Three pincushion cacti lived with me in New York, and in an effort to maintain the vibe, I’ve got a couple of new ones here. The cactus on the dining room table is sort of endearing, if that’s possible. However, I don’t want to test it by reaching out to touch it. The one on my work desk is different. It looks like a lot of tiny green fluted pincushions grafted together. This is a different aesthetic, which brings me to an online chat I’ve been having recently on whether aesthetics can fail. Is this cactus a failure? I don’t think so, because I maintain that aesthetics as a branch of philosophy or a set of principles, according to which a prickly artist or a pincushion cactus might operate, exists a priori and cannot be altered. Can an artist deliberately fail in his/her attempts at aesthetic renderings? Again, I don’t think so. The ontology behind the impulse to fail ensures that failing to succeed is to have succeeded.
There is a related issue, which is whether one can deliberately make something ugly. This requires a narrow definition of aesthetics as beautiful or pleasing, and in this case the answer is yes, one can make something that most people would agree is ugly (failed). Roses are thought to be more pleasing than cactus, a Vermeer painting more pleasing than a Manzoni can of crap. Personally, I like both roses and cactus, and expanded definitions.