Monday, December 29, 2003

Book Review: The Substance of Style

For an Orthodox Christians, there’s a lot in Virginia Postrel’s book The Substance of Style that generates an “aha.” From the ornately carved caves of the seventh-century Cappadocian hermits to the spectacular mosaics of Constantinople or Ravenna, Christians have shown the need to express beauty in their worship from the beginning.

Postrel shows this need within the context of modern, secular society and gives a good history of the aesthetic pursuit over the past couple of hundred years. She argues that Maslow’s hierarchy of need is not a simply layered pyramid, but a series of incremental choices. A poor family, for example, may not see any way to improve their housing with all their lifelong resources, but they may be able within their means to beautify some small aspect of their home, and so explains the growth of folk arts and the market for the inexpensive gaudy items that people with more money tend to sneer at.

Postrel doesn’t despise these longings, nor the taste that leads to Christmas lights, neon, plastic surgery or dreadlocks. She talks about one’s look as a way of finding and maintaining community, of identifying who I am by what I like. It’s not a bad supposition that others who like the same things will have something in common with me.

She advocates sensible guidelines about balancing the needs around design regulations — on the one hand to maintain a design unity for a group of people who want that, on the other hand to allow design freedom and experimentation to allow new and interesting forms and combinations to develop.

She is not in favor of style over substance, but style as adding value to substance; she argues against the neglect of either. She argues against what she perceives as a certain Puritanical tendency to deny the value of style; I suspect that if the larger society fell into the other camp, she could just as easily argue for the importance of substance. Nevertheless, there are some people in our society who do choose style at the expense of substance and who don’t consider the poor as an opportunity cost in their design decisions. I would have preferred that she touch on that aspect. She would probably say that the decision to buy generic jeans and invest the price of designer jeans into feeding the poor is itself a design decision — and links one with a community of people who decide not to buy designer jeans.

Postrel touches on the idea of artistic truth. Using Leni Riefenstahl’s film-making, she draws a distinction between her groundbreaking techniques and the horrendous subject she chose to romanticize.

Nevertheless, she does not address the dimension of spiritual truth. Iconographer Heather MacKean points out that iconography is as the saying goes, theology in color. Taste or style has a role in iconography, but to have the colors wrong, even the paints wrong, is to get the theology wrong. Art matters, and at the intersection of style and substance, aesthetics matter. Orthodox churches in the United States especially will be sorting out that nest of strings for a long time — what is taste and what is theology? What is custom and what is Tradition? Is the Slavic way or the Byzantine way the “right” way, and are there other ways that might also be “right”?

Even though Postrel doesn’t answer these questions, she does a good job of providing a context for the discussions within the larger society, within the realm of economic choices, within the recent history of people’s longing for beauty.

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