Aesthetics in the era of disposables
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Aesthetics in the era of disposables

Not long ago I watched the movie Once, which I recommend highly. The main character, a busker in Dublin, plays a guitar that has large holes worn in it. As it turns out, that guitar is the personal instrument of the actor playing the role, musician Glen Hansard. Then I saw Willie Nelson playing on stage before the Super Bowl, and his guitar was in similar condition.

The guitar made me think about aesthetics of this era, where the highest aesthetic value is often associated not with things that are shiny and new, but rather with stuff that looks old, worn, and lovingly cared for. I attribute this completely to the fact that we live in an era when new things are commonly available and cheap. Wal-Mart, Target, and other stores are full of them.

New manufactured goods are cheap, stuff isn’t built to last as long, and a lot of it is going to be obsolete before it wears out anyway. How many people use computers, televisions, or any other electronics until they wear out? Compare a nonstick skillet of today to the cast iron pans of yesteryear. A well-seasoned cast iron pan from 100 years ago is better to use now than the day it was made, whereas it’s recommended that you throw away nonstick pans as soon as the nonstick coating starts coming off.

I believe the turning point in public taste arrived when people started buying new jeans that were already worn out. When I was a kid, all of the brand new jeans in the store were freshly dyed and crisply starched. By the time I graduated from high school, people wore stone washed jeans, acid washed jeans, and every other form of jeans that came pre-aged. We’re still seeing new advances in jean-aging technology. Stores sell new looking jeans for $5. Artfully aged jeans are sold for hundreds of dollars.

What I find interesting is that tastes always seem to evolve to prize the uncommon, or more accurately, whatever is difficult or expensive to create. So in a world where you can get shiny new guitars anywhere, a guitar that looks like the same person has owned it and played it forever is considered beautiful. A century ago when new guitars were hand made and hard to come buy, and everybody used beat up guitars they’d picked up used, the fashion was reversed.

As a parenthetical note, this is what’s likely to be the first in a series of posts about aesthetics that I’m working on.