Systemic Pluralism
Leonyd Stolovich and Yelena Celma

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Yelena Celma: – We here are quite unaware of aesthetics in contemporary Russia: what are the latest developments? You seem to be closely connected with Russian aestheticians. What do you think of the process?

Leonyd Stolovich: – We have witnessed a historical cataclysm – disintegration of the Soviet Empire. Hence, what is the situation „the Soviet aesthetics” finds itself in? Is everything outmoded there? Has it preserved something as a heritage for aesthetics in contemporary Russia? What kind of aesthetics is this contemporary one? What kind of methodology we have here? Is it somehow related to other fields of aesthetics in the world?

Of course, while treating these problems and issues I cannot help being subjected to certain limitations because of my personal experience in this field of research, there is also the fact I have been involved in quite specific communication with my colleagues in Russia and elsewhere; and well, my experience has been quite poor in the last decade (I did not participate in the recent international congresses on aesthetics in Slovenia 1998 and Japan 2002, for me it is not possible to follow all the literature being released on the subject, my work is not restricted exclusively to aesthetics etc.). Still I should be happy to share my ideas – it might happen that in chorus with the rest of opinions they would help to create a panoramic view that would more or less match the real situation.

In 1991 the journal Voprosi filosofiji (Philosophical Issues) organized a roundtable discussion A Crisis in Aesthetics? In September (No. 9, 1991) they published the summarized material. My Moscow colleagues asked me for some reaction. I wrote a short paper titled A Crisis in Aesthetics? So There is a Hope for Recovery. But the journal Svobodnaja misļ (Free Thought) published just an extract. I take the liberty to present the paper fully here.

The roundtable discussion organized by VF was titled A Crisis in Aesthetics? This „philosophical question” was answered by participants unanimously, „A crisis it is! And a big one”!

If „a crisis” is understood as a drastic change and transition to be suffered through after that, one should admit the crises were witnessed all along in the shifting history of civilization and culture. For a diseased body a crisis is usually followed either by recovery or death, but in the case of the community the same speaks of something that has outlived its time and withered away, still the life goes on in spite of further possible crises in future. So the crisis in ancient culture gave birth to the philosophy of Stoics and Neoplatonics, to the spiritual rebirth via Christianity. [..]

Thanks God, now we know we have decadence, we have a crisis. This is a good sign, if only the fight against crisis would not turn into yet another blank campaign. For we have got so much accustomed to unceasing war against everything and everybody, and for us fighting has replaced the real life itself.

These „rondtablers” (sorry for the neologism!) were right saying that no culture or aesthetics ever experiences a crisis on a local scale. Back in 1979 aestheticians fervently discussed the same problem in Krakow:
Crisis of Aesthetics? Still, our crisis is surely the very best – as everything else we have. Nobody else has ever had such a real socialism and such a socialistic realism.

But say, were all the Soviet aestheticians united by the belief that socialistic realism was more than socialistic royalism? Were all the aestheticians giving hand to „our steersmen”? Did not a part of them echo Kant and Schiller when praising the importance of freedom in beauty and importance of individuality in art? Was it not aesthetics of the late 50ies where the priority of human values was first promoted in the Soviet space? Was it a secret that Kandinsky and Shagal, Akhmatova and Pasternakh were great artists? Were these questions formal, unnecessary would have been the persistent efforts to wipe out dissidents, all those „revisionists”, „subjectivists”, „abstract humanists”, „aestheticizing individualists” and all kinds of such „–ists” related to aesthetics. We still remember the political and institutional repressions V.F. Asmus met when, at the funeral of Pasternakh, he dared to call him a genius. It is misleading to picture the scene of domestic aesthetics as homogeneous apology of stagnation with only a few lonely figures like M.A. Lifshitz and A.F. Losev sticking out. I can bear witness that Losev himself was of different opinion. Even mirrored in Western Sovietology, aesthetics back in the USSR did not look like the communist bootlicker all along (cf. Edward M. Swiderski. The Philosophical Foundations of Soviet Aesthetics. Theories and Controversies in the Post-War Years. – Dordrecht: Holland/Boston: USA/London: England, 1979; James P. Scanlan. Marxism in the USSR. – Ithaca, London, 1985, p. 295-325 [Philosophy of Art]).

