The Substance of Style

How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, & Consciousne

by Maria Lorusso

5 January 2004


Aesthetically Speaking

Though groundbreaking for the American homosexual male on TV, Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy , is not however introducing any aesthetic attention to our society that isn’t already there. From shows like Trading Spaces on The Learning Channel or a consistent run for the past decade of makeover madness on talk shows, to the atmosphere of a trendy Starbucks, we experience daily life through our senses, through seeing, feeling, hearing—the components of aesthetics and the components defended by New York Times columnist Virginia Postrel.

In the former editor of Reason’s first book, The Future and Its Enemies, she quoted the assertion by a senior vice president of The Walt Disney Company that people “want a human-centered world of rich texture, warm colors, and sweet-smelling plants.” A foreshadowing of The Substance of Style? According to an interview with The Atlantic Monthly posted on Postrel’s site, Substance is not a sequel, but it certainly develops the Disney’s VP’s point (and develops it, and develops it, and develops it . . . ).

cover art

The Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel

How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, & Consciousness


Despite her tendency to reiterate, Postrel’s point that style, design, surface—aesthetics—are valuable in and of themselves is nonetheless a sound argument and an interesting blow to the critics of all that shines. Those critics who deem the adornment of a person, place or object as inauthentic, something that merely adds disguise and trickery fail to recognize what a tap of the pretty stick adds to the function of something. Postrel maintains that it adds pleasure and, “pleasure is as real as meaning or usefulness, and its value is as subjective.”

In a capitalist market of ever-competing products (computers, cell phones, vehicles) with the latest technologies, there is only an indecipherable difference in quality of function these days. The real difference is in appearance or texture, smell or listening pleasure. That very idea suggests style is substantial. Not to mention that for better or worse, we are judged on our appearance; this in itself makes aesthetics meaningful.

Postrel claims that the age-old moral-of-the-story that looks are meaningless passed on from parent to child is in effect harmful: “When a father tells his teenage daughter that looks are ‘meaningless,’ he’s not assuring her that she’s attractive or will become so over time. He is saying she is loved and valued for her other traits, regardless of how she looks—a loving but irrelevant affirmation.” It also reinforces the unfortunate notion that a person is either pretty and dumb or ugly and smart but never pretty and smart. (Not that this notion hasn’t gotten a boost from Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s reality show any time recently.) Postrel continues to say that the teenager’s looks are important to her and fail to match her sense of who she is. When a child feels inferior as a student, musician, or ballplayer, “we coach them on how to build on their natural gifts. Yet somehow we believe that looks are different, that appearance must be worth everything or nothing.”

Careful not to suggest that an authority dictates the aesthetic imperative, nor that it is unlimited under the auspices of artistic licensing, Postrel devotes an entire chapter to the boundaries of design. Rightly so, she suggests a balance exists between the extreme of a world of “anything goes” and the extreme of design tyranny. As in other areas of the book, Postrel writes directly to the aesthetically shy and questioning, a.k.a. the critics fearing a future so focused on style mandates that the sci-fi picture of universal outfits and universal décor becomes reality. Instead, she offers the idea of “aesthetic identity—I like that. I’m like that—is more specific and personal than ‘that’s attractive’.” In other words, the growth of aesthetics and aesthetic options begets the growth for individual choice, invoking less of a universal “beauty” and more of a personal attraction.

The Substance of Style lacks a little substance of text, in the explanation of the inherent nature of our draw towards the aesthetic. The preface suggests that “maybe our desires for impractical decoration and meaningless fashion don’t come from Madison Avenue after all. Maybe our relation to aesthetic value is too fundamental to be explained by commercial mind control.” Subtleties throughout the book illustrate that this drive for improvement in aesthetic expression is as natural as the drive for improvement in anything, and aesthetics express who we are and with whom we want to be grouped. Just exactly why aesthetics are innate to humans warrants more discussion.

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