Aesthetics in the Ascendant-Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness , by Virginia Postrel. HarperCollins, 232 pages, $24.95.

Oh, for the days when having style meant more than just having things. Picture these lost moments: thrill-seekers strung along the cafés of Montparnasse, sharing sips of absinthe; a new bride studying James Beard before her first dinner party; young leggy girls on the King’s Road in the just-sliced mini; Mrs. Kennedy and the caisson; the Duchess of Windsor and anything; a penniless Madonna arriving in New York; lunch at Mortimer’s.

What will we be remembered for? If Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style has anything to do with it, not much more than things: designer toilet brushes, sparkling green beepers, Cape Cod–style houses in California. It’s not Ms. Postrel’s fault that style in today’s world is defined by junk; she’s only reporting on the phenomenon. But what’s her excuse for reporting without skepticism-or style?

If only Ms. Postrel, a New York Times financial reporter, could herself have produced less of a mere thing. The Substance of Style is a perfectly timed-and perfectly lifeless-examination of “the nature of aesthetic value and its relation to our personal, economic, and social lives.” With a Cupid’s bow of desire, Ms. Postrel attempts to shoot at the heart of the Frankfurt School’s long-standing-and too little debated-argument that “The People” are consumers because they are manipulated toward the cash register. Frankfurt’s People mindlessly feed the machine; Ms. Postrel’s People gleefully feed their own dreams. Or so she would like us to believe. Certainly pleasure is-and ought to be-a driving force in spending money on a new lipstick, a new sound system, anything. But is this the age of realized dreams?

Passion is required to enliven this rather academic topic (namely, why people today buy what they buy, and why manufacturers produce what they produce). Ms. Postrel is certainly curious, but neither passionate nor artful enough to expose the complicated story of a generation obsessed with stuff. Isn’t it, in fact, that we substitute “style” for substance? Ms. Postrel loses the opportunity she created for herself to document a profoundly complex moment in time-to truly see the “style” in what we now consider substantial. She reports on trends (“The aesthetic imperative is here to stay. The indicators may fluctuate with the economy … but the underlying phenomenon remains strong”), but she never sees past all the stuff.

Is there really a new substance in the style of our daily lives? One could argue that the world is a more “designed” place than ever before-Ms. Postrel eagerly offers Starbucks’ “fresh and distinctive” atmosphere, the “grand mixing zone” of Los Angeles’ Universal CityWalk and Nordstrom’s “shiny holographic credit cards” as examples of the aesthetic uplift experienced by Bob and Mary Sixpack -but do you believe that what the mall-crawlers of America are truly seeking is the joy of self-expression?

Today’s “aesthetic imperative” is more tangled and odious than Ms. Postrel makes it out to be. If, as she so tidily puts it, “[t]he proliferation of commercial styles represents not waste and delusion but the affirmation of personal pleasures,” then why do kids get shot dead for the shoes they wear? Why is seemingly everyone glued to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ? Waste and delusion seem like pretty hot commodities in America’s playgrounds and living rooms these days.

Ms. Postrel makes some worthy points. No one who owns a French press coffee pot, bought the latest iMac or has a tattoo-and that’s a lot of people-would argue with her when she says that aesthetics are not “a value set off from the rest of life. Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life. They are part of it.” But she also feels the need to remind us that we “can’t objectively declare the Westin superior to the Sheraton or Ralph Lauren superior to Prada. Their aesthetic value depends on the individual experiencing them.” The Soc. 101 homilies alternate with academic drivel: “When aesthetic preferences are diametrically opposed, the spillovers are not entirely negative. To the contrary, some third parties reap benefits.” Oh, for the days ….

Journalistic remove is one thing, but it’s hard to swallow any argument about style from a writer who refers to the “high-style home décor” of Pottery Barn and discusses the “expert-system softwear” of 80’s fashion relic Jhane Barnes to such an extent that the relic warrants a mention in the book’s index. Who exactly is this book written for? Academics? Doubtful. Fashion addicts? Get real. Maybe weekend sociologists? Perhaps they will be interested to know that Ms. Postrel believes the world is less of a cookie-cutter place than it used to be. (She suggests we compare a current high-school yearbook to one from the 1950’s, noting today’s variation in hairstyles.) But the sad truth is that we just have more cookie-cutters to choose from. For the precious substance of real style-originality, flair, confidence-has little to do with products, economic status or the ever-broadening availability of the inexpensive holiday lighting that makes Ms. Postrel so giddy.

The real question is whether her premise-that “we are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world”-holds true. There may be more “design” (a word as empty as “gourmet”) in today’s everyday items, but is it really better design? What about perennial beauties like Amish furniture, Japanese bento boxes and African kente cloth? Is the proliferation of decorative pagers, OXO vegetable peelers and, more importantly, changing environmental legislation really about style?

Ms. Postrel is right to examine the recent trend in stricter, visually based building codes (“In Portland, Oregon, you can no longer build a new home whose front is less than 15 percent windows …. Environmental policy is not just about clean air and water anymore. It is, increasingly, about legislating taste”), but I wonder if aesthetics are the main motivating factors in those cases. Couldn’t it be, because of invasive and currently “stylish” shows like Trading Spaces , that we’ve forgotten what neighborliness and community really mean? Rather than living a life of one’s own-a great definition of style-are we too interested in what the other guy is doing to pull down our blinds, to live and let live?

Ms. Postrel cites economic statistics to show how “[r]ising incomes and falling prices mean we can buy more of everything, including aesthetics.” What she fails to consider, though, is what exactly is being offered up for sale. Here’s where we come to the junk. A woman’s cashmere turtleneck “that would have cost the average factory worker thirteen hours of work in 1975 now takes fewer than six.” (Ms. Postrel has apparently never de-pilled a cheap cashmere from Bloomingdale’s private-label table.) A hair-coloring executive says that today the Japanese have come to view hair-coloring as a form of self-expression. Oh, for the days of haiku.

The Substance of Style is an ambitious undertaking, and Virginia Postrel takes us through a near-panting inventory of evidence of increased “look and feel” to build her case. She gives us the hunger for colorful burkas following the Taliban’s defeat, Kinko’s push for improved desktop graphics, G.E.’s remarkable range of plastic colors, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s hair. Yes, Virginia, yes! The world is filled with more things than ever before. But style, I’m afraid, is not one of them.

Josh Patner is writing a book about his adventures in the fashion business .

Aesthetics in the Ascendant-Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?