That is why I consider unconditional self-reproach excessive here, especially referred to „our aesthetics” at large, rather than individual lapses. No dissidentism may be reproached. Such a tendency, though now directed to the very opposite, is indicative of a lingering disease possibly leading to another paralysis. We need profound research into a wide variety of human aesthetic activity: in aesthetic awareness of „a real human being in his or her real existence” (A.V. Mikhailov), in „contemporary artistic life” (K.E. Razlogov), in revaluation of values (V.K. Kantor), and in the long history of philosophical aesthetics, especially that of 20th century. And it should be added that quest for methodology in all the diverse fields is of special importance here: something more than just the slogans, „That’s not right!” „Designs and systems!” or „Scholastic conceptions!” etc.

May there be „a brainstorm” typical for developing science and philosophy, may it spur thinking on and help to find the guiding lights in twilight today when „the Ilyich’s lamp” has proved to be a false beacon. The crisis of ideals is more terrifying than that in the power industry. Stanislav Jezhi Letz was right when he said, „A road without signposts is better than a signpost without any road”. Still the road should be chosen as well. All roads lead to Rome, though not all of them lead to a Temple.

Make aesthetics free and it will atone its sins!

It was written in 1991 after the August Putsch and before the USSR collapsed. Aesthetics along with all the other fields of philosophical knowledge was granted the freedom it had been craving for. And in what way the freedom has contributed to its development?

To answer this question, one should take into account that development of aesthetical theory in the USSR and the rest of „the socialistic camp” – Poland, Bulgaria, DDR, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia – was awakening from the dream of totalitarianism, rather than something produced by totalitarian regimes. More than that: it was aesthetics where the aesthetical value of freedom was highlighted along with freedom inherent in beauty, humanistic nature of aesthetical value, its universal human nature, importance of democracy and individual freedom in development of art. Social and political reality was judged by aesthetical criterions and everything thus rejected was subjected to criticism, this although being limited or inconsequent. And among the rejected were various manifestations of totalitarianism and authoritarianism in past and present. Aesthetics born in the middle of 50ies was clearly a phenomenon of 60ies – it was in pace with the humanistic and democratic movement of those later years.

Y. C.: – But why the breakthrough was achieved in aesthetics in the first place?

L. S.: – Partly because aesthetics was in a considerably better situation if compared to other philosophical disciplines. The classics of Marxism and Leninism had not left any fundamental composition on aesthetics, although M.A. Lifshitz’s compiled extracts on art made quite an impressive volume, later even two of them. Yet there was no generally adopted Marxist conception on any of the basic aesthetic issues: the nature of artistic perception, the nature of beauty or aesthetic categories. So it was legally permissible to work on these problems without following any strict communist regulations. To say the truth, CP was not quite happy with that. Significantly, that during the period from the middle of 1930ies to the year 1953 there was not a single book published on aesthetic issues in Soviet Union. Equally significant is the year of break – 1953 when Stalin died. So, all the Soviet aestheticians somehow believed themselves to be guided by the principles of Marxist and Leninist methodology, yet in reality their methodological principles were rather diverse – let us remember the many heated discussions, especially the one on the nature of aesthetic in the late 50ies and then in 60ies.

Y. C.: – Don’t you think today’s aesthetics is not zooming as back in the 60ies? And the public interest seems to be subsided…

