Throughout Western history, since the Renaissance, Aristocracy has defined the standards and parameters of good taste. This seems to almost be a natural occurrence in any social structure with an upwardly mobile middle class. Style and fashion are engendered by those with education money and privilege, those with social aspirations follow suit, and the “latest things” then flow out into the provinces to be replicated as best they can be. Of course, the industrial revolution in the 19th century made mass production possible. This means that, today, those living far from urban centers of style can have most of the same things those living in the cities have, and fads and fashions are produced in a range of quality and price, giving one and all as much style as they can afford to have.
This was true up until World War 2. Two world wars and a world wide depression combined with the various effects and influences of modern civilization erased the social power of the aristocracy and the respect it once commanded. However, even as pop culture celebrities took over the reigns, guiding the future path of aesthetic innovation, there was still an overall attitude of aspiration in society. People endeavored to put on the best front possible; sincerely maintaining their “respectability” and superficially “keeping up with the Jones.” The only real difference was they looked to Hollywood instead of high society for inspiration.
Over the past fifty years, however, the aspiration has faded. People have become increasingly satisfied merely watching their idols live out the collective fantasy of a “good life.” Part of this is undoubtedly the far too often ignored fact that the American dream is slipping further and further out of the reach of ordinary people. Another issue is the fact that the media has dominated every day life with images so unrealistic that ordinary lives seem impossibly small by comparison. But there is also the modern philosophy that all things are equal; “Culture” was just a snobbish affectation and the difference between symphony concerts and American Idol is nothing but a matter of taste.
So, if that’s true, why should one want to aspire to anything beyond easy reach? As I always say, perhaps even too often, because the pleasure it adds to life is worth it. At least, I always find that to be true. However, I have to admit that, as a Southern Gentleman, a belief in Western Civilization runs deep in my blood. I was brought up believing I was the future patriarch of a “fine old southern family.” We trace or roots back to the earliest days of recorded English history. I always believed that depending on the exploits of ones ancestors was a poor excuse for personal pride. In fact, while my grand parents did take significant pride in our history, even they taught me that “fine old families” only stay that way by the continued success of future generations. As much as my past was something to be proud of, it was also something to live up to.
The positive side of this, and the one relevant here, is that they gave me permission to both expect a lot out of life and to feel that I deserve it. A few weeks ago I mentioned the possibility that people shopping in Thrift store often think the best clothes there are “too nice.” That attitude pervades some people’s whole lives. I suppose it is a natural thing for people who feel permanently consigned to a life of poverty, where all the “good things in life” are permanently out of reach to psychologically defend themselves with reverse snobbism; the “important things” being those things within ones own reach. An Internet acquaintance recently confessed that his house unsuitable for entertaining. There was a mention of piles of plastic bins and the fact that having nice things in the ghetto was just encouragement to get robbed. But then he went on to say he hated dinner parties anyway, or any other reason to have to get dressed up and “act fake all evening,” and his friends had finally learned not to invite him over to their houses, either, unless the were just going to” kick back and hangout.” That attitude may salve ones feelings against envy, but it does so at the cost of the pleasure and experiences that one could have.
Years ago I worked at a craft shop in the local mall, just outside of the main entrance to Rich’s Dept. Store (the upscale store in the south back then). One afternoon I was having a conversation with another clerk in food court and she expressed surprise that there was a craft store. When I told her where it was she replied “Oh, I don’t go to that end of the mall. I can’t afford Rich’s.” Half the shopping mall was off limits because the store at that end was “expensive.” In fact clothes there were as cheap or cheaper than Sears at the other end, when they were on sale, and generally much nicer.
I have a small collection of silver serving pieces, several actually sterling and the rest plate, that I inherited. I’ve added to those with a number of silver plate items I picked up at the thrift store. Of course silver isn’t to everyones taste but I think it looks nice on a table. One recent purchase was a vintage 1920′s silver ice bucket complete withtilt top lid and mercury glass liner. I was feeling cheap so I waited for it to go half price, which took a whole month. I thought it would be gone and felt stupid for waiting. It’s certainly worth far more than the $15 they were asking. I’m stubborn, though, and when I feel cheap I’m as rigorously cheap as I can be luxurious at other times. Amazingly, it sat there for a whole month and I got it for $7.50. I can’t help but wonder how many $18 tacky plastic ice buckets WalMart sold during the same time.
Have I been particularly blessed by that elitist side of my upbringing? Does one have to be “to the manor born” to aspire to the best of everything? This situation is something I wonder about and don’t have an answer for (comments would certainly be welcome). Perhaps people who grow up without a sense of culture can’t ever take the initiative to reach for it. Judging from what seems popular on TV, they certainly haven’t lost interest in it. The sales of lottery tickets indicate a deep desire to get rich for some purpose. Will money give them permission to live well, or is the need to “get rich” simply a reflexive matter of habit; something they’ve been told to desire? I hope that’s not true. If we can not find a sense of pride not just in the exsistential fact of being human, but in the very real fact of living human lives, then all hope for art and letters, and whatever dignity and granduer Western Civillization has had, is lost.
I regret there are no pictures this week. the unfortunate obligations of life has left me without time to arrange them. I hope my words are enough.