THERE is hardly a field less absolute, or more open to the claims of a relativistic age, than aesthetics. We readily defend standards of right and wrong, but ``beauty'' has been in the eye of the beholder since the ancients.
Scholar Anne Sheppard writes, ``The aesthetic attitude ... is not moral, economic, practical.'' But this pure aesthetic attitude, as it might be exercised by a critic in front of a canvas, is rare. For the rest of us, aesthetic judgment - our daily responses to the sounds and images around us - acts in concert with, and influences, our value system. Design, art, and aesthetic order deserve their day in the moral spotlight. The degradation of our visual and aural landscape - aesthetic pollution - points to powerful moral questions that are all the harder to settle because in our society they often are bound up with rights of free expression or free enterprise.
Broadly, aesthetic pollution includes: the popularization of sensualistic values and images on newsstands and the airwaves; graffiti and vandalism; the numbing noise of hate and violence in the streets, schools, and arcades; the explosion of digital media and its new dangers of deception; and the squeeze that recession and reactionary caution have put on the legitimate arts and arts education. Together these promote the clutter and disorder of individual lives. If, as this series has stated, such trends hint at the loss of our moral anchor, then developing a higher ``aesthetic attitude'' may offer a solution.
* The popularization of sensualistic values and images. This is no longer seedy stuff in a plain brown wrapper; its slick packaging and imprimatur of wealth and success are confusing to youth. Some TV shows rightly present contemporary moral dilemmas in an entertaining context. But even the best of these have a difficult time rising above the fray, which is in part responsible for the dilemmas in the first place.
* Graffiti and vandalism. Much of this is the assertion of identity ``in a city that belongs to no one,'' according to urbanologist Richard Sennett. Much has been said and little done for humane city design, the easing of glass-walled barriers that would connect inhabitants with the concrete organism of their city and with each other. Better design of public spaces encourages the kind of mutual recognition between classes and races - rich and poor, black and white - that reduces isolation and reinforces a shared sense of stewardship. Such zones exist in every city where spray paint is replaced by lively community interaction.
* Violence. The marketing of fictional violent images in cartoons, video games, and shoot-'em-up dramas is now mixed with real violent imagery, such as street-beat cop shows or news segments with citizen videos, such as the Rodney King beating. This is a national fascination on a par with pornography - indeed, they have in common the cheapening of life and an appeal to instant, if voyeuristic, gratification.
What is not often noted amid the novelty of ``real-life'' videos, is that their images remain just imagery, which, when aired, simply broadcasts fear. Recent surveys show that far fewer Americans actually experience violence or violent crime than their fears would lead one to expect. Who is responsible for the images we portray? The media need to better address these moral questions.
* Digital-media explosion. Base appetites are one thing; trickery is another. Manipulated images typified by the covers of Spy magazine are reasonably obvious. But their technical bravado suggests that we should doubt every image we see and every sound we hear. Companies have sprung up that offer to edit Uncle Joe out of your wedding pictures. Even while computer experience becomes ``virtually real,'' reality becomes merely virtual.
One safeguard is an open society with multiple sources of information that can be cross-checked. Another is education: Children must discern truth better; they must know what is plausible and when they are being taken for their wallets.
* Recession in the arts. Arts organizations - opera companies, dance troupes, museums - have been through rough times along with the rest of the US. Yet these groups, with their educational and community activities, crucially strengthen the moral life of the country by nurturing a richer, more constructive aesthetic landscape. Early indications are that Jane Alexander may successfully depoliticize the National Endowment for the Arts in her post as its new chairwoman. The rhetoric over public funding of what some called obscenity has cooled, but enmity toward any public funding for the arts persists.
Further erosion of the cultural and artistic life of the nation would be most hurtful. The broadest possible base of quality art, music, and literature education, appreciation, and creation in schools and families will reinforce the skills that coming generations will need to govern their aesthetic landscape.