L. S.: – Being inevitably restricted in its possibilities, in Soviet time aesthetics was a chance for creative philosophers to have a bit of fresh air. Then, as the bans vanished and aesthetics ceased to be an oasis of freedom in the middle of totalitarian desert, the creative energy streamed away to explore other philosophical and scientific areas – still virgin and, evidently, more significant. I guess this is the explanation why in the last ten years there are much fewer young creative minds coming into aesthetics than it was back in the late 50ies and 60ies. On the other hand, many aestheticians of the older generation are striving to get beyond aesthetics: they turn to cultural studies, axiology and sometimes even to „the pure philosophy”. Still I believe this is beneficial for aesthetics, it is developing rather than shrinks into itself by shutting off all the methodological possibilities provided by other fields of knowledge. Aesthetics is still an academic subject either compulsory or optional, so a systematic account is still necessary here. This demand has been met by textbooks and studies that try to capture the basic problems of aesthetic theory. Aestheticians of the older generation draw from summarizations and more or less seek to revise their own work done back in Soviet time when everything had to be made along the methodological lines of „Marxist and Leninist aesthetics”. So we have Aesthetics as a Philosophical Doctrine by M.S. Kagan (1997), Y. Borev’s Aesthetics in 2 vol. (1997) and the 5th edition of his one-volume Aesthetics(2002), Aestheticsby S.H. Rapoport in 2 vol. (2000; 2003), A.V. Guliga’s Aesthetics Viewed Axiologically (2000), and Y.G. Yakovlev’s Aesthetics(2000). There are textbooks written by then young aestheticians active in 1970ies and 80ies: V.V. Bychkov’s Aesthetics(2000), Aestheticsby O.A. Krivtzun (1998), I.V. Malishev’s Aesthetics: A Course of Lectures (1994), and V.F. Martinov’s Philosophy of Beauty (1999). Among the latest books one stands against the background: it is Y. Rags’ Aesthetics: Bottom and Top – Quantitative Ways of Approximation (1999) – one of the few studies devoted to experimental aesthetics on the basis of music. The list of summarizations presented here may be incomplete; still it gives an idea on the research and systematization going on in aesthetics. During the last decade of the previous century and the beginning of this one quite a work has been done here. This has been largely due to the plenty of philosophical works suddenly available: I mean the heritage of those great Russian thinkers having been forced to live in exile or subjected to repressions during „the proletarian dictatorship”. Also, there has been the opportunity at last to get to know West European and American aesthetics. Russia still has centres for aesthetics gathering both researchers and readers and professors. Department of aesthetics at the Institute of Philosophy of Russian Science Academy is among them. There the top problems are ontology, phenomenology and anthropology of art, aesthetic aspects of Oriental and Western cultures, non-classical aesthetics: studies of 20th century art and aesthetics (avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism), non-traditional methodology of contemporary art studies, and aesthetics of religion. In the Institute for Russian Art History art is mainly studied as a part of culture: Symbol, the Symbolic and Symbolization in Art and Culture. Artistic Language (2001), Methodological Issues of Contemporary Art Studies: Topical Problems of Art Perception (1995), Horizons of Culture (1992), Interpretation in Culture (1999). Theoretical problems of art are investigated in the Institute for Scientific Research of Art Theory and History at the Russian Academy of Arts and also at Moscow University (Department of Aesthetics). Aesthetic issues in connection with literature are treated in Theory Department of World Literature Institute and also in conferences organized by the Independent Academy for Aesthetics and Fine Arts. St. Petersburg University and the community of philosophers there host prolific aestheticians of all generations. This is proved by many conferences and proceedings published in collections: Aesthetics Today: Situation and Prospects (2000) and The Ethic and the Aesthetic: After 40 years (2000). St. Petersburg department of the Russian Academy of Science and Institute of Russian Cultural Studies at the Russian Culture Ministry of Russian Federation together with Philosophical Centre for Cultural Studies Eidos (St. Petersburg Academy of Science) and UNESCO hold international conferences and readings in philosophy and cultural studies on a regular basis, usually they also discuss issues topical in aesthetics (proceedings are published in special collections). Aesthetic research goes on at the Aesthetics Department of Yekaterinburg Urals University. A special section for aesthetics has functioned at the congresses for Russian Philosophy. We still do not have a special journal for aesthetics – probably, the reason is we do not have a nation-wide association for aesthetics efficient enough, though all the long-living and recently emerged journals for philosophy and literature publish materials on the aesthetic subjects. As to the monographs on aesthetics (the same should be said about books on scientific or philosophical problems) – the number of copies printed has become inadequately small compared to what it used to be in Soviet times. I think this is because of the market situation and the reduced number of state-sponsored libraries rather than the reduction in demand for literature on aesthetics. The lamentable print runs are partly compensated by the internet where different sites offer papers and monographs on aesthetics. There is even a site representing 100 authors having published books on this subject ( Along with various research institutions and universities hosting centres for aesthetics, aestheticians as philosophers and researchers of literature and art are united by the studies of heritage left by the thinkers having become a kind of cult figures in Russia: A.F. Losev, G.G. Shpet, M.M. Bakhtin, Y.M. Lotman et al. Seminars, conferences are being held, publications in periodicals and special collections are being devoted to their contribution. Still it should be noted that there are two kinds of the works on outstanding Russian or foreign philosophers. The first ones strive to perform a historical reconstruction of a philosophers beliefs. Authors of the second ones philosophize (in a good or bad sense) on their own – on the subject of Bakhtin or Shpet or somebody else.

