The ‘academic aesthetic’: a means of facilitating intellectual accessibility, or a glamourisation of racism and elitism?


Gone are the days when the ‘academic aesthetic’ belonged to a niche bubble of humanities nerds on the internet. With roughly 950,000 posts attributed to the hashtag ‘#darkacademia’ on Instagram, it is clear that this aesthetic has quickly become mainstream. 

The ‘academic aesthetic’ consists of several subcultures, with ‘dark’ and ‘light’ academia being the most prevalent. The former, revolving mainly around the gothic, takes an interest in the chaotic and impermanent nature of life while glamourising the concept of doom. It tends to grow in popularity during the winter months due to its affinity for indoor study and deeper colour palettes. The latter – its more light-hearted antithesis – thrives on positivity and optimism, fostering an appreciation of self-care and the feelings of fulfilment one can gain from academia. Taking its place as the summer aesthetic, it embraces a lighter colour palette of beiges, pastels and whites. 

While it is encouraging to see enthusiasm for academia on social media in spite of its more widespread reputation as a distraction from study, we have to question to what extent this enthusiasm is rooted in superficiality. To what extent is this trend just a commodification of ebony bookcases filled with centuries-old volumes, renaissance architecture and argyle knitwear with little beneath the surface? 

I can see how the ‘academic aesthetic’ can potentially have incredible inspirational power. By romanticising study online we make it appealing and exciting, and we begin to deconstruct the reputation it has for dullness. Further, I agree that there is inherent beauty in learning and sharing knowledge, and the aesthetic has definitely contributed to this. 

“There is inherent beauty in learning and sharing knowledge, and the aesthetic has definitely contributed to this.”

There are, however, issues with this romanticised aesthetic in that – like most things on social media – it appears unattainable for many. While arguably a motivator for some, a disproportionate focus on A-list academic institutions and at times on elitist subjects such as Classics and Philosophy can be an indication of academic failure for others. 

The ‘academic aesthetic’ has also been criticised for the narrowness of its Eurocentric scope, romanticising Western literature and history while shutting out the intellectual accomplishments of other equally rich cultures. The toxic aspect to this aesthetic is further exposed by those that point out its capacity to romanticise racist ideals such as colonialism via the idolisation of the British upper class who were traditionally the ones with sole access to prestigious academic institutions. 

Additionally, the aesthetic’s tendency to champion relentless study via a glamourisation of sleep deprivation, addiction and obsession (especially within the ‘dark academia’ subculture) leads to a promotion of unrealistic expectations. The idea that such methods of self-torture are beautiful and a legitimate means to success is unsafe, both physically and psychologically. 

The dangers of internalising the unhealthy habits of the fictional and historical characters that the aesthetic so venerates have become clearer than ever during the pandemic, when academic responsibility has been taken out of the classroom and forced into the more stagnant, tightly confined bedrooms of students. 

The ‘academic aesthetic’, if followed with an awareness of its shortcomings, can add to our appreciation of academia outside standard curriculums. It has the potential to foster interest, curiosity and passion in those that choose to engage with it. 

But just as any other internet aesthetic, we must not be so quick to internalise it in its entirety, as Eli Mushumanski points out in her article ‘A Critique of Dark Academia: The Romanticization of Overwork’, where she identifies the danger of aesthetics being “mistaken for a lifestyle.” 

It would be too brash and too simplistic to argue that anything on the internet that encourages an interest in reading and studying is good. While the ‘academic aesthetic’ has its benefits, in order to truly do a service to the intellectual community, it must broaden its horizons and encourage people to notice the beauty in all forms of literature and cultural history. 

Perhaps a greater emphasis on the beauty of the subjective individual mind, as opposed to the objective things with which we should supposedly surround ourselves, would also combat elitist undertones and genuinely make traditional academia more accessible to those who take interest in it. 

Image credit: Viola Kovács via Unsplash.

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