Thursday, January 21, 2010

The con of connoisseurship

Thorstein Veblen, from "The Theory of the Leisure Class":

"The gent
leman of leisure becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel... This calculation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a live of ostensible leisure in a becoming way."


Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell elaborates:

"The gentleman is in fact a prisoner of his preoccupations, owned by rather than owning these outward tokens of position. And there is no escape for him or anyone else."

A one-two punch from two tart social observers, reminding me that the feverish pursuit of "the best" wastes life energy in a particularly soulless fashion, pun intended.

After forty years of full time work, I'm not exactly of the "leisure class", but had enough free time over the holidays to fake it. On New Year's day, I spent several hours trolling Esty for a pair of earrings. Ninety some pages of listings yielded one outstanding designer, a half-dozen so-so offerings, and eighty-nine pag
es of scary or overpriced dreck.

In those two hours, I could have babysat a friend's newborn, made biscotti, gone skating, or enjoyed a good movie. I had the vague, dispiriting sense of misuse of time. (I'll post on the one standout soon.)

Then I read Kingwell's "Ways of Not Seeing, On the Limits of Design Fetishism" in the November 2009 Harpers, and considered my trolling from a philosopher's perspective. This is Kingwell's enlightening book review on Deyan Sudjic's "The L
anguage of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects".

I wondered, Does all this stuff-knowledge really matter? Is life better if you can identify Manolos from Maddens at 500 yards? How vulnerable am I to status spending?

My worst sheep-like behaviour is elicited when I'm having a business meeting to pitch my services with someo
ne who prizes status, which is common in the corporate world. I want to be chosen, and fitting in increases my chances.

If my client is a woman, I often get the full-body scan, that head to toe once-over, and I fall short of perfection. No Pink Tartan jacket, no Jimmy Choos. But because of my age (not expected to pack into a Prada mini) and quality of attire (unrecognizable brands but well-made), whew, I pass.

In private life, I would not carry a conspicuously logoed bag if you gave me one. At the meeting, my briefcase flaunts its schmantzy name.

Unmasking the desperate game of status signals is only part of the endeavour. I no longer want to hunt so avidly. I want to shop at a few good shops and patronize several beloved artisans whom I respect for the beauty and quality of their work. That would not be Coach.

Finding those exemplary few takes research. Several treasured sources have not survived the recession; that's why I was earring-hunting on Etsy.

I don't deliberately chose my purchases to elicit envy. But I have not renounced buying, either. I'm still lifted by the joy of a well-chosen necessary object. OK, mostly necessary.

Maybe connoisseurship is not the issue; being insecure or anxious enough to require the security blanket of status objects is a sadder state. I'd like to get completely free of the desire to impress anyone through my possessions.

When, if ever, do you buy to impress others? Do others' possessions impress you?

19 comments:

Frugal Scholar said...

This is really a masterpiece, Duchesse. And a wake-up call and eye=opener and all that. I have to complete a bunch of work so I don't have time to respond as I should. I'm sure others will. I think the internet (I'll be logging off shortly!) is a curse in many ways, allowing us to endlessly search for stuff and fritter away a lot of time.

metscan said...

I share many of your opinions. I shop only in certain shops, I have a jeweler I trust, I´m not into showy logos. The main reason I buy `a brand´, is because it is some sort of a certificate for me of the product. I buy what I buy for myself and I´m being really honest now. My friends have never even heard of someone like Dries van Noten, even YSL is known by only a few. But I know. And for me, that is what matters.

Mary said...

I recall the days when as a teenager, our circumstances were not sufficient to purchase Villager shirtdresses with Peter Pan collars. In fact, we made most of our clothes. I learned about quality in a very different and lasting way and that experience set my standards and expections for quality goods. Having said that, it did not free me as an adult from the heady hunt for the perfect apparel, accessories, or goods. I've spent far too many hours in the malls and online, in pursuit of whatever I felt I needed to feel complete. While my search was not been for brand names to impress, it was a search for more to feel complete. Added to that hunt was the quality requirement (value for the price) that added untold hours of searching. Thankfully, I've settled the "enough" question for myself and have edited my belongings for a number of years. And I've honed that quality thing so that a quick glance is sufficient. So to answer your question, it is not recognizable brands that impress me in others selections. What does impress me is when I see someone who has established their own style, in well made, well fitting garments that can't be tagged to a manufacturer or designer.