Y. C.: – Plenty of books, papers and conferences – still this might do without any deepness in aesthetic thought. What do you think of this „polyphony” of aesthetical ideas?

L. S.: – The main difference between Post-Soviet aesthetics and its previous stage is that the former lacks the formal and efficient framework of philosophical methodology based on the so-called „Marxist and Leninist aesthetics”. Yes, there were also fervent discussions going on in aesthetics back in Soviet times, still they were quite restricted. It was able to dispute about the nature of beauty, but you were never permitted to refer to religion or make any idealistic claims openly. It was able to discuss the chronotopical limits of realistic art, but you were never allowed to question the potent method of „socialistic realism”. Now such bans have long been lifted, though there are plenty of periodicals and publishing houses still devoted to the previous methodology and ideology. Back in Soviet times, too, O.A. Krivtzun in his Aesthetics might easily have declared aesthetics to be a general theory of art, but in that case his book would hardly been recommended as textbook by the Ministry of General and Professional Education. But if V.V. Bychkov would then have proclaimed the aesthetic to be „a dimension of one of the highest disinterested forms of subject-object relations (contemplative or creative: aesthetic) that brings a subject in harmony with Universe and makes him or her experience unconditional and complete existence accompanied by aesthetic pleasure” (cf., it would not have been possible for him either to work at the management of Aesthetics Department at the Institute of Philosophy, or even to be an ordinary employee there.

There are different attitudes to the pluralism of philosophical methodology introduced in post-Soviet area. A.P. Valyickaya in her theses On the New Methodology claims, „Contemporary literature on ethics and aesthetics and our scientific conferences show that we experience an inner crisis of moral and aesthetic knowledge, our approaches and attitudes are dispersed as never before, a methodological pluralism has established itself here and, what’s even more curiously, it seems that nobody wants to discuss things or raise objections or reach an understanding. Besides it seems that everybody is happy with that, for this is a chance at last to speak everything out freely when there is no jeopardy of any serious criticism or censorship restrictions: nobody seems to have time for any disputes or arguments”. (The Ethic and the Aesthetic: After 40 years. Conference of St. Petersburg Philosophical Society, proceedings, 2000). But in her thesis On the Status of Aesthetics it is said, „Aesthetics is fully involved in the whole process: it has lost its normative pathos, it questions usability of the classic categorical apparatus, it suffers from the childish disease of methodological pluralism, it tries to demarcate once again its competence, it tests its possibilities in understanding the human being and human situation, it seeks for some more exits leading to social and cultural practice” (Aesthetics Today: Situation and Prospects. Conference of St. Petersburg Philosophical Society, proceedings, 1999).

So aesthetics along with ethics „suffers from the childish disease of methodological pluralism”. But „the unprecedented dispersion of approaches and attitudes” caused by methodological pluralism that „has established itself here” has brought the chance to speak everything out freely, still results in unwarranted individual claims and deficiency in wish „to discuss things or raise objections or reach an understanding”.

It should be added that, in the course of history, both aesthetics and philosophy have always suffered from this „childish disease of methodological pluralism”. At the same time, discussions have always flourished there along with individual claims based on extended arguments. It is the very chance to speak everything out freely that has always been a warrant for any individual not only to declare his or her own ideas, but also to substantiate them, even when the individual in question is not patronized by an authority or ideological monopoly.

Pluralism has its own ontological basis. „We live in a pluralistic world”, – that is what synergetics says (G. Nikolis, I. Prigozhin. Understanding the Complexity. Moscow, Mir, 1990). „If everybody would pull one way, the world would turn upside down”, the same justification of pluralism is echoed in a Russian saying. Here it is not possible to treat the problem of pluralism in detail and present the whole bulky argumentation as it is found in philosophy and aesthetics. Therefore I take the liberty to refer to some of my papers already published: On „Systemic Pluralism” in Philosophy. Voprosi filosofiji, Moscow, 2000, No. 9) and „Systemic Pluralism in Axiology of Aesthetics. On Methodology of Social and Cultural Conception on Aesthetic Value. Propositions of Culture. Academic Notebooks, Moscow, 2003).

