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  • Writer's pictureMichael R. Spicher

Provoking Aesthetic Change for Work and Life

Seasonal Artful Dialogue with Michael R. Spicher, PhD

eastern aesthetic design and art
When considering the broadest scope of what counts as art, we could say that basically everyone cares about some art. Movies, music, books, paintings, architecture, sculpture, dance. The list could go even further. We may not understand each type of art, but there’s something that we gravitate toward. 

One often misunderstood form of art is called performance art. Names like Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, and Joseph Beuys are intimately associated with this type of art. While some of their activities are deemed shocking—letting people do whatever they want to you for 6 hours, dropping ancient Chinese vases, and explaining paintings to a dead rabbit—one thing these performances do is force people to change their perspectives. Whereas some visual art might nudge people toward a new way of thinking, performance art is more often like being shoved or shouting at people to look at something in a new way. 

A lot of art claims to be about important issues, such as equality, war, and our humanity. But what about the more mundane aspects of our lives? We need to sometimes reawaken or reorient ourselves to the beauty and aesthetics that surround us daily, especially at our work

Here’s a fictional scenario to illustrate:
Samuel walked toward his new job for the first day. Having just moved to this city and conducted interviews on Zoom, he hadn’t seen the actual offices yet. He pulled into the parking lot to see a gray building that rose over the cement parking lot like a cement cube with a few windows. Inside the entryway, a sterile white dominated the field of vision. When he was finally shown his office, the color patterns felt like a tribute to the late 70s and early 80s, despite this company being a cutting-edge technology company. This first day gave him a dismal shudder, but he immediately attended meetings, got assignments, and immersed himself into his new job. About a year later, these initial dull elements became familiar, and his response to the aesthetics was more apathetic than his first impression. 

I wrote this fictional account because, despite some overstatements, it may resonate with people’s experiences. Many offices lack thoughtful aesthetics, even those that seem nicer than what was described above. But people accept the uninspiring office for at least three reasons. First, most employees, I believe, presume that they cannot make any changes to the overall aesthetics. That’s someone else’s job, or someone else has that authority. Second, there’s an implicit belief that when you come into a new job that the layout, wall colors, and so on cannot change. Third, as illustrated in the vignette above, we quickly become stagnant in terms of aesthetic changes. Think about rooms in your house over which you have control. How often do you make any changes? I imagine, for most people, it is fairly rare.

We tend to think, in my experience, of an all-or-nothing approach. Either a complete renovation or keep everything the same, unless there’s a particular issue, like someone spilling red wine all over the carpet. Waiting for a perfect moment to overhaul the aesthetics of a space is a perfect recipe for doing nothing. Smaller aesthetic changes can take place on a budget and without consuming too much time. As individuals and businesses, we have good reasons to want to improve. But we have to work at it regularly. While we cannot devote every day to adjusting the aesthetics of a space, we shouldn’t neglect it either. 

When people go to an art museum, for instance, they anticipate being engaged in the art and noticing the aesthetic features. But we have compartmentalized our lives and act as though we shouldn’t notice these same kinds of features at our jobs. But aesthetic experience is a core aspect of what it means to be human. Since we spend a great deal of time at our jobs, it shouldn’t be surprising that we ought to consider the aesthetics of our work, which includes product, place, people, and more.  

This issue feels like an aesthetic version of the bystander effect. This effect, a theory from social psychology, states that people are less likely to help someone when there are other people around and watching. While we are each busy with our specific tasks at work, we assume that if something is to be done about the aesthetics, then someone else will do it. Now, we may not consciously think this way, but it is the practical consequence. 

Just like an alarm clock wakes people up and performance art shocks our sensibilities, someone needs to begin the conversation or raise questions about the spaces, procedures, and communications. Aesthetics is not only about appearances, better aesthetics has been linked to efficiency, productivity, work culture, and employee happiness and retention. It is not a matter only for theory, aesthetics bring practical benefits to your work.

About The Author

Michael R. Spicher, PhD, Speaker, Philosopher, Writer

Michael writes and speaks about aesthetics, beauty, taste, and digital fashion, especially how theories connect to different practices. In 2016, he founded the Aesthetics Research Lab, which brings together different sectors engaged with aesthetic questions and solutions. Drawing from his perspective as a philosopher, he speaks to professional and general audiences, including contexts like fashion, business, and architecture. He has written academic articles about aesthetics, but he has turned his attention to more public contexts and is a regular contributor to BeautyMatter, a resource for the beauty industry. He is also the aesthetics area editor for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Based in Boston, he teaches regularly at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Boston Architectural College.

If you would like to learn more about Michael's work, you can read and subscribe to the Aesthetics Research Lab newsletter on Substack.

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