Friday, November 11, 2005

The Substance of Style

Former editor of Reason magazine and author of The Future and Its Enemies (Free Press, 1998; FS 22:4/199) argues that the 21" century isn't what the old movies imagined, where citizens of the future wear conformist jumpsuits, live in utilitarian high-rises, or get their food in pills. Rather, "we are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world." We choose from a diversity of appliances, phones, bathroom fixtures, home interiors, designer coffees, ethnic cuisines, Apple iMacs in many colors, graphics, designer lines at Target and K-mart, eight different types of Goth style, and attention to environment such as planting trees.

Aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetes. Our sensory side is as valid a part of our nature as the capacity to speak or reason. The issue is not what style is used, but rather that style is used consciously, and is more pervasive than it used to be. "Sensory appeals are everywhere, they are increasingly personalized, and they are intensifying."

We still care about cost, comfort, and convenience. But on the margin, aesthetics matters more and more.

How we make the world around us special varies widely, and one mark of this new age of aesthetics is the coexistence of many different styles. Modern design was once a value-laden signal-a sign of ideology promising efficiency and rationality. Now it's just a style, one of many possible forms of personal aesthetic expression. "Ours is a pluralist age, in which styles coexist to please the individuals who chose them." The number of industrial designers employed in the US jumped 32% in five years, and design schools are so full of students they can hardly find teachers. In 1970 there were 3 graphic design magazines worldwide; today, there are at least 50. Home-improvement TV has moved from a fringe oddity to being very mainstream.

The most dramatic indicators of the new aesthetic age relate not to product design but to personal appearance. We have a broader definition of attractiveness, higher beauty standards, and "an explosion of activity designed to produce better looking, and more aesthetically interesting, people." The number of nail salons in the US has nearly doubled in ten years, while the number of manicurists has tripled. The market for skin-care "beauty therapists" is booming in the US and Britain. Tattoos are no longer taboo. Hair coloring is virtually mandatory. The number of cosmetic medical procedures in the US has nearly quintupled in the past decade, from 413,000 to 1.9 million. And mainstreaming gay culture has altered tastes.

NOTE: A compelling and insightful argument, much more so than its opposite, The Globalization of Nothing by George Ritzer, which disapproves of global corporations and mass production. Postrel ignores this, with her ideological driver surfacing on p64: "The extension of liberal individualism-the primacy of self-definition over hierarchy and inherited, group-determined status-has changed our aesthetic universe ...When served by an open marketplace, individualist culture continually multiplies the stylistic possibilities available." Moreover, looking at the bright side, "rising incomes and falling prices mean we can buy more of everything, including aesthetics." Anyone who appreciates the Martha Stewart phenomenon or "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" will like this book, even if one-sided and overblown.

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness
Virginia Postrel, HarperCollins, 2003, 237 pages

Review by Future Survey, October 2003


© 2003 The Future Survey
Reprinted with permission.
Visit Future Survey online at www.wfs.orf/fs

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