Edward Driscoll on the Duality of American Aesthetics

07.4.2004 | Edward Driscoll | Cultural Affairs | 5 Comments
Last month, The Washington Post ran an article on the slovenly appearance of the great majority of everyday people who paid their last respects to President Reagan’s flag-draped coffin in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. And yet, paradoxically, Virginia Postrel’s latest book, The Substance of Style, illustrates how important aesthetics have become to Americans.

Such matters are worth taking seriously: how a nation looks, from how its people dress to the quality of its architecture, says much about the moral health of its citizens. And right now, America is at a crossroads: as the appearance of its things has improved dramatically over the last 30 years, the appearance of its citizens has gone dramatically downhill.

So let’s look at how the two have diverged.

Less Is Not Always More

Public aesthetics have improved remarkably since the 1970s, when the last vestiges of modern architecture were dominant, and its leaders recently buried. The pioneers of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus, France’s Le Corbusier and (while he’d hate being lumped in with all those European modernists) Frank Lloyd Wright, were all dead by the end of the 1960s.

Mies once said that the architecture he taught to his students was merely a language for building, just as English was a language for communication. But as architectural critic Peter Blake wrote in The Master Builders, “Mies has only provided a vocabulary; most use it to write prose. Only a few can write poetry.”

And most of Mies’ disciples eventually eventually found themselves in a cul-de-sac of vocabulary. While postmodern architecture at first seemed promising, it too rapidly became dull and doctrinaire, as formula-driven as modern architecture, but with more arbitrarily applied decoration.

While few would favorably compare today’s public architecture, whether designed for commerce or for government, to the great architecture of the 19th and early 20th century, it’s surprisingly attractive and diverse in appearance, especially compared with its 1970s counterparts. And while today’s homes may not live up to Mies’ brilliant but austere minimalist designs such as his Farnsworth and Tugenhadt homes, they are also a far cry from the Levittown cookie-cutter stamped-out designs of the 1950s and ’60s.

The design of objects inside those homes has also come a long way, as Postrel highlights. Unlike the uniform beige Bakelite appliances of the 1950s, their avocado green counterparts of the 1970s, or the sleek minimalist German designs of the 1980s, kitchen tools and appliances are now available in every conceivable style, at easily affordable prices. The same can be said of objects for other rooms of the house.

The Giant Leap Backwards

However, not all aesthetics have moved forward at the dawn of the 21st century. While visiting Disneyland on a warm September weekend last year, I noticed that so many young (and a few not-so-young) women had the same aesthetic: hip-hugging, low-riding, roll of fat highlighting jeans (often with very ’70s flares at the other end), a too-short skintight shirt, and a tattoo in the space between the crack of her derriere and the base of her spine. It got to the point where I could subtly point and whisper to my wife, “Check. Check. Check”, and she’d know exactly what I was referring to.

Of course, both sexes are having their problems with today’s aesthetics. Oddly enough, trousers have become a huge challenge for today’s youth. In the 1970s there was only one option for them: jeans. In the 1980s, things got slightly more complex: designer jeans or expensive but slightly baggy linen trousers that looked like they came from the set of Miami Vice.

Today, teenagers’ trousers are either so short as to lend the wearer the look of a refrigerator repairman circa 1967; or they have flares that should have been extinct after 1978.

Or worse, they have what looks like 36-inches of excess material at the bottom (perhaps taken from all the left over fabric from the girls’ pants). My dry cleaner charges about $15 to alter the length of a pair of pants. Surely the fellow who’s just bought a pair of trousers with that excessive an amount of material isn’t so bereft afterwards that he doesn’t have a couple of sawbucks left to have them fitted properly.

The Perpetual Palo Alto Adolescent

One might be tempted to ask these gents if they didn’t have the extra few bucks to pay for alterations. But in actuality, style is almost never a money issue. As Tom Wolfe once noted, look at any photo or film clip of men on breadlines during the Depression and you’ll be astonished at how well dressed they are: hats, ties and suits were the order of the day. Those men may be down, but as far as they were concerned, they were far from out, and consequently were determined to display a dignity that in retrospect, is far greater than that presented by the average person under forty today.