Pluralism is more often denied when understood as eclecticism. Significantly, an observation has been made that „pluralism is a good thing, unless it is all within the same head”. As Naum Korzhavin cleverly put that, „pluralism within the same head is nothing else than schizophrenia”. Such pluralism within the same head is called eclecticism. Of course, eclecticism as a casual and mechanical combination of variform principles is welcome neither in thinking, nor in philosophy and art („eclecticism of styles”). Still, a combination of dissimilar principles may also be other than casual or mechanical. It may also be based on the more essential characteristics the compiled ideas have in common, the conception that these ideas represent different aspects of the same phenomenon, describe different levels of existence or consciousness etc.

Such pluralism may be called systemic pluralism. It might seem that in the concept of systemic pluralism the incompatible has been integrated. For „systemic” calls for certain monism that is contradictory to any pluralism! On the other hand, is every system not a system of diverse elements? Then you should ask if a concept of systemic pluralism is necessary at all? Still, the very elements interconnected systemically and structurally may be different. In one case the elements are homogeneous and constitute a systemic monism like that in Plato’s philosophy or atomism of antiquity. But when elements captured in a system are heterogeneous and at first seem even incompatible, such a system represents systemic pluralism.

Undoubtedly, the expression „systemic pluralism” is self-contradictory. Nevertheless, the contradiction is dialectical. Both the adepts and antagonists of pluralism have admitted it is possible to fuse pluralism and monism dialectically. L.M. Lopatin who his own philosophical stance described as „spiritualistic monism”, in his paper Monism and Pluralism stressed that „uniformity and diversity are interrelated concepts not to be separated in any clear and earnest analysis”, and pointed that „there is always something dialectical or, if you please, irrational in heterogeneity intrinsic to any existence, and the reason is our idea of existence”. Therefore, „pure monism to our rationality is as dead and dumb abstraction as pure pluralism” (L.M. Lopatin. Monism and Pluralism. Voprosi filosofiji i psihologiji, 1913, 116(1)). On the other hand, the advocate of pluralism S. Gessen, in his paper Monism and Pluralism in Conceptual Systematics (1928), pointed to „a dialectical nature of the concept” and noted that „pluralism in conceptual systematics [..] is insufficient and to be complemented with monism” and „in conceptual systematics monism is a necessary reverse side of pluralism”.

Dialectics of systemic pluralism is based on the dialectics of uniformity and diversity, a part and the whole, elements and a system. Systemic pluralism is the synthesis where the problem of antagonism between thesis and antitheses gets cancelled. Systemic pluralism does not deny the existence of universal Truth, but it provides for the possibility to grasp it in different ways. Nothing makes Truth more unreachable than claim to its monopoly, and this is just the claim monism often tries to lay.

In aesthetics, systemic pluralism allows for different approaches to the object of research. These approaches are to a certain level developed in various fields of philosophical and scientific knowledge and should be applied to aesthetic investigation. The approaches mentioned are applicable, for the very object of aesthetic research, namely, aesthetic attitude, is synthetic and „dwells on the crossroads” of all kinds of human attitudes. Being a philosophical discipline, aesthetics applies metaphysical, logical, dialectical, ontological, gnoseological, axiological, existential, phenomenological, and hermeneutical approaches. In the past century, aesthetics by all means benefited from computer science theory, cybernetics, semiotics, structuralism, systemics, psychology, sociology, and culture studies. Today we witness the attempts to introduce synergetics into the field of aesthetics (cf. collection Synergetic Paradigm. Non-linear Thinking in Science and Arts. Moscow, 2002; M.S. Kagan. Aesthetics and Synergetics / Aesthetics Today: Situation and Prospects, St. Petersburg, 1999). The works have emerged where authors make attempts to have a look at aesthetical problems from the point of view of natural science and mathematics: V.P. Efroimson. Genetics of Ethics and Aesthetics. St. Petersburg, 1995 and Beauty and Brain. Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Moscow, 1995; L. Perlowsky. Beauty and Mathematical Intelligence. Zvezda, 2000, No. 9). After the long-lasting ban in Russia as elsewhere the creative activity is investigated from the point of view of different varieties of psychoanalysis.

