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Useless beauty, etc., etc.

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Friday, Mar 26, 2010

Can beauty be separated from domination? That’s what this essay about “superbeauty” by Julie Lansky (via Rob Walker) left me wondering. Not that her essay is about that—it’s more of a defense of designing for jouissance rather than for functionality or posturing: “Reclaiming beauty from irony, reclaiming beauty from kitsch — this has been a project of early-21st-century design.”


I kept waiting to get mad at the essay—I have no love for deisgny-ness, and figured it was only a matter of time before I’d want to break out Alfred Loos’s Ornament and Crime—but I was strangely indifferent, largely agreeing with her while pursuing my own tangential thoughts. For example, what does Lansky mean by beauty? That can’t be taken for granted, because that is the whole of the ideological stake. Beauty and aesthetics are the time-honored alibi for hierarchical oppression; it is the velvet medium of hegemony. Beauty is defined so as to protect the interest of elites, their cultural and physical capital. Labeling something beautiful is an expression of power; then it’s a matter of getting others to either agree or suffer for their disagreement. Lansky comes closest to a definition, I think, in this statement: “Answering the capitalist economy’s call to create and fulfill desire in every corner of life, designers have even entered an age of superbeauty.” That is, to assure consumer capitalism’s viability and ideological underpinnings, designers assert beauty in novelty, variety and ubiquity, traits suitable to the mandate of continual capital accumulation, and constant expansion of consumer demand. Superbeauty refers to applying aesthetics to mundane objects once considered beneath such attention. That means the logic of distinction, under the pressures of capitalism, is spreading itself over a broader and broader domain. Hierarchy must be articulated in every last corner of the culture; everything must announce “desire,” the lack that testifies to the material reality of status, makes it seem a physical inevitability as undeniable as yearning. Nothing can be innocent, nothing can promise a glimpse into an alternative to the logic of capital, and capitalist desire. So I guess I disagree that superbeauty is for “personal delectation” as Lansky argues. That’s the classic mystification, that tastes can be personal.


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