Friday, 8 February 2013

Part XXVI - Perception of Beauty

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. His sixth chapter is titled Pecuniary Canons of Taste.

Veblen provides more examples of how the ‘canons of reputability’ affect our perceptions.  We are influenced in what we perceive as beautiful or serviceable as well, that is to say we prefer articles which are conspicuously wasteful.  He uses a hand-wrought silver spoon as being preferred to a
machine-made spoon of base metal.  If the first spoon were discovered to be a clever imitation and in fact only made of base metal, it would no longer be appreciated, even though its function and appearance were unchanged.  We’re not conscious of this preference, but we are shaped by the canon of conspicuous waste nonetheless.

As lovely as gems are, they are desireable because they are rare and expensive, not because they are beautiful.  They give advantage to the owner because not everyone can afford them.
“The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive articles.”

This is best exemplified in clothing and household decor.  There are fashions for each that change over time.  At the present, there is not as much of a strict silhouette for women’s clothing as there has been in the past and so there is more leeway in choosing styles.  However, there are still styles that are not sufficiently modern to be admired.  I expect the same might be said of home d├ęcor, though I am even less informed on that subject.  Vintage looks are popular with some folks just now, but I haven’t run across anyone seeking to replace the harvest gold or olive green appliances that Mom and Grandmother liked.  To have things outside of whatever is the accepted range of fashion, brings a certain amount of embarrassment.
“We readily and with utter sincerity, find those things pleasing that are in vogue. Shaggy dress stuffs and pronounced color effects, for instance, offend us at times when the vogue is goods of a high, glossy finish and neutral colors. A fancy bonnet of this year’s model unquestionably appeals to our sensibilities today much more forcibly than an equally fancy bonnet of the model of last year…The high gloss of a gentleman’s hat or of a patent-leather shoe has no more of intrinsic beauty than a similiarly high gloss on a threadbare sleeve; and yet there is no question but that all well-bred people (in the Occidental civilized communities) instinctively and unaffectedly cleave to the one as a phenomenon of great beauty, and eschew the other as offensive to every sense to which it can appeal.”

Veblen says that perfectly lovely flowers are dismissed as weeds because they are too easily accessible.  More difficult blooms which cost more and are therefore only afforded by persons of means are considered more beautiful, simply because they are more expensive.
“It is not a constitutional difference of endowments in the aesthetic respect, but rather a difference in the code of reputability which specifies what objects properly lie within the scope of honorific consumption for the class to which the critic belongs.  It is a difference in the traditions of propriety with respect to the kinds of things which may, without derogation to the consumer, be consumed under the head of objects of taste and art. With a certain allowance for variations to be accounted for on other grounds, these traditions are determined, more or less rigidly, by the pecuniary plane of life of the class.”

Another example is the Western society’s preference for a grass lawn or park, something that really only makes sense in wet places like Britain.  If I follow his logic correctly, this is most highly prized if maintained by a crew of skilled workmen under the supervision of a lead grounds keeper.  The next best choice is to have it grazed by deer or perhaps antelope.  Cows could achieve the same end of short grass, but are so practical and thrifty that they have no status; Veblen obviously wasn’t from Texas.  He doesn't mention sheep at all but I'm thinking that in a tiny place like Britain to own sufficient land to have anything graze gives sufficient prestige. 

He writes at length about preferences in green space amongst what I would abbreviate as ‘old money’ vs ‘new money’.  He seems to think that amongst the growing middle class there is still the vestige of workmanship (defined as being useful).  So ‘sham’ features suggesting serviceability are popular, ie rustic fences, bridges, bowers and pavilions; also topiary and conventional flower beds in public grounds.  However, ‘love of nature’ and planting of trees are more indicative of ‘old money’.  I’m not sure how applicable all this is, but will leave you with two words that probably best capture the essence of his arguments about gardens, class and taste here in Britain:  garden gnomes.


Susan Partlan said...

"Garden gnomes" made me laugh! I've never liked them.

Shelley said...

Susan - I actually quite like garden gnomes, but only at the garden centre, not in anyone's garden!