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Aesthetics are Everywhere... and They're Social Constructs

Aesthetics are Everywhere... and They're Social Constructs

Virginia Postrel’s excellent The Substance of Style charts how aesthetics took over consumer society — but aesthetic conventions themselves always arise from the social structure

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We live in an Aesthetic Era. So argues Virginia Postrel in her 2003 work The Substance of Style: “Aesthetics is more pervasive than it used to be — not restricted to a social, economic, or artistic elite, limited to only a few settings or industries, or designed to communicate only power, influence, or wealth. Sensory appeals are everywhere, they are increasingly personalized, and they are intensifying.” Postrel charts what we could call the "Big Upgrade" of the late 1990s where every consumer product received a high-design refresh — even toilet brushes. In the two decades since the book’s publication, Postrel’s thesis is even more correct: design is everywhere, applied to almost every thing. At one point, the standard-issue tissues on my desk boasted they were “designed by Nina Jobs in Sweden.”

The Substance of Style is an important chronicle of our contemporary material culture and also mounted an early defense of aesthetics themselves. Pushing back against Puritan and rationalist critics, Postrel demonstrates that aesthetics are not “superficial”: they have substance, bring us pleasure, and assist us in crafting public personas.

All this talk of aesthetics, however, points to a deeper question I try to answer in Status and Culture: Where do our specific aesthetics come from? There is never a single aesthetic in society. We live in a world of celebrity brashness, posh modesty, ivory tower austerity, egg-head appeals to functionality, flash on the streets, camp/retro kitsch, extreme subcultural and countercultural uniforms, and an ever intensifying fanfare for cross-cultural exchange. Postrel never offers a singular theory on the origins of these competing aesthetics, but points to the possible existence of “aesthetic universals” forged in the cauldron of human evolution. At the same time, she admits that aesthetic meanings are “completely subjective, arising from experience and association.” There is one theory, however, she outright rejects: that aesthetics are driven by status: "Most aesthetic signals have nothing to do with status hierarchy. They establish horizontal differences, not vertical ones.”

I am certainly to blame for calling my book Status and Culture — linking two of the most ambiguous and misused words in the English language. (Maybe a more accurate title would have been Social Structure and Aesthetics?) In any case, Postrel and I aren't using "status" the same way. She uses the word as short-hand for individuals pathetically trying to one-up each other by buying luxury goods. But status — the sociological concept — explains far more than the invidious desire for higher social rank within wealthy communities. Status also involves the innate need for maintaining current social position, the demand for dignity among marginalized communities, and the splintering of society into subcultures. From this perspective, all “horizontal differences” are also related to status, because each status group is fighting for its own place in the global hierarchy of all status groups. If we consider the "horizontal" move from dweeb to punk as an "upgrade," then it's a status move.

Once we examine culture within this broader definition of status, the origin of almost all aesthetic conventions can be traced to specific status groups, developed most often as elite distinction (e.g. aristocratic detachment) or as an intentional rejection of mainstream standards (e.g. camp). For pioneering economist Werner Sombart, “gothic, renaissance, baroque, and rococo are styles expressing the will of ruling groups." Postrel mentions suffragettes preferring “masculine” fashions such as string ties and shirtwaist dresses — aesthetics formed as a statement on the status disadvantages of women. If there are any true stylistic “universals,” they derive from the expected outcomes of individuals' social movement: e.g. New Money almost always preferring brash displays of wealth, no matter the country or age.

The social origin of aesthetics is undeniable if we also consider how humans even experience aesthetics in the first place. They aren’t built on raw sensation, but our perception of sensory input — and all perception is acculturated. As legendary art critic E.H. Gombrich argued, there can never be a “naked eye” unshaped by experience. In order for individuals to appreciate a Beatles song, they must have absorbed the conventions of the Western musical scale, 20th century harmonic conventions, and the rhythms of rock’n’roll.

The evolutionary advantage of human brains is that our “hardware” easily takes up the “software” of acquired conventional knowledge to help tackle specific environmental and social challenges. A “universal aesthetic” posits that certain aesthetic dispositions are built into the hardware, which would mean there are design motifs that equally appeal to a young mother isolated in the Amazonian jungle and a cosmopolitan Greek entrepreneur living in London. In 2022, after decades of academic research, there is still inconclusive evidence on aesthetic universals. But we already should be suspicious of their existence from a quick survey of the entire globe: The vast variety of aesthetics — and their constant change over time — means that whatever presets exist inside the brain's hardware, they have extremely weak influence on our preferences. Moreover, aesthetics are only defined in their difference. Gothic is gothic, because it's not Romanesque. A universal aesthetic would hardly be noticed.

Most important, there is an inherent need in status hierarchies for high-status individuals to negate the average aesthetic in order to achieve visual separation from the majority. This means no single aesthetic could ever serve a stratified population. As such, there is no such thing as a “Japanese aesthetic." Zen minimalism and wabi-sabi are elite sensibilities that have little to do with the gaudy exuberance of lower middle class Japanese style.

From one perspective, we may be disappointed that status reveals aesthetics to be contingent social constructs. We'd prefer them to have a mystic cosmic origin transcending social position and struggle. And if we admit that social structures guide the creation, diffusion, and valuation of certain aesthetics, the “look and feel” of everything takes on political valence. (Perhaps this is why an Aesthetic Era can be an extremely political era.) But it's precisely because our brains can so easily override any "universal aesthetics" that we have created such a fascinating world of diverse sensual experiences. People around the globe all use very similar methods of arithmetic, but there are an infinite number of potential aesthetics to be enjoyed, celebrated, and negated.