Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Intrinsic Pleasure of Nice Things

Several weeks ago, while my fiancee went shopping for wedding accessories, I killed time in a Brookstone store. While browsing the items, I came across the clock pictured on the left. I did not buy it because I do not need an alarm clock. Even though I found it a positively eye-catching clock, I did not want to buy it solely for that reason. Such things would invariably make me feel guilty.

So, I am writing this essay in attempt to justify yesterday's purchase of the said clock. I liked its look, and even though I didn't need it, I bought it. Is there, I keep asking, anything wrong with that?

First, I must explain that I am not a frivolous spender. As a teacher, I make a modest amount and as such, don't waste money. Generally I don't buy it unless I need it. This clock is, you might say, an isolated incident. But enough delay; is there anything wrong with what I did?

Like many, I have unconsciously bought into the school of thought that sees buying "luxury" items as a shame, and a sense of shallowness and - pejorative ahead - consumerism. Some theorize that luxury buying is our attempt to gain power and order in our otherwise powerless and orderless lives. Others suggest that luxury consumerism stems from our increasing and insatiable desire to chase after a certain vision of a perfect life (that is, as the word "perfect" connotes, unattainable).

Such frivolity equates, in intellectual circles, to a lack of appreciation of "real" value in favor of ephemeral and fleeting value. As mentioned in a previous post, a television show I watched recently contained a philosopher whose name I don't remember affirming Plato's point that focus on sensual pleasure is surely to miss or ignore the "real" pleasures (like, of course, intellectual stimulants like philosophy). Philosophers, it seems, are Platonists rather than Epicureans.

Similarly, a book written a few years ago by another snooty intellectual, called "The Middle Mind", excoriates those who do such ghastly things as shop for luxury items (or at Wal-Mart) as "middle minds," - those less intellectually equipped than enlightened minds (that presumably buy only ugly things).

I have absorbed these ideas well; they are part of the generation I grew up with. (How many movies and tv shows were made in the nineties that mocked materialism and contained the underlying message that consumerism is the antithesis of a life well lived.) So here I am, feeling guilty about buying a clock I don't need simply because I like the design.

I have mulled over my motivations for buying the clock several times, and must say that I disagree with all of the above theorists. I bought the clock because I like the look of it, and wouldn't mind looking at it every morning. I did not buy it because of a desire to control my uncontrolled life. I did not buy it because I quest after perfection in life. I did not buy it because I am ignorant to non-tangible and more lasting pleasures (yes, I love philosophy as much as I did pre-clock). I bought it...because I like the look of it, and am naturally drawn towards things I like.

And, honestly, I can't see what is wrong with this. Of course, I would be able to spot the flaw if I were one to buy in excess and rely EXCLUSIVELY on aesthetically pleasing procurements to make me feel good. Were I frivolous in spending, the flaw would be a pragmatic one of spending more than I could afford. Were I nothing but a stuff-worshipper, one could question my psychological well being on good grounds (in the same way one would question a person obsessed with plastic surgery as their only source of self-esteem). But I am neither of these. Try as I might, I can't see why my desire for nice items is wrong if not done in excess.

Virginia Postrel, in fact, has written a very interesting book on the subject, called "The Substance of Style." And any reader thinking that I am making much ado about nothing would do well to read her book, as she demonstrates how prominent and present are current antipathies towards people's desire for nice things.

In this book, Postrel makes an interesting but very, very simple argument: that aesthetic value is a very legitimate value, and a thing's form is a legitimate part of its function. Why this is so remains a mystery, but that it is so seems almost undeniable. Our desire to look at nice things can be seen everywhere from the world of marketing to the very real and important value of "first impressions." (In an ultimate irony, even the anti-consumerist author of "the Middle Mind" has to rely on something other than an all-white book cover to sell his books. And I would even move to suggest that many anti-consumerism folks still base more of their purchases on physical appearance than they realize.)

Is such an eye for art endemic to our human nature - a part of our evolutionary past? Denis Dutton has written an interesting case for an affirmative answer in his book "The Art Instinct" Putting value on things' appearance is a huge part of our history, especially inexorable since the human species primarily relies on visual and auditory information to make judgments. Once we see that early humans that had the strongest connection between these two senses and their ability to make good, quick judgments had a survival advantage over those who couldn't, it is but a short leap to the idea that, as an evolutionary byproduct, we acquired a love for things that look and sound good. (This, of course, is just as true if "good" and "bad" turn out to be subjectively defined terms. It is still undeniable that we make judgments about how a thing looks and sounds.)

Embarrassingly enough, all of this is to say that I have no IDEA what made me love this absolutely unnecessary clock enough to buy it (rather than save the money). I know that I like the way it looks, and know that I like the idea of being able to see this nice looking clock every day. But that is the best I can do. To see this very natural reaction as mindless or shallow is as absurd as to see my desire to wear or smell cologne rather than body odor as equally shallow.

In my opinion, theorists who rail against the intrinsic pleasure of nice things are, in this sense, arguing against the way human beings are. They are also making a mistake very common amongst intellectuals - the judgment that since they like intellectualism so much that anyone who doesn't must be shallow, much in the same way some jazz musicians wrongly judge those who don't like jazz as shallow and unintellectual.

So, I guess the reason I bought the clock has to do with the very inexplicable (but somewhat less than sinister) drive to see nice things. My buying the clock did not, in all likelihood, have to do with an eschewal of "deeper" pleasures or a quest for controllability, but rather, a benign desire to see and keep seeing something that is attractive aesthetically. I hope the reader is not disappointed that I am ending this essay on a tautology (I am attracted to attractive things), but it is the best I can do. As much as some might hate to think it, I - and we all - are attracted to attractive things.


  1. I'm persuaded.

    Thanks for the interesting observations.

    Denis Dutton

  2. Our reservations about the intrinsic value of nice things seem to be based on vague concepts of moderation vs. excess. When I hear the phrase "nice things", I visualize shiny cars and big-screen TV's. I knew a girl who made ~$7/hr and was horribly in debt, but bought a $16k car anyway because she "needed to have something to show for her work". All nice things have some kind of enjoyment value to them, but a lot of them fail to live up to the promises of the commercials.

    So many people regret their purchases that they all want to share their "wisdom" about it. The most profitable industry in the world (and certainly the hardest to ignore) has got to be that of inflating people's expectations for consumer products (i.e. marketing). Like I said in the previous post I think people want to feel in control of their desires; they want to protect themselves from being taken advantage of by refusing to have any expectations.

  3. Dr. Dutton,

    It is quite an honor to hear from you on my blog, as I recently read your book "The Art Instinct" and reviewed it on amazon.

    You would very likely be interested, if you've not read it already, in Postrel's book, because I think she focuses on people's aesthetic tates outside of representative art (and even our penchant for "cute" and "stylish" everyday things). It is an interesting addition to your work, which focuses very well on representative art.

  4. David,

    Yes, it is absolutely true that there is a tendency amongst many to spend as the sole or primary means to attain happiness (which, despite what they spend, remains elusive).

    This view has been extremized by many intellectuals, though, as a warning against the buying of nice things in general.

    I love the article on the Swiffer. it is quite amazing that an article would have to be written like that, and that anyone actually believes the commercials saying that "x wiil change your life."

    That is, in fact, the downside to consumerism.

  5. Do the term "Intrinsic pleasure" