Three Installations

What role does aesthetics play in drawing our attention to suffering? It’s an old question. The desire for beauty and order is irrepressible. Some–from Plato to Elaine Scarry–have seen it as benign, moving us toward a desire for good. But beauty and symmetry settle uneasily over a site of pain. The aesthetic imagination evokes the unseen in relation to the seen, indicates the possibility of an amenable reality even where one finds only an ominous reality. If beauty persuades, what does it persuade us towards? Justice, sometimes. We associate justice with good order. Yet order can also remove us from the chaos of the real, solace us where we ought to feel panic or rage. We grant aesthetics a role when we see it in a gallery, when we call its work “art.” But what about other contexts? What is the role of aesthetic display in a history museum, for instance, or a religious setting? Is the mind itself an installation space where we order and connect experiences? I had reason to ponder these enigmas a few years ago on a trip to Poland, where three unrelated exhibitions brought Wallace Stevens to mind.