Aesthetics of Escape During a Pandemic

 

Edited by Oishiki Ganguly 

The Covid-19 pandemic has both seen and created a rise in the popularity of aesthetics of escape. The most commonly seen one of these is, of course, cottagecore — an aesthetic built around the idea of living in a cottage in the countryside. Escape, itself, has become an aesthetic sensibility, complete with character studies, Tumblr pages, playlists that make you feel like you are leaving behind a life you have lived and everyone who you have ever known, and books where characters do just that. 

Part of the reason behind the popularity of such aesthetics is obvious. Those of us who are not required to leave our houses are shut inside and we — even the most introverted among us — would very much like to be outside. However, there is more to it than that. Aesthetics that romanticise seemingly simpler times have been steadily gaining in popularity over the last few years. They have witnessed an unprecedented rise during these unprecedented times (clearly, nothing can be predicted, including the sudden influx of Instagram pages selling imitation vintage tweed coats). What is it about romanticism that is so appealing to teenagers and young adults in the 21st century? 

There is a sense of disillusionment that has been steadily rising. The current generation has come to realise that we cannot depend on governments and systems because they are corrupt and disappointing. We do not share the optimism of earlier generations born directly after independence and the Second World War, or Emergency, or any other major historical event that leads to people settling for what they are given in the aftermath because “at least things are not as bad as they used to be.” However, there is also little hope of protest and mobilisation when everyone is forced to remain isolated inside their homes (though, this has, of course, eased in the past few months). 

So this need to escape is not just about wishing we were outside or in a different place, but in a different time entirely. The myth of the single hero and that of the exceptional individual, somehow able to do things that others are not, perpetuates. People want to feel as though they matter. They want to see themselves and their own lives reflected in the books and movies that they consume. No one writes a book about an ordinary person, so people believe themselves to be exceptional. If they follow an aesthetic carefully enough, if they live exactly like their favourite characters, then perhaps they can pretend the book is about them after all. But they also need to escape. And heroes don’t run away. So escape, briefly. Dream about a cottage on the edge of a lake where you can bake bread and be removed from civilization and its capitalistic sensibilities even though you know that you will never live such a life, even if you could. Think about packing a bag and driving away, hitchhiking out of the State, getting on a plane and flying halfway around the world and never seeing your family or friends again even though this is not a lifestyle choice you could ever make or survive making. We dream about all the escapes we cannot make, turn it into a lifestyle, a hobby, an aesthetic because what else can we really do?

So cottagecore comes to stand in for sun-soaked days that could be spent in an actual cottage. We dream about escapes we want to make but know that we never can. An aesthetic fills in all the sheer wanting and needing that they are meant to symbolise.

I am certain that people actually living a cottagecore lifestyle, people in small farms in western Europe or America (did I mention how whitewashed the idea of cottagecore is?) do not romanticise their lives in the ways we are doing. There is sheer convenience in being able to get your milk from a bottle and ingredients from a store. There is nothing simple about the ‘rustic’ nature of having to grow everything and make everything for yourself. A less talked about but equally important part of these aesthetics of escape to different times and places is a romanticisation of poverty — a belief that somehow the pressures of modern capitalist society are more difficult than living as a peasant in a cottage in the countryside. This is obviously not true. It is based on a belief that is rooted in a deeply individualistic and exceptionalist society that is so divided, it is starting to become impossible for people to identify difficulties in anyone’s life but their own.

Escape is more important than ever right now. It is necessary to be able to conceive of a different life in an increasingly difficult and polarised world. But escape is also political. Who can dream of escape and who does not have the ability to? When we invest so much meaning in aesthetics built around the concept of simplicity but are, in reality, extremely expensive, then what does it mean to be able to even embody an aesthetic? Escape may be crucial but it is also important to be critical of what we think of as escape and how the popularisation of aesthetic models make the very idea of escape inaccessible to the large majority of people.