Friday, April 16, 2010

On Aesthetic Trends

Why do we think some pieces are supremely ugly? Will we love the way our objects look forever? Mr. de Botton brings us a certain antique shop in London, a place "where objects make a last attempt to tempt the partially sighted before they are carted off to erode in a landfill." He describes an object there, which he labels "an extremely grievous-looking item, a sideboard with bulbous wings, two bay windows, Corinthian columns and a gilt-edged mirror. Though the piece's drawers still work and the finish remains miraculously unspoilt, its price is closer to that of firewood than of furniture." It is hideous. He continues, "And yet how loved this sideboard must once have been. A maid might have run her duster over it ever few days in an ample house in Richmond or Wimbledon. For a generation, it would have proudly displayed Christmas pudding, champagne glasses..." And yet nobody will buy it. He goes on, "Finding things beautiful naturally invites us to imagine that we will remain loyal to our feelings. But the histories of design and architecture offer little reassurance as to the fidelity of our tastes. The fate of this sideboard imitates that of numberless mansions, concert halls and chairs. Our impressions of beauty continually swing between stylistic polarities: between the restrained and the exuberant; the rustic and the urban; the feminine and the masculine- leading us ruthlessly to abandon objects to expire in junk shops at every swerve."
Why? He cites early 20th century German art historian Worringer, who categorizes art into two basic types: abstract and realistic, "either one of which might, at any given time in a particular society, be favoured over the other... the determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Therefore, we can understand the fascination with gilded walls its flowery ornaments in the 17th century when we see the context: "one where violence and disease were constant threats, even for the wealthy." Just because we reject that style today in favor of "walls unplastered and bare, doesn't mean we are "any less deficient." Modern life, especially in America, "has become rule-bound and materially abundant, punctilious and routine," and so we design buildings that move towards "the natural and unfussy, the rough and authentic." He summarizes, "That we need art in the first place is a sign that we stand in almost permanent danger of imbalance, of failing to regulate out extremes, of losing our grip on the golden mean between life's great opposites: boredom and excitement, reason and imagination, simplicity and complexity, safety and danger, austerity and luxury. (153-157)"
How true! I think that I missed out on taking Art Theory/History in school, if this is what they talk about there. How particularly germane to the latest Americana/work fashion movement, characterized by the explosion in popularity of classic mens retailers (J. Crew, L.L. Bean), hunting/fishing gear (Filson, Duluth Pack), handmade leather goods (Billykirk), work boots (Red Wing), etc. You can see it all and more glorified in Michael Williams' blog. Modern life has become too technologically advanced and made us largely immobile, we sit in front of glowing screens all day and then sit in our cars to go home and sit in front of another screen. (Of course there are exceptions; B loves the state of technology and work and happily spends most of his life indoors.)
I've always had an inclination towards hardy, practical clothing and equipment, because of the fact that I grew up in a mundane, suburban environment where I would never need to use such things. So it makes them seem romantic. This is precisely why I go hiking and camping. Not because I am intrinsically drawn towards stumbling over rocky paths, reeking like smoke, being terrorized by insects, and using inconvenient cooking methods. But by willingly engaging in these uncomfortable activities, I feel different and somehow more alive. Some might say I feel a "connection with the nature," which is exactly what much of our society has lost. But really, only the rich and privileged have the luxury of assuaging their anxieties through accumulation of goods that match the lifestyle they lack.
de Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage International, Random House, Inc., 2006

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