Many years ago, my wife bought a rather sleek pair of Italian sunglasses (with only a little encouragement from me). But when she first saw them, a close acquaintance remarked, “Those are a hard person’s sunglasses!” A throwaway comment – perhaps – from someone close enough not to cause offence – but I remember it as an example of rather stark social discrimination.
All dark glasses inhibit eye contact – thus compromising a fundamental part of human interaction; I suppose this is why they supposedly make the wearer look cool (for which read distant). But why some sunglasses might be deemed to be more extreme than others, is intriguing – a matter of fine, perhaps-unconscious differentiation (maybe it’s down to how dark they are?). Behind it lie all sorts of assumptions about a relationship between an inert item and the decision of an individual person to own and wear it – and it is this that has given me lasting curiosity about such issues.
It is not clear, for a start, whether the critique was aimed at the glasses or the wearer. The implications are quite different, since one is an evaluation of an inert item, while the other is a potentially hurtful personal criticism. Probably, it is the interplay between the two that is most meaningful – and the hardest to unpick.
The opportunity did not arise to enquire what supposedly made those glasses ‘hard’, what ‘not hard’ ones might look like – nor what new feelings had been provoked about their owner. As our friend knew, my wife is not remotely a ‘hard’ person, so perhaps it was the perceived incongruity that was her point. In fact, the glasses had been chosen simply because their owner liked them, and felt they suited her face particularly well – though it would be disingenuous notto wonder what unconscious awareness also went into that thinking. Were the effect of what we wear unimportant, no one would ever bother to differentiate: like it or not, sunglasses have become more than just a practical means of shading one’s eyes.
Trying to understand what drives our own tastes can be difficult enough, but it’s even more so with others, whose real motives we can often only guess at. To what extent may even our own aesthetic be influenced by its likely impact on others? How much more so with others? Which is more important – our own preference or the desired reaction? Can we even separate them? How much disapproval are we prepared to tolerate for the sake of personal expression? How much deception for the sake of approval? This little incident neatly brings us back to the confusion that repeatedly arises between social and aesthetic ‘language’, and its significance for both personal relations and one’s freedom innocently to do as one chooses.
The exchange of social messages is a hard-wired human behaviour, which human ingenuity has extended into a vast array of new fields. Even by default, everything we do is laden with social meaning – a projection of how we see ourselves, but also in some eyes, of our social and economic status. The variety and sophistication of our means of expression now far outstrip our sensory abilities to differentiate with confidence. (Those sunglasses were produced by Laura Biagiotti, whose founder was a progressive Italian businesswoman – but I doubt they were widely seen as a feminist political statement….)
Thus, misunderstandings arise all the time and there is little we can do about them, for the reading of our own signals is barely in our own hands. It is exceptionally difficult to know how others really perceive us; the only clue we have lies in their outward reactions, which themselves may or may not be sincere. Those reactions are interpreted in a context supplied by the recipient and if that is faulty, the message taken may be quite different from any intended. Appearances can be deceptive – and it is worth remembering that people may under-play as well as the converse… Yet if we attempt conscious control, we can end up imposing a straitjacket on our own choices simply from fear of giving offence or being misunderstood.
Underpinning this may lie a question of trust. Behind the sunglasses comment was perhaps the belief that stylistic naivety is a virtue, and those who do make conscious choices must therefore be revealing something undesirable. For sure, people who knowingly control their outward messages are perhaps more capable of cynical deception than those with less self-awareness, though it does not mean this is always the case. There are sound instinctual reasons to consider this – though it may also be a function of prevailing social norms: those suspicions are not necessarily well-founded, and the errors and suspicions are not necessarily the same everywhere.
In reality, the message might simply be, “I like this”.
It is profoundly difficult to achieve objectivity about the sensory experiences that influence taste, even though we often experience them as a seemingly absolute phenomenon. I suspect it lies in the way which certain things tickle the senses more vigorously than others, which can have a striking effect on the receptive observer. This may be why certain sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings elicit stronger reactions than others; things which somehow ‘speak’ to the recipient, and which people often consciously seek out. One’s appreciation may become more refined over time, but the sensations themselves tend to be fairly consistent between individuals. But importantly, receptivity (whether innate or learned) may differ between people.
An aesthete might be defined as someone who deliberately seeks and learns a refined appreciation of such experiences. The rewards are fundamentally internal (which is why people struggle to express them in words) – but it still inescapably involves differentiating between superior and inferior experiences. Over time, discernment can be learned and refined, and perhaps becomes increasingly important for influencing personal decisions.
A status-seeker might be defined as someone who believes they can boost their social standing by the possession and display of rare, valuable and (sometimes) beautiful things. This too implies differentiation – but also an attitude of superiority towards those who do not have them: that is the whole point. It is competitive in a way connoisseurship is mostly not. Often it conflates quality and quantity and places more emphasis on displays of ownership than quiet appreciation. It is perhaps more prone to poor judgement, since its preoccupation is status and external approval, rather than beauty – and there are many overblown, even grotesque, things that in some eyes, at some times, confer status.