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

Impressive post.
I am aware of brands, guilty of patronizing a few high end retailers but working in a Middle School I dress fairly casual. I live within my means, splurge a bit and save elsewhere. I do shop local and have a couple of favorite shops, The Chanel quilted bag does catch my eye...I saw a rather dowdy woman open hers up beside me at the Market and I confess I swooned, did not comment, but took in all the details that screamed QUALITY!

LPC said...

I've gone the other direction:). After an entire upbringing devoted to shunning logos and status and prestige, with a concurrent secret desire for some of that stuff, I'm now more open about my crass self. That said, I shop way less than I dream.

Mardel said...

What a marvelous piece. I too shop in certain places and have a jeweler I trust. I've made conscious choices not to pursue status and yet, I am well acquainted with the distinctions. I sometimes wonder about myself.

When I was younger I was more prone to insecurity and envy when I would encounter the successful status-aware in either in my career or as an arts patron. Now I am more able to look at that part of myself that can admire certain things while accepting that I have made other choices. Still, I do occasionally squirm when I find myself in the company of the status-oriented, although not as much as I used to.

metscan said...

Just reread my comment, and didn´t like the shallow clang of it. I really don´t want to impress anyone with my stuff. Something someone wears may interest me, but I don´t think I will have to have it too. I´m happy with what I´ve got.

materfamilias said...

While I am reasonably brand aware, the labels I favour tend not to be the ones that have much cachet in the corporate world, nor even in a fashion/style one, except at a much more local level. I posted long ago about deciding not to buy a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes because while I liked them well enough, they didn't make me swoon and the price I was paying was for a recognition value that they wouldn't get in my tribe -- small city; academic folk; outdoorsy West Coast islanders. I've been amazed, since I began virtual socializing in the blogverse, to see how much people pay for bags (when I can find wonderful quality, great design, imho, for $4-500). I do wonder, though, if that were my everyday milieu, if I would succumb -- especially if I were working in an environment where these signs of status enhanced one's competitiveness in the workplace.
Again, interesting post -- I'll be sure to check back to watch this conversation develop.

Duchesse said...

Frugal: Frittering expands to fill the time available, If I;m not careful :)

metscan: Some of my friends know all the labels, some don't. But it's the younger corporate types who are more likely to say something about the maker of what one is wearing.

Mary: You took me back to the days- in summer, I worked as a long distance phone operator to pay for Villager outfits. I "had" to have them at college. Quality of life depended on it, I'm not proud to say.

hostess: Oddly, I'm touched by the mental image of a "rather dowdy woman with a Chanel bag". Know of at least one woman who is quite large, so bags are her only opportunity to wear designer. Just like me with Prada, I cannot fit into a thing.

materfamilias: I remember that post! I too have chosen things to fit in with my milieu. Or not, and the "mot" items were among my costlier mistakes. I have been known to shadow someone on the street with an amazing bag (well, for a block) but do not indulge for my own beyond the price you mention.

mardel: I sense that you,like me, see it but wish not to buy (literally and figuratively) in. Still when I see someone with a magnificent bracelet I've always dreamed of, I feel a twinge of envy. Then the weird part: I might wear a ring to work and someone asks, "Is that real?" and I answer "No"- when it is. What is that about?

Lisa said...

Your post is a timely one for me. I was watching a documentary last night, maybe some of you saw it too, about the shrinking world of haute couture. Some of the women interviewed were truly connoisseurs of exclusive hand made garments and value them as works of art while others were simply dressing to suit their station in life and to keep pace with their contemporaries.

I think the first women are connoisseurs and the second are not.

There's a vast difference between appreciating something of value because you love the quality of materials, craftsmanship or history of it and buying something just because you crave the status that it allegedly confers on you. And, I say allegedly because I've been around enough monied people to know that the most of them shun logos and while you think your making a winning impression, they're not even playing the game.

So, since the definition of connoisseurship means being an "expert judge" and doesn't require acquisition of the item, we can all be connoisseurs of something and smart enough to live within our means.

s. said...

