Written by Aseel Sahib
Graphic by Navita Wijeratne
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
CW: Discussions of colonial mentality.
“This mug is my aesthetic,” she cries, and all those around her nod in agreement and understanding. Originally, Aestheticism was a philosophical and literary movement focused on emphasising beauty over socio-political themes in art. However, over time the word has come to no longer represent an ideal, but a description of a tangible object. As we have shifted to a more image-based society (think Instagram, TikTok, and Netflix), the word ‘aesthetic’has entered our urban dictionary to describe something pleasing to the eye. We have all used the word to describe our dream bedrooms, fashion, or choice of film – but has it really been reduced to an adjective, or do aesthetics still represent something more?
Every individual has their own aesthetic, and this dictates the aura or environment that they try to cultivate around themselves. Yet, there seems to be a ‘mini-aesthetics’ movement developing and taking social media by storm. Think Cottagecore Aesthetic. It is a romanticised interpretation of the agriculture lifestyle. Sure, if you search ‘Cottagecore’ on Instagram or TikTok, you will see pressed flowers in books, linen dresses, and baking treats, but it’s more than that. The Cottagecore Aesthetic centres on the idea of a simpler life, in harmony with nature. The related themes of this aesthetic are the survival of the environment, growing food, and caring for people. Devout followers of Cottagecore might post about these adherences to the aesthetic – growing some vegetables, thrifting, or practicing small acts of kindness – on social media to demonstrate their commitment to this lifestyle. These aesthetic movements are more than just changing your fashion style, make-up, and/or editing style: an individual who subscribes to it may change their recreational activities, attitudes, and values.
Another niche aesthetic that has recently been gaining momentum, especially within the Bookstagram community (the book world of Instagram), is Dark Academia. This aesthetic romanticises academia; particularly the studies of history, classic studies, classical music, art history, and literature – especially 18th and 19th century British literature. The movement focuses on gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge, sometimes to a degree of suffering; for example, drinking copious amounts of coffee to help pull an all-nighter to write an essay in Latin. For fashion, think ‘40s Oxford professor vibes: tweed, plaid blazers, oxford shirt and shoes. Typical recreational activities include wandering around museums, drawing in art galleries, and furiously writing notes in a cafe. Dark Academia may seem to be a harmless aesthetic, inspiring individuals to fall in love with learning, but like many other aesthetics, Dark Academia lacks representation and is inherently Eurocentric.
Aesthetics are another cultural medium which reflects the social norms of society; particularly social norms regarding what is beautiful, or what is pleasing to the eye. The lack of representation in Dark Academia reflects the cultural narrative that has been prioritising and valuing whiteness and the West for centuries. Whether it is films such as Dead Poets Society or novels such as The Secret History, Dark Academia only portrays white, beautiful individuals in an aesthetically pleasing manner. As a result, many individuals feel like the space is not for them and therefore do not join these ‘mini-aesthetic’ movements, which maintains the cycle of whiteness being synonymous with beauty. Other ramifications of this are that individuals are attempting to whiten their skin in order to properly ‘fit in’. In the Asia-Pacific region, the skin whitening industry was worth 4.8 billion US dollars in 2017, and is projected to grow to $8.9 billion by 2027. Aesthetics are the most recent medium that aids the internalisation of white skin being the epitome of beauty.
Dark Academia also romanticises history, art, and literature. As such it, too, perpetuates the increasingly high value placed upon Eurocentric studies and continues to preserve colonial mentality in the 21st century by reinforcing the idea that BIPOC history, art, and literature is inferior. This is achieved by elevating certain studies as elite or pretentious, and romanticising the study of them. These studies are always centred on Europe – you will rarely hear about Dark Academics who study Classics with a focus on Mesopotamia or the Shang dynasty. Dead Poets Society, for instance, aims to demonstrate the importance of the arts and literature for the soul – but the literature that Mr Keating (Robin Williams’ character) discusses and romanticises are all by European and white American authors. Similarly, The Secret History starts off with the main character Richard hoping to be admitted into an exclusive Classics class, which leads to his acceptance into an exclusive ‘club’ of sorts with his classmates, where they drink scotch and debate the correct verb conjugation for their Latin essay. Both of these titles are the bibles of Dark Academia, with many followers of the aesthetic drawing inspiration from them – yet they are made up of only Eurocentric studies. Even outside the realm of fictional schools/universities, it would be difficult to find the intersection between Dark Academia and BIPOC history, art, and literature; particularly since many real-world universities do not even offer these classes. At the Australian National University (ANU) alone, you cannot specialise in African studies. ANU is an internationally recognised university, in a ‘multicultural’ country, and yet their Bachelor of Classical Studies only focuses on Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Aesthetics should challenge traditional ideas, and yet Dark Academia merely continues to reflect the devaluation of study centred on BIPOC.