This certainly does not mean that an aesthetician in his or her theory should put to use all the approaches listed above. It is possible to work within just one. But, in any case, the methodology of systemic pluralism provide for recognition of different complementary approaches. Of course, the monistic universalization of a single approach may trigger a purely scientific interest, but no single approach is to be claimed as unconditionally significant so as to prevail over all the rest of various approaches.

The monopoly of global methodology for aesthetics having been crashed down, the interest for metaphysical problems of aesthetics theory and philosophy has grown notably. The Laboratory of Metaphysical Research at St. Petersburg University’s Philosophical Department in three years (1997 – 2000) has released 15 issues of almanac Metaphysical Studies. Several of them have been devoted to culture (IV,V), art (XIII, XV), and metaphysics of laughter (9 1/2 ). Nevertheless, pluralism in aesthetics has been most visible in the variform metaphysical stances of different researchers. There is a wide range of metaphysical paradigms – from philosophy of religion and different versions of idealism (now the affinity for phenomenology or Heidegger, neo-positivism or poststructuralism etc. is not to be dressed in the formal „criticism”) to Marxism both in its dogmatic and non-dogmatic manifestations.

The concept of systemic pluralism allows for more specific definitions of any set of philosophical and aesthetic ideas, both the past and present ones and even in the case it cannot be brought to a certain philosophical school or monistic source. There might be plenty of thinkers who would happily agree with A.F. Losev having said: „What do I do, if I feel neither idealist, nor materialist, neither Plato’s, nor Kant’s nor Husserl’s adept, neither rationalist, nor mystic, neither pure dialectician, nor metaphysicist, and what’s more – all such denominations I often find naive? If some label or signboard is of necessity, I am sorry I can say only this much – it’s me, Losev! The rest will inevitably be farfetched, simplified and distorted, though it will be quite easy to trace the features here characteristic to a plenty of philosophical systems fervently absorbed and processed by a young and receptive brain some time ago” (A.F. Losev. Form-Style-Expression. Moscow, 1995).

The terms „materialism” and „idealism” are not to be applied in evaluative aspect, and philosophy has just as much right to freedom of conscience as religion has. The question of how matter is related to consciousness or spirit is related to nature being treated materialistically or idealistically, the answer will be non-verifiable in both cases – just like axioms in geometry. (This is the conclusion I have tried to argue for on the bases of history of philosophy in my paper On „Systemic Pluralism” in Philosophy.) The qualitative value of any specific philosophical or aesthetic system is determined not only by the methodological „axioms” it is based on, but rather – how does it demonstrate its „theorems” on the basis of advanced philosophical and aesthetic reasoning.

Y. C.: – Your idea of systemic pluralism sounds very interesting. Still, I should say, it is valid only in case we admit a universal Truth to be existent. I doubt the post-modern situation would allow for that. I think the subject deserves still another discussion. For now, please tell a bit of the relations between Russian aesthetics and international organizations of aesthetics!

L. S.: – The conversation we engaged upon turned to the situation of aesthetics in post-Soviet Russian area. The immense subject of contemporary West-European and American aesthetics, as well as theories of aesthetics generated in Oriental and Southern countries has left untouched. For now, I just would like to stress that due to new social and historical developments, the gap is ever narrowing between aesthetics in our historical homeland and other regions in the world. Only in 1960 the Soviet Union could send a small and rather incompetent delegation to the International Congress of Aesthetics in Athens. After that the delegations grew larger, yet a few of the most outstanding Soviet aestheticians had a chance to participate there, but those who wormed their way in, having overcome the great many obstacles, had to keep to severe ideological and formal regulations that made Western colleagues wander at that and commiserate with us (for instance, Soviet delegates were not allowed to make their home address known in public, and in the congress reference materials all the Soviet Union delegates had the same address: Moscow, Volkhonka 14, Institute of Philosophy, Academy of Science, the USSR). Today such humiliation is back in the past, although the trips to the International Congresses of Aesthetics are quite expensive and too often unavailable for the former Soviet citizens.

In my opinion, the participation of the former Soviet area aestheticians into developing global aesthetics, international and so many national associations for aesthetics (the periodical International Association for Aesthetics. Newsletter gives an idea of their activities) contributes to natural expansion and development of aesthetic ideas everywhere in the world, in present and future.

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