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June: Aesthetics of Eras and Change

Architecture of Various Apple Stores

To live in one’s own time is to inhabit a world where we encounter and live with aesthetics that were largely others’ ideas and preferences. I mention this only because the greater (and at times, at least, the greatest) part of our public and social lives is throughly and intimately intertwined with the widest array of aesthetic choices that we simply cannot escape if only because we have left the four walls of whatever is our home, if we are so lucky as to be housed at all. General environments, like clothes, are those things in life that “never shut up”.

It would be hard to overemphasize how much I hate this architecture of the Apple Store.

But if I were to be neutrally descriptive (and I can be because I do have a working familiarity with the history of architecture and architectural styles) and even partly empathic (which, in all honesty, does not come as easy for me as dealing with questions of styles) I would say, as a result of a guess, that the cultures, businesses, designers and architects that made this building and the great many others like it, wanted to escape the burdens and perceived “heaviness” of physical and historical life - with all of its unwanted memories and all of the many boundaries and generalized opacity.  

Of course, the problem, from my admittedly narrow point of view, is that the architecture that reflects these “undesired” qualities often looks better or is more interesting, and sometimes frankly, more beautiful than is an architecture that is in conformity to current or contemporary ideals.

Compare this vintage photograph of the old Bonwit Teller Building:

Architecture of Bonwit Teller Building

There is of course one school of thought that it makes little sense to compare two radically different retail stores in and from two equally radically different eras and, needless to say, a so-called “luxury” retail store like Bonwit Teller had a far narrower audience and intention than the Apple computer store which purports to be for “everybody”.

But if you consider further that there were a great many buildings around the country that had features in common with Bonwit Teller, whether in terms of materials or design, the comparison becomes somewhat more justified. Any building, like any novel or piece of music, is the end result of myriad choices and choices have at least something to do with the tastes and preferences of many people, even if we concede to the determinists of the world the belief that there are no real choices.

The Apple Store, in deciding to create a physical space so bereft of most of what went into any physical space in any known, previous era or epoch, is essentially announcing to the world that they are if nothing else transparent and supremely light, possibly close to not needing to exist or take up any space at all. Of course we all know, or should know, that the cult and excess of transparency has not been all to the good in our current moment. An aesthetic like that of this store is not just rejecting color, or ornamentation but perhaps the reality of a human (humane?) embodied existence altogether.

It is also never matter of the question of glass or not. I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre in Paris is one case where glass feels to me just right. Here the Louvre and Pyramid. Both do so much work for the other and the net effect is anything but bereft.

Louvre and Pyramid by I.M. Pei

What we really are talking about when we discuss such matters is the aesthetics of overarching eras and epochs. We never inhabit a world without particular aesthetics, usually reflecting the tastes and preferences of one majority or another of people. (If all of this is the doing of so-called elites then there are many ways, little discussed, of where and how those elites have common overlap with regular non-elite folks)

I have followed architectural aesthetics over quite a long period of time. For example, I read Tom Wolfe’s FromThe Bauhaus to Our House and Robert Venturi and  Denise Scott Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas roughly at the time of their initial publication!

Perhaps audiences of our podcast with  the most casual, even fleeting, familiarity with the sensibility of your host will know that I have long had an abiding interest in the 1970s. This interest, hobby, or if you like, obsession, developed as an attempt to understand a particular period of historical time that seemed to me outsized in its wildness, excess, dramatic interest, and vibrant color.

One of the inevitable results of any kind of focus, however, is that we might not be able to experience the qualities or even virtues that comprise those objects or matters that have eluded our focus. There might be a great deal that we have simply ignored due to our energies having been absorbed elsewhere.

In a fuller honesty I think practically every human being alive is someone to whom this attribute can be applied. It is something within in the finite nature of earthly time and within the nature of choice itself - in Isaiah Berlin's sense of choice - that creates this. Nobody can be an expert in everything and many of us maybe can’t even be an expert in a single thing, alas and alack.

I have not “moved on” from the 70s. But I have been studying the 80s and 90s to the degree that time and comprehension can allow. Decades have had an extraordinary power as well as the larger periods of times that we could call eras. In future posts I will return to specifics from those twenty years but for now I will speak a little more generally.

I remember a commentary track but no less a figure than Carl Reiner - for his son’s film The Spirit Of 76, wherein Lucas Reiner paraphrases a friend’s theory that the 90s were basically a continuation of the 80s, making the two decades one self contained era.

Still images from the film Spirit of 76

Now when the film was even made and distributed the 90s had barely even begun, so we are getting the point of view of very young Gen Xer dealing with the aesthetics of the 1970s from a decidedly late 80s point of view and in the latter commentary track getting points of view well into the 1990s.

It is most striking, however, not only that this film was an early work by Sofia Coppola, one of the film’s designers -  as a teenager already obsessed with the 1970s - but that in listening to such a commentary track you are getting multiple perspectives over what is a great distance of time for any one human lifetime.

