An economy of aesthetics

Posted: Oct 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Creative thinkers do not merely answer questions that interest others, they answer questions that others have not realized are interesting or even are questions.  For example:

• Starbucks coffee is not that much better than everyone else's coffee, so what is Starbucks really selling?

• What does it say about today's America that travelers changing concourses in the United terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport pass beneath a 744-foot neon-light sculpture, the colors of which change in sync to music?

• Why has the number of nail salons doubled, the number of manicurists tripled and the number of cosmetic medical procedures almost quintupled in a decade? Why do 13 percent of middle-aged men spend more than $1 billion on hair coloring, up 34 percent in five years?

• If computers are just tools, why bother making them as pretty as the Sony Vaio and Apple iMac?

• How much of the booming membership in gyms is about something other than -- more pleasurable than -- health maintenance?

Virginia Postrel, an economics columnist for the New York Times who writes perceptively about everything on which her penetrating gaze alights, answers these questions, and others you may not have asked yourself, in her new book "The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness." It is an appreciation of what she calls the "aesthetic imperative" in this expressive age.

Biologically we are, she says, visual, tactile beings responsive to our sensory surroundings. And we now are -- thanks to such factors as travel, education, immigration and media -- producing a society of aesthetic plenitude and pluralism.

People are eager to pay Starbucks for more than mere coffee -- for a sensory environment that pleases more than just their palates. Demand often creates supply, but supply can create demand: Travelers do not demand O'Hare's neon light sculpture, but the supply of such aesthetic amenities raises expectations for a more pleasurable environment. And from gyms and nail salons to tattoo parlors and the emporiums where people get their bodies pierced in so many interesting places, Americans are consuming design and designing themselves.

Time was, Henry Ford told customers they could have cars in the color they wanted, as long as they wanted black. Time was, Walter Gropius, the minimalist architect, when asked what he would say if some students did not like the way he had arranged the furniture in a Harvard dorm he designed, replied, "Then they are neurotic."

But the breakdown of cultural homogeneity in the 1960s has been followed by what Postrel says are the twin propellants of today's aesthetic abundance -- rising incomes and falling prices. Household income has increased about 30 percent in less than 30 years, and family size has shrunk, further expanding disposable income.

Economic data do not measure what aesthetics add to the quality of life. Statistically, a $20 steak dinner in an aesthetically pleasing restaurant is indistinguishable from a $20 steak dinner in a banal environment. Which means we are exaggerating inflation and underestimating the economy's real production of value.

"Aesthetics," says Postrel, "shows rather than tells, delights rather than instructs. The effects are immediate, perceptual and emotional. They are not cognitive, although we may analyze them after the fact." Aesthetics, Postrel stresses, are not irrational or anti-rational, they are pre-rational or non-rational That does not mean aesthetics should be distrusted, as rhetoric has come to be, as a manipulative force manufacturing synthetic desires. Aspiration, Postrel believes, is an aspect of identity, including aesthetic identity -- "I like that" means "I am like that." Her cheerful analysis of all this puts her athwart a tradition of disapproving intellectuals.

Half a century ago, Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential nominee and darling of the intelligentsia, asked: "With the supermarket as our temple and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America's exalted purposes and inspiring way of life?" His question radiated what was then and still is: Everything changes except the views of "progressives" -- the intellectuals' conventional disdain of America's "consumer society."

Today, however, thoughtful people have more appreciation of the complex prerequisites -- social, political and intellectual -- of a society that produces the abundance, and honors the emancipation of choice and desire, that results in supermarkets, advertising and other things that are woven inextricably into the fabric of a free society. Those mundane things actually are related to what exalts America and makes it inspiring.

Unbounded, imaginative desiring can be a problem for democratic governance. However, it certainly is both a cause and a consequence of a democratic culture.