressive view of the future, traps society in the present continuous moment where the ephemeral can thrive.

Our activities are heavily constrained by social issues as well as the grip that economic power has on those same factors. The societies we are born into are already stringently organised and individuals have to learn how to interpret the flow of those societies in order to be able to navigate themselves through the tricky currents of their waters. There is a public interpretation of reality that must be accepted by the individual in order to fit in. This interpretation is nearly always conservative and any artist who tries to see beyond the mask of our public-opinion created reality is rare, while the one who is actually able to step outside and truly see ways of changing and improving our reality is much rarer still.  

Our social interactions only seem possible whilst they remain superficial and this is made possible through the profusion of small talk, which is the normal way of communicating. Small talk is in fact a release, a way of interacting with others and touching on topics without ever really developing our understanding of what we are dealing with, which means that small talk protects us against the need to ever practice the most human of all our skills: our ability to know.

It is as if we are ashamed of our most original organ and the Judaic myth of the expulsion from Paradise could be seen as a justification of this otherwise seemingly inexplicable shame. Original sin lies in the act of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which symbolically represents the human brain: “From there thou must not eat!” It is as if God gave Adam and Eve a magnificent mind and then said: “Thou must not use this mind.” To make it honest there should be a verse in Genesis that says: “And when they had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve felt great shame every time they had an original thought. And God gave them Small Talk to hide their shame.

Our language is so confined by social factors and constrained by our fear of sounding too profound that it forces us to make banal conversation, full of generalisations and untruths, and by doing so, pulling us away from the essence of ourselves as human beings, as homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows.

Most people will want a good life and, whilst the definition will be subjectively formed creating millions of interpretations, this idea of good could be generally interpreted as meaning a comfortable life, or at least one lacking in too many uncomfortable experiences. Of course, these concepts of good and comfortable are totally conditioned by relativity and their semantic inflections will change in each person’s lifetime according to the opportunities offered them, but in general it is a conservative outlook based on making the best of what is available for reproduction rather than making what can be available better and the better things that could be possible a concrete reality. To achieve the latter requires changing what is in order to produce what will be, while the former adapts to the present continuous. Only when what is seems bad or wrong, or lacking, or dangerous, will a large part of society be inspired to change it for something better. But in the rare moments when that does occur, the small talk also changes and becomes deeper, deepened by indignation and a desire for improvement.

Heidegger said that conversation was “participating in the revealing”. Through conversation we reveal what we know and discover things that others know. Even small talk participates in this revealing process. Conversation therefore has the potential to either reinforce reality or change and improve it, or make it worse. What we talk about is an aesthetic question, or a question of judgement. It can replicate what it is or change it. It can support what is, or condemn it. It can be a motor for support, or one of demolition.