A Pretty Business

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness
By Virginia Postrel, HarperCollins, 237 pages, $24.95

Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style joins David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise in a new kind of conservative cultural criticism. The recipe is simple: Charmingly describe a new cluster of minor phenomena in American life, defend tastes that other critics might disapprove of and present yourself as the people's champion. It's a takeover of the style of famous popular critics of the 1950s and '60s, such as Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers) and William H. Whyte (The Organization Man). Those writers performed pop sociology from a progressive standpoint, upholding the rights of citizens and consumers and questioning commercial practices. The new cultural critics celebrate consumption and the free market as the truest ways to establish democratic self-expression.

Postrel, a libertarian, is an economics columnist at The New York Times and the former editor of Reason magazine. Her new book explores the implications of the explosion of options for design and decoration, arguing that market efficiency has enhanced the opportunities for beauty and personal expression. She's definitely on to something. Consumers, she notes, can choose among 1,500 different makes of drawer pulls at home-decorating emporiums such as The Great Indoors, scores of interior-design magazines at the checkout line, and a variety of stylized environments for shopping or dining. She's right to defend the decorative impulse and to remind us of aesthetic experiences in the colors, textures, sounds and sensuous details of consumer life.

What Postrel ultimately wants, however, is a philosophical shift. As she sees it, we should not only let go of puritanical critiques of mass consumption but also embrace commercial aesthetics and the marketplace as the best means of self-realization. She doesn't see the profusion of consumer styles merely as an expanded palette of preferences; aesthetic commerce, she writes, furnishes "genuine expressions of inner truth."

Her economic argument traces a narrow slice of production changes well described by many commentators in recent years. Focusing on cheap, plentiful ornaments, Postrel suggests how new technologies and labor markets transformed consumer access to beautiful things in the last decades of the 20th century. Globalized markets furnished low-wage labor to sew piles of delightful clothes. Inexpensive marble and stone came from China and India to do up middle-class American bathrooms. Wal-Mart's "hyperefficient management techniques" -- you could also call them "predatory" -- "have made aesthetic goods available and affordable to many more people." Niche marketing, fueled by direct mail, cheaper publishing and computer-address databases, allowed the highly specialized distribution of furniture and garments. Credit cards simplified purchasing, and, though the book doesn't mention it, allowed financing of new purchases with expanding consumer debt.

Postrel rejects the notion that marketing creates false needs, insisting that the will to acquire pleasing aesthetic goods is biologically based. Ads, logos and status competition don't shape the desire for things; we want them "pre-rationally" for their colors, textures and shapes. We have only to be "exposed" to them in a social context where others enjoy and appreciate them. "I get my fingernails sculpted and my eyebrows waxed because nail salons and day spas sprouted in my old neighborhood," Postrel explains. "When action-movie stars buffed out, so did many men in the ticket lines."

Her populism rests on a defense of shopping as self-expression, and her libertarianism views expression as the first prerogative of freedom. Yet she always takes the side of commerce. The "expressions" she most often talks about are those of GE Plastics, Starbucks, Apple and other companies. If this is libertarianism, it's managerial libertarianism. Postrel argues, for example, that businesses with a public image should have legal protection to fire employees who express a conflicting look, hairstyle, weight, age or gestalt. "Forcing an employer to accept an [employee's] unwanted style is in some sense like forcing a newspaper to publish articles that disagree with its editorial viewpoint, or like redesigning a magazine or reediting a film against the will of its owners." In other words, she borrows the First Amendment's protection of the press to defend workplace discrimination against the individual "style" her book nominally celebrates. Underlying this convoluted stance is a subtler misuse of the notion of expression that is central to Postrel's pseudo-populism. It is the idea that business images must be protected because the successful ones are ultimately expressions of the thousands of customers who patronize them.

Here's what Postrel should have argued: Aesthetic pleasure is more than an afterthought to thrift, quality and efficiency -- it is a key element in conscious thought and judgment, just as these other virtues are. Style and fashion are also bases of status competition, no less today than in the past. What has changed is the relative profusion of purchasable objects, plus magazines and TV shows for discussion of decoration. The spread of tools for self-styling allows people to opt for new, voluntary affiliations and to define their identities and surroundings in new ways. And public regulation of style, as in historic-preservation districts (regulation is Postrel's great, final bugbear), needs to balance individual expressions and minority pleasures against the equally legitimate desire of the community to maintain the aesthetic coherence of public spaces.

Postrel's book is built on a bait and switch as it moves from aesthetics to a defense of consumerism. Unless you've dug through the literature critical of consumer culture, you may not know who the historian Stuart Ewen is. Yet you might wonder how he becomes Postrel's chief antagonist. That's instead of Plato, Aristotle, Burke, Kant or Dewey.

The insights of philosophical aesthetics can help clarify some of Postrel's confusions. We generally think differently about an aesthetic or decorative work if there is an individual creator behind it, whether that creator is Mozart or a florist down the block. Artists and craftsmen, we think, must please themselves first before they please us. And when a natural object strikes us as beautiful, it seems to exist entirely for itself, indifferent to us. Commercial decoration, however, is neither the product of an individual will pleasing itself first nor a product of nature with no intention to please whatsoever. It's an attempt, above all else, to get us to part with our money. As a result, unlike Postrel, most of us regard the efforts of corporations to please us as operating on a different plane from either art or nature.

These comparisons suggest why individual expression trumps commercial expression, and how to keep the two from collapsing together. How a man or a woman decorates a living room is a form of self-expression. An eccentric bricolage of lamps, cushions and knickknacks may speak of an individual dweller and please both resident and guests. This expression gives us more pleasure than a home recognizably out of a book, which will be jeered at as soulless. The calculated music and scripts and wall slogans of a Starbucks reflect no individual consciousness -- they're targeted at no one but an aggregate of "us," the average demographic of surveyed and focus-grouped coffee consumers. It doesn't feel like an expression, aesthetically, and therefore isn't one. When we read a slogan Postrel cites from The Great Indoors -- "There's only one type of kitchen I want help with. One that's totally mine." -- we know that no one is speaking but the survey results of the sales department. The arrogation of our voice ("I want," "totally mine") also treats us like fools -- and points to the reasons for a genuine aesthetic counter-impulse today, the aesthetic movement to revulsion and disgust.

Disgust -- an old and underrated category of philosophical aesthetics -- is one of the most important experiences currently driving the home-decoration movement that Postrel sees only in terms of pleasure. Feng shui and "voluntary simplicity" arise from the will to purge and purify. The former adapts Chinese geomancy to the American home, dismissing clutter that impedes channels of energy. The latter updates back-to-the-landism for an urban and suburban bourgeoisie, eliminating pursuits and purchases that keep you from "the good life" or "what you really want." Each promises a new austerity. Each also spawns new rounds of buying, and even new home-decoration magazines: Feng Shui Times and Real Simple.

The philosophy of the beautiful, the sublime, the interesting, and the ugly can be a surprisingly practical and down-to-earth tradition. It's true that aesthetic systems tend to assume the best things in life are free -- heresy in Postrel's world. And they generally regard beautiful artifacts as holding value separate from fluctuations of the market, as judged by more long-standing values of culture (as liberals say) or civilization (as conservatives say). When Postrel ditches 3,000 years of aesthetic reflection for a shallow and ideological celebration of commercial fashion, she misses out on the deeper feelings and complexities of aesthetic experience. Especially in a society so involved with display, entertainment and spectacle as ours, we need a stronger basis for aesthetic judgment than the idols of the marketplace.

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