Wow, Duchesse. Yes, yes, yes.

And, you noticed how many a husband falls into this trap on behalf of his wife? Thrilled to, in his mind, flex his status by showering his Little Woman with Chanel, Tiffany or Tory Burch?

Beyond even brand or logo, sometimes I am even wearied by my hunt for superior quality or design. A part of my brain wishes that everything I own/ wear be thoughtfully constructed, witty or fine. But these days I find myself ever less-willing to put the time & effort into hunting down such treasures when "good enough" leaves time for other joys & money for other priorities.

Truly, these days I'd usually rather help replace a furnace at a struggling school and buy myself a pair of shoes at Target than own a pair of hand-made Italian loafers.

LaurieAnn said...

Excellent post Duchesse. What I would like to be able to find are more well made, well cut, pieces in superior quality fabrics without obvious designer branding. I know that there are boutiques out there carrying items like this; those small labels from Italy perhaps, but I just don't know where they are. So sourcing for me is an issue. Even my designer pieces don't scream a particular designer because my styling is rather severe and I specifically select pieces to wear from year to year without reference to a particular designer or trend.

Duchesse said...

Lisa: Wish I had seen that. A woman creates a different impression saying she is are preserving the couturiers' art than she would by saying "I'm buying them because I can." Thanks for your distinction between admiring and acquisition.

s.: I'm hoping to eventually have a daughter in law who would kindly do that for me.

LaurieAnn: There are boutiques like you long for out there, mostly in large urban centers or resorts. I've posted on this; they are growing ever harder to find. Some also cater only to small sizes (not me!)

Mardel said...

Duchesse, I have to respond to your comment/reply, because you get at something that does plague me. I choose not to buy into status, but buy quality that I appreciate and fits my own choices, and yet I still feel envious, and somehow smaller when I see someone wearing something I have admired or envied, or pulled together in an expensive way that I have rejected. And yet, when I am wearing something very nice that I love, I cringe when asked "is it real" or "is that crocodile" or similar questions. I too have been known to deny that "it" is real. How can I be envious of other people's status statements and yet be so self-conscious of my own? I suspect this is an issue worth exploring. I would say that I love these things for themselves and yet I deny them because I don't want to be grouped into a category merely because of the things.

Duchesse said...

mardel: Thanks for the "me too" as was embarrassed to say that but want to be 'real'. Will post on the reasons why as it is a complex subject and I'm sure many have something to say.

Vildy said...

I enjoy your blog tremendously. I would do exactly what you do - flaunt the right signals - if I had to be in that sector. Only problem with it is that it underestimates the audience as falling for that but oh well.

I try to season my lust for some item some other person has with a good dollop of the realization that outfit and person go together and enhance each other. One of the things I notice is that a very pleasant expression is really what gives an outfit pow. Look at Jane Birkin and cover up that grin and you've got nothing.

Robin said...

I buy to satisfy myself, with an eye to the "myself" as I would like to appear. In my current life, I am doing drudgework 95% of the time. So for the other 5%, I want to wear beautiful, well made and fitting clothes that make me remember I will not always be doing (motherly/daughterly of elderly parent) drudge work.
I have and love several good pieces of jewelry. It is art, and unlike clothing, will hopefully be worn by my daughter or other family members someday. I love to think of my daughter wearing my Mother's wedding ring someday.
I do dress for others, but only the others I respect and admire.

Duchesse said...

Robin: Agree entirely about jewelry! 95% drudge work sounds draining so I hope too that the 5% will grow.

Karen Karlsen said...

I love discretion! I buy only for my own delight. I don't wear logos, no one can tell if my cardigan is Chanel or J.Crew. I get immense pleasure from buying a quality item with a pedigree, but it's my secret pleasure! If you happen to like it on me, that's a bonus because I afforded you some delight too!

Mardel: Hmmmm, Who's asking you if your things are "real"??? I think you simply respond with a non-sequiter (sp? sorry) like, "Oh! I'm glad you like it, too. I feel fabulous when I carry this bag." Hopefully your friends get the message that you're not willing to answer and they won't ask twice. Then go ahead an revel in your favorite pieces.