Aesthetic anxiety

When perfectionism and visual culture come together

Ana Andjelic

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In his recent essay for The Economist, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen detailed the human psychology behind perfectionism. “From Emerson’s provocative defense of “self-reliance” in 1841 to the rise of the self-help industry from the 1930s and the emergence of our own selfie culture, selfhood was regarded as our highest value and the object of our striving. Educational, aesthetic and financial betterment and the need for validation from others are the elements that form the perfectionist air we all now breathe,” Cohen writes.

Nowhere is this drive for perfectionism more visible than in the constant aesthetic improvement that we subject ourselves to. Being the most aesthetically advanced versions of ourselves is an aspiration and an ideology, with brands increasingly busying their strategies with active aestheticization our everyday life. Products we buy, our faces and bodies, our experiences and leisure, our living spaces and bookshelves are all increasingly transformed into works of art. “Everyday life is an art, as art is part of everyday life” is the modern branding’s mantra, fed by the massive offering of social media inspiration.

The current construction of life as a visible work of art has been decades in the making. It is an outcome of simultaneous deinstitutionalization and commercialization of art that took place when the pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana made its way into museums. The fine art simultaneously spread into fashion, design, pop culture, and architecture. Back in the ’80’s New York City designer Willi Smith invited artists, architects, performers and graphic designers to join his project of making art part of daily life. Today, Virgil Abloh transformed everyday objects (t-shirts, boots, rugs) into works of art through quotation marks. Fashion stores are displaying art, and museums are selling merch. Moschino took inspiration from Picasso. Undercover worked with Cindy Sherman on a collection. Zadig & Voltaire shop in New York City’s Soho neighborhood features a stone sculpture with the “do not touch” sign.

In its 2022 iteration, pervasive investment in the aesthetics means constant internal and external self-perfecting (in my local Tracy Anderson studio, I often see women at various stages of this process). Makeover shows like Bridalplasty, Million Dollar Decorators, or 100% Hotter, tell consumers how to redesign their face, house, or life. Nothing is ever redesigned at random, so the makeover shows emphasize a sense of purpose: an aesthetically worthy life is not lived spontaneously, but stylistically. (An outcome is that a total lifestyle image put forward is often more impressive than a person behind it).

Read the rest of this analysis on The Sociology of Business

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Ana Andjelic

Brand Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Writer of “Sociology of Business.” Forbes most influential CMO.