Or over 40 for that matter. I’ve eaten in some expensive and trendy restaurants in Northern California’s Palo Alto, where venture capitalists provide the funding that keeps high tech Silicon Valley going. It’s amazing, on a Saturday night, to see men pushing 50, often with bald domes and ponytails sticking out of the tops of their spines (unlike the young women at Disneyland, I don’t want to know what evil lurks at the base of them) whose net worths are easily in the high six figure range, dressed more shabbily than my gardener probably does when he goes out for a night on the town.

For many African-Americans in particular, personal aesthetics have never been grimmer. As Mark Gauvreau Judge, the author of If It Ain’t Got That Swing notes, hip-hop culture has taken style a gigantic leap backwards:

It’s not the fact that the rappers on MTV are black that intimidates us; it’s the fact that in their every tone, gesture, and, yes, article of “gangsta” clothing demands no less. Compare the oversized, infantile outfits of these lost men with the regal mien and resplendent suits and dresses of the black jazz musician from earlier eras - the neat suits of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, the top hat and tails of Duke Ellington, the elegance of Ella and Billie. To a visitor from space, it would seem that over the course of the century America’s blacks had gone from great wealth and status to poverty rather than the other way around.

Actually, a visitor from space would probably be extremely confused by the duality of America’s aesthetics: its things frequently look wonderful. Its people, despite having a combined net worth that’s never been higher, frequently look like hell.

Edward Driscoll has written for National Review Online, Tech Central Station, PC World, and numerous other publications online and “on dead tree”, as well as for his Weblog, EdDriscoll.com.


That's an interesting article. But don't you think that there's no common opinion about aesthetics?
" I noticed that so many young (and a few not-so-young) women had the same aesthetic: hip-hugging, low-riding, roll of fat highlighting jeans (often with very '70s flares at the other end), a too-short skintight shirt, and a tattoo in the space between the crack of her derriere and the base of her spine." - actually I agree with you but I admit that it might be just for being conservative... Somebody said that fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
Regards, Linda http://www.all-translations.com
10.25.2004 | Linda
.....will anyone ever get it....fashion is the currency of placement and pecking order...the more odd the look the more looks...rather the stare glare than the puposeful overlook...just spell the name right suckha..............
11.26.2004 | joey vonjojo
Or worse, they have what looks like 36-inches of excess material at the bottom (perhaps taken from all the left over fabric from the girls’ pants). My dry cleaner charges about $15 to alter the length of a pair of pants. Surely the fellow who’s just bought a pair of trousers with that excessive an amount of material isn’t so bereft afterwards that he doesn’t have a couple of sawbucks left to have them fitted properly.

That's hilarious. I'm 5'8" but with 27 inch legs, and I am a bit of a techno-raver. So I have actually had the experience of having some ultra-fat-leg pants hemmed. When I brought them to the tailor, she said she was going to charge me an extra $5 a pair, because "this is like hemming two skirts!"

;)

=darwin
05.19.2005 | Darwin
I am not a conservative in most things, but in style I would say I am one. The problem as I see it today is that style itself is no longer in style.

In women's attire, style has been totally swallowed up by fashion. What's ok to wear is determined not by women themselves, but by a marketing and design establishment where women still take a backseat to mostly gay men preoccupied with youth, drama, and fame. The trampy look appearing on younger and younger girls, is of no concern to people lost in dreams of fabulousness. Nor is the cultural lie that women with healthy curves and fuller figures are fat frumps who won't look good in anything.

Whereas for men, showing any kind of style - fashionable or not - goes against today's masculinity. And that's true whether you are liberal, conservative or anywhere in between. Caring about your look makes you a "metrosexual" and costs you man points even if you don't salt scrub and mousse.

The designer cash-flash-and-trash mentality is hard at work in both genders' clothing markets. Status is no longer conferred by the custom-made or high-quality garment, but by the big-name item with the highest price tag.

Our things can still be stylish perhaps because we, as people, can't afford to - either financially or, in many cases, socially.

09.30.2007 | 7 5/8 LO

Microsoft Office 2010 is the best software.
Office 2010 is powerful!
Microsoft Office 2007 can give you more convenient life.
Office 2007 bring you so much convenience.
Office 2007 key is very convenient!
Office 2007 download is helpful!

02.23.2011 | Office 2007

PostPost a Comment

Enter your information below.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>