The CRAC Manifesto

by The Coälition to Raise Æsthetic Consciousness

It is likely that the very first artifacts of human invention were created in the absence of an æsthetic sensibility. Their design knew no constraints save the fulfillment of a very specific function: kill an animal, start a fire, keep out the wind and rain. Our ability to create such a wide variety of implements - each designed to aid in some specific task - is what accounts for our evolutionary success, and we can imagine that it must have been precisely this enormous functional advantage that originally drew our ancestors to the practice of invention. But we can also imagine that these first inventors were almost at once dissatisfied with the purely practical nature of their creations. We can imagine, for instance, that the first makers of earthen pots and jugs were immediately seized by the idea of carving designs into the vessels before they were fired. Or that the first makers of clothing were drawn, almost intuitively, to decorate their garments with beads and stitchery. We can imagine also that everyone, not just the inventors themselves, immediately recognized the superior value of a beautifully decorated water jug as opposed to an undecorated one.

But what is it that makes the well decorated vessel better than the undecorated one? Clearly its value does not lie in its capacity to perform the function for which it was originally designed: it is not a better water carrier in virtue of its being decorated. Rather, its value lies in its ability to simultaneously perform two functions: in addition to carrying water, it also performs the function of eliciting a positive æsthetic response - it performs the function of being beautiful.

This last statement deserves clarification. We are often led to think that form and function are distinct attributes of a thing - that “form follows function,” or that a thing can do its job without looking good. And, of course, there is a sense in which this is true. A Volvo will certainly get you around town despite its bad looks; so in this sense it performs its “function” without looking good. But to leave it at that is to suggest that looking good - having good form - is not an important function of a thing. We have already said that human beings were drawn to the practice of invention in order to better fulfill their various needs, and once we recognize that among these needs is the need for positive æsthetic experience, we see that there is a sense in which the Volvo is less functional than, say, a Porsche. It is less functional inasmuch as it fails to perform the function of providing us with a positive æsthetic experience. In other words, form doesn't just follow function, form is a function.

But is it really a necessary function? Do human beings really have a need for positive æsthetic experience? The answer to this question depends on what we mean by “human being.” Certainly the human being qua biological organism requires little more than food, water and appropriate protection from the elements to survive. But to be human in a more important sense requires much more than this: to be fully human is to be part of a complex web of social interactions and relationships, to experience a wide spectrum of emotions, and to think self-consciously about ourselves and the world around us. And to be human is to experience the æsthetic quality of the world: to recognize some things as beautiful and others as ugly, to be pleased by certain combinations of shape and color, or certain sounds, and repulsed by others. Indeed, this capacity for æsthetic experience, perhaps more than any other, singles us out as unique among the inhabitants of this planet: almost all non-human animals exhibit some degree of social interaction, many appear to have rich emotional lives, and a few may even possess a kind of self-awareness - but nowhere will we find a dolphin or a dog or a chimpanzee that is moved by Van Gogh and bored by Picasso.

It is not enough, of course, to merely possess the capacity for æsthetic experience. Just as one might possess the capacity for positive social interaction without ever engaging in such interaction, so might one possess the capacity for positive æsthetic experience without ever having such experience. It is not the capacity for social interaction or æsthetic experience that makes us human, but rather the fulfillment of such capacities. We understand this readily enough in the case of social interaction: a life without meaningful human contact is hardly a fully human life. This is perhaps less obvious, to some, in the case of æsthetic experience. But we need only imagine a world devoid of such experience in order to understand the profound rôle it plays in our humanity. Indeed, such worlds already exist: inside our prisons and mental institutions, where form has been forsaken for some other function, or where its absence is part of a conscious effort to undermine or deny the humanity of those who inhabit these worlds. These are worlds in which none of us would choose to live, and not merely because their inhabitants are confined. The horror of the prison and the hospital is the product of a distinct æsthetic, or more precisely: it is the product of the absence of any æsthetic whatsoever - an anti-æsthetic.

But this anti-æsthetic is not confined to our prisons and hospitals. We find it wherever makers of physical objects have forgotten the æsthetic function of the things they make. We find it in the sprawling housing projects of our urban centers, in the 1960's cement-block architecture of our college campuses, in the endless tracts of identical, vinyl-sided suburban homes, and in the windowless, aluminum pole-barns that have sprung up to provide cheap real-estate for retail stores. Every year, every day, every minute, the anti-æsthetic infects a new portion of our world. And when the anti-æsthetic has finally taken over - when we have at last completely forgotten what our earliest ancestors knew about the importance of beauty - then our whole world will be as a prison, and we will live like prisoners, deprived of our humanity.

The Director
June, 1997
Nicholson, Georgia

“When the anti-æsthetic has finally taken over - when we have at last completely forgotten what our earliest ancestors knew about the importance of beauty - then our whole world will be as a prison, and we will live like prisoners, deprived of our humanity.”

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On This Day in SniggleryJuly 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Sure he does. (See our Cryptozoölgy page for lunar speculations)