Even the Dark Academia activity of visiting art galleries and museums – particularly aesthetically pleasing ones in Europe – is problematic. Thousands of stolen artifacts and art pieces from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are currently sitting in Europe. In Belgium alone, 180,000 African artifacts are at the Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale – yes you read correctly, Belgium has a history museum dedicated to Central African countries, and yes Belgium colonised the Democratic Republic of Congo, a central African country. This isn’t ‘old history’, either. During the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, 15,000 objects were taken from the National Museum of Iraq, and 8,000 remain missing. The act of stealing and keeping these objects in Europe maintains cultural imperialism. By removing and keeping these historic and artistic objects, European countries are maintaining their cultural dominance through the eliminationof other cultures. Now individuals have to travel to see and experience their own culture in another country’s museum or gallery.
The Eurocentrism and lack of representation in Dark Academia demonstrates that there is always more than what meets the eye, even with images that are ‘just’ aesthetically pleasing. The increased popularity and use of Instagram and TikTok means that these ideas will continue to be consumed and internalised unless the problem is recognised and rectified. Recently, there has been some discourse in the Dark Academia community about how only white history and literature are consumed in an aesthetic manner. Some members are attempting to bring about change in the community by broadening their reading tastes to include classics by BIPOC authors, and encouraging their followers to do the same. Furthermore, a number of individuals who identify as BIPOC have decided to take matters into their own hands by joining the Dark Academia community and altering the aesthetic’s narrative to include their beautiful faces as well.
Here are some folks on Instagram that everyone into history, art, literature, and aesthetically pleasing photos should follow:
- @trisha.barua: Trisha is a 23-year-old from a multitude of places in India, who strives to create a space filled with muted colours, old books and texts, and coffee. She has a simple but classic style of photography and loves showing off her writing.
- @shaniya.jpg: Not only does Shaniya use her platform to support the Black Lives Matter movement, she also calls out aesthetic niches for their lack of representation. Shaniya is not afraid to start the awkward conversation, but also preaches celebrating Black joy, life, success, laughter, love, and culture.
- @didi.aphra: Didi is a nineteen-year-old from Taiwan who stumbled upon Dark Academia last year and fell in love with it. She loves late night internet deep dives into esoteric topics, such as Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and facts about outer space. Didi shares her own pieces of writing and paintings that inspire her.
- @novelallure: Monique shares both aesthetically pleasing photos of herself and recommends a range of work by Black authors. Whether you are interested in playwrights, inventors, or classics, Monique has your back.
- @aloverofword.s: Ilhaam is a South African-born, Canadian-living hijabi Bookstagrammer who combines her love for romance books with the Dark Academia aesthetic. She pushes the boundaries of what is classified as high literature and reads what brings her joy, all the while wearing blazers and beige sweaters.
Throughout history all forms of culture, from novels to film, have pushed an ideology of white and European superiority – aesthetics are just the latest medium. But enough is enough. With the creation of labels such as BIPOC to celebrate ourselves in relation to ourselves, and not how ‘non-white’ we are, what it means to be aesthetic is changing. People are no longer willing to feel that their history or literature is inferior to the British. No longer will people stand for the French keeping their cultural pieces, or having to sit on the sidelines of Dark Academia because they are not white. BIPOC are speaking up and taking back control of their narrative. This generation will no longer sit quietly and accept ‘traditional’ ideas of beauty and culture. We are here to be proud of our culture, history, art, literature, and more importantly, ourselves.