But since beauty often also commands a high price, it is at this point that we enter the minefield where social statement and aesthetic merit overlap.
We are so used to associating sumptuousness and ‘luxury’ with high social standing that it can be very difficult to separate the two in our minds – not that certain aesthetic movements, notably modernism, have not tried to point out that beauty can be found in all sorts of simple and non-exclusive things too.
This tendency may be modified by societal contexts. In strongly hierarchical societies, status-seeking is probably more prevalent than in more egalitarian ones. Consequently, one’s acts may well be judged more for their social implications than their aesthetic. Everyday signs of this abound: “That’s posh” is rather different from “That’s beautiful”.
Due to its competitiveness, social differentiation is also likely to be more polarised. It seeks external validation, whereas truly aesthetic judgements are inherently a graded, individual matter, and therefore harder to dismiss. Experience suggests that in Britain, conversation (and hence attention) habitually revolves around social interpretation rather than expressions of individual taste. It is not necessarily the same everywhere.
Savoir-Vivre is not a particularly status-laden term in France. It can apply to doing even simple things with personal style, grace and skill. La Dolce Vita and La bella figura are similar in Italy. It is striking that we do not really have equivalent terms in English – and what’s more, we tend either to lampoon or envy those who manage to embody them.
In France, chic is an aesthetic – but the British have misappropriated the word to make a social statement. Yet none of those phrases is about having: they are about doing or knowing. Quality of life is not something you buy – it is something you create.
Habitual British life is not so much about artfulness as positioning, status and ambition – and where not that, a dull, indifferent uniformity prevails, that refuses to do more than shrug at anything. There are many, many people whose tastes and habits, judging from their behaviour, are indistinguishable. I fail to believe this is because they really are clones – so what is going on?
Accusations of getting “above oneself” can occur anywhere in society where people are thought to be sticking their heads above the parapet, for snobbery is not by any means the preserve of the especially privileged. For the majority who do not want this, ‘taste’ therefore means belonging to a homogenous mainstream whose only real social reference is not to be a snob. Anyone who acts differently risks certain conclusions being drawn…
Another give-away is transience. Societies that are driven by social advancement need fashions to move quickly, since being ahead of the curve is a powerful differentiator: exclusivity depends on keeping the masses at bay, and one way of doing this is through rapid change so that others have no time, money nor inside knowledge to keep up. Fashion drives conspicuous consumption: those who wish to send the ‘right’ social messages may be more prone to rapid shifts in their (current) tastes as they repeatedly gravitate to whatever is on trend. In reality, it is mostly all just more of the same: robotic consumption with eyes, ears and other senses firmly closed; only social antennae awake. Things that move this quickly never have a chance to register or bond deeply with their owners. Those who are motivated more by personal style may stick to what they like, whether it is currently fashionable or not. Fashions change; styles do not. In Britain, the ephemeral eddies of fashion dominate the social uniform of those who strive to exhibit their ‘class’ – except amongst the elite, who retain an unchanging style all of their own…
The problem is that aesthetes and social signallers often appear to appreciate the same things, albeit for very different reasons. In an opera-house audience, how many people are present because they genuinely love the music, and how many because the moment’s social kudos demands it? Does that piece of art on the wall reflect a deep sensitivity, or an investment opportunity to impress? If you ask someone whether they like Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony and they reply, “Which conductor?” are they being pretentious or knowledgeable? Superficially, it can be impossible to tell – but I suspect that those who are concerned with status simply don’t experience the joy of genuine appreciation.
The problem awakens when these groups encounter each other: the majority will form views on minorities, be they (supposedly) superior or inferior – and minorities may have reciprocal views about the ignorance, banality or superficiality of the mainstream majority. Judgements and criticism may be inferred even when none is intended – usually based on perceived arrogance, condescension, or elitism (though sometimes also coarseness). There is a risk that people may choose to self-exclude from things they would otherwise appreciate, rather than attract adverse comment or challenge their wider self-image or tribal allegiance.
Groupthink can balkanise attitudes and behaviours – and this can certainly curtail individual liberty, particularly for those who step outside prevailing norms for even the most innocent of reasons. Elites tend to define and possess the means to exclude those they wish, but self-exclusion by others – inverted snobbery – only makes the job easier. Status-seeking makes it worse because it hands one’s personal validation over to others. Much better just to define, and stick to, one’s own terms.
Behind the outward disapprobation, I suspect often lies a sense of personal insecurity, or else a sneaking respect for those whose independence of mind allows them to escape or ignore such pitfalls. True appreciation is the innocent celebration of our good fortune, not sulking about what we don’t have. The error is to believe that such people are somehow super-human, rather than simply ordinary individuals who have made the effort to learn, to know and think for themselves – and in the process perhaps become rather less ordinary.