Carl Reiner’s career and sensibility goes back to the fifties with The Dick Van Dyke Show,  with Mel Brooks and their joint creation The 2000 Year Old Man and was himself the directors of one of my favorite comedies - the partially EST/Werner Erhard inspired Oh God with John Denver and George Burns.

And in addition to Carl Reiner, with his son Lucas Reiner and Sofia Coppola you are getting people with the Gen X sensibility of your host, we who grew up having the 1970s directly inflicted uponisus. (Although to be a wee bit more precise Sofia Coppola, having been 17 years old when she made the film, was too young perhaps to have fully experienced the 70s). Carl Reiner is, through no fault of his own, uncomprehending during this commentary track of many aspects of more recent culture - like certain rock music and fads and fashions - because in a very real sense he is a creature coming well before the 1970s or 1970s. Indeed he is of what I sometimes call the “pre-rock era” to which I have devoted some episodes of my aesthetics series: this would go back to the the 30s and 40s! He is somebody who would relate more to Margaret Whiting, say, or Helen Morgan, than to Taylor Swift. All of these are examples elucidating the nature of historical aesthetic change itself and that aspects of any one human and individual character will be influenced by these larger changes, even a single and singular famous writer/director and comedian.

Of course the entire question of looking at demarcations of eras in this way is bound to be contested. As a reader - and booster - of Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties, to which I devoted a book lunch episode, I am very familiar with an author who very much considers the 90s a universe unto itself.  It is fashionable now to say that decades don’t exist, or don’t exist in the same way, and to additionally say that the 90s was the last decade that was a decade, or, more pithily, “the last decade”.

The reason for some of these disagreements, as is usually the case in these kinds of discussions, is never, or rarely, a matter of information, knowledge, or even education. It is not that this or that person knows a decade because they were there.

I can tell you that I know the period of the 70s through the 00s incredibly well and know it better than a younger person who was at the very least only a little child during the 00s,  and never had any direct experience of the 70s through the 90s.

This, however is only one kind of knowledge.

The hypothetical younger person might still learn an enormous amount about this time in which they never lived, for example, through great research. They might be able to stand back and see truths I might not be able to see precisely because I lived through, and they did not, the same period. In this one sense my greater knowledge might also be a greater bias which in turn will reduce my knowledge, if this makes any sense. And if you think about this younger person they are in exactly the same position as any historian; an entire profession is rooted and dependent upon being the kind of person without experience, especially when dealing with hundreds and thousands of years into the past. And I will say that this lack of experience is itself a kind of knowledge, a strength.

Making this admittedly philosophic matter denser still, since we are discussing aesthetics, the very matter that is such an incredibly important part of our lives, we will still have to deal with our implicit attitudes towards aesthetics themselves and, speaking bluntly, these attitudes have often been more disparaging than not. Aesthetics have often been relegated to the category not only of the superficial, but of a kind of decoration or packaging that is added to some allegedly more important “content”. All along on this podcast I have been saying that this assumption or prejudice gets things exactly backwards.

All aesthetics contain universes of historical discontinuity and change, human desires and preferences and creation and construction in and through time.

Each of us is partly at the mercy of the time in which we find ourselves. Note I say partly: I am not saying there is no role for agency or whim and self creation, perhaps even larger than we might realize or cultivate, but that such agency is never total and is always limited. We come into a world and, hopefully, gain at least some acculturation into the world win which we must live.

One of the extraordinary things about Curb Your Enthusiasm (1999-2024) that has finished in a twelfth season, is that it is the rare work of art that takes as its explicit subject or theme, the very question from this post: of how an essentially invented culture, any culture, really, with all of its glories and all of its flaws, and, though a mixture of both the natural and artificial,  is nevertheless invented or “made up”. It could all be otherwise. (And contrary to what some on the Left think that otherwise might be even worse that what is). Curb entertains what might occur were an entire society stop instructing its members in all of the implicit and unwritten symbols or codes that go into any social order or culture. Or, in what is more or less the same situation, when an unusual individual or person, unwittingly calls attention to the “made-up” nature of it all. (Larry David)  Or, what would happen if there were no common belief or measure but a motley array of various different kinds of beliefs and measures, niches, and cultures that live only inside their own jurisdiction, uncomprehending of other jurisdiction. In other words, what would happen were we to come finally face to face with our authentic pluralism, when all of preceding society and history was devoted to the implicit suppression of our real pluralism, making this extraordinarily painful and heartbreaking state of affairs at least partly a positive one, in showing us who were were all along - without enforced consensus.

Curb was as deep or serious a show could get while still often trafficking in broad comedy, itself another rare feat.

And since we are in June I should feature some aesthetics that has something, however little, do with our present, or at least a popular environment in times of year such as this one, and a moment from Season Two of Curb Your Enthusiasm might be appropriate - or not.

Moment from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2

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Jun 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great writng !

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