We Aim Not to Please


While V-Po can ably defend herself, a review by Mark Greif of The Susbtance of Style posted on The American Prospect's website today contains some arguments a bit too bizarro to escape commentary here.

Greif's beef is with the book's "bait and switch as it moves from aesthetics to a defense of consumerism." The problem with consumer good aesthetics, according to Greif, is that capital-A Art has to be made by a capital-A Artist inspired by some private vision without regard for commercial success or pleasing an audience. Except, as he doubtless realized while writing this up, lots of things not created by Artists (or, indeed, anyone) are beautiful. So we get this odd line: "And when a natural object strikes us as beautiful, it seems to exist entirely for itself, indifferent to us."

The problem with, say, Starbucks is supposed to be that it's the product of some kind of taste-aggregation—focus groups and whatnot—rather than some unitary vision. Now, I'm sort of sympathetic here. I can't stand malls; they're aesthetically revolting. But I'm at least open about what's going on there: I'm a bit of an elitist, and I think the target marketing demographic they're basing the aesthetic on has crappy taste.

But that's probably a bit of a no-no mode of argument at the Prospect, so Greif (ironically) ends up sounding a kind of Randian note about the inherent failures of any aesthetic object made without the proper regard for Artistic Integrity. And the attempt to cover this comes in large part from the use of that slippery "we"—he's not explaining his tastes, y'see, but why "we" are revolted by focus group aesthetics. Except, pretty much by definition, a look that gets chosen because it tested well in a focus group is one that a bunch of people chosen from a particular set liked pretty well. So Greif's "we" must not include the very many people of whom those focus groups were designed to be statistically representative. This is a classic case of crying "market failure" when the market doesn't produce what you happen to want. But I suppose "the market debases aesthetics" plays better in public than "most of you have bad taste."