Technology and Culture 46.1 (2005) 261-262
In the early 1990s, the Winterthur Museum and Library ventured into the late-nineteenth century with a fall conference and proceedings volume called "The Substance of Style." The conference focused on the usual topics about the so-called Arts and Crafts Movement presented by the usual suspects. The papers scrutinized oak chairs, china painting, and so on. Lots of style, plenty of substantial aesthetic analysis.
Some ten years later, Virginia Postrel borrowed the title of the Winterthur conference for her book about style and substance in contemporary American culture. A regular contributor to the New York Times and Forbes, Postrel is a journalist from Dallas who takes pride in challenging the status quo. Her first book, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (1998), made her a cult figure among libertarians, who regularly contribute a running dialogue to her Web site. Make no mistake, Postrel's new work has nothing to do with Victorian craft revivals and the middle-class cult of the defective. Her Substance of Style is a highly readable essay on how and why style as aesthetics has come to be a part of daily life in the twenty-first century.
Postrel describes our times as the age of aesthetics, wherein the way things look, feel, and smell have come to matter—not just among the upper-middle classes but among all consumers. Unlike Victorian craft revival scholars and their elite audiences, Postrel is interested in the mass market and the impact of aesthetics on the lives of ordinary people. While many cultural critics decry Wal-Mart as a horrific scar on the American landscape, Postrel finds much to admire in the stores of this retailing giant. So too she looks at the products sold at Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Sears, and J. C. Penny and sees considerable aesthetic merit, attributing this phenomenon to consumer demand. Americans, she argues, have grown increasingly aware of the emotional and spiritual fulfillment value of beauty, and they clamor to buy goods that fit the bill. In this context, the enormous success of Starbucks stems from the ability of the coffee giant's marketers to provide a modicum of luxury for a modest price, and to imagine how slightly different interiors might appeal to coffee drinkers from different neighborhoods. Starbucks is high-quality homey, a look that captures the essence of comfort and quality that lies at the heart of the new aesthetic age.
Postrel launches The Substance of Style with a timely, and compelling, example that gets to the heart of her argument. As the Taliban fell, the people of Afghanistan rushed in their new freedom to buy imported TVs and VCRs and to wear burkhas in colors like brown, peach, and green. Afghan men lined up at barbershops, while Afghan women painted their fingernails red. Some cultural critics, predictably, decried all of this as the decline of authentic culture and the sorry influence of Western materialism. Not Postrel, whose anthropological antennae are less attuned to academic wavelengths than to the ins and outs of contemporary culture. She sees the Afghan consumers as simply partaking in material pleasure, as do their American counterparts at their local shopping malls and full-service salons.
In six chapters, Postrel explores different aspects of our aesthetic age, with reference to its historical roots in the postwar culture of abundance. Yet she is interested in doing more than chronicling the democratization of goods made possible by mass production. She is concerned to explain the widespread cultural acceptance of aesthetics as an important factor in human existence. Postrel is too astute to parrot arguments about the role of designers in reshaping the vulgar tastes of the masses into something more refined. Instead, she argues that there is something fundamentally human about wanting nice things and nice surroundings. In the late twentieth century, several factors, including the spread of fine-arts education and the birth of media venues such as Home and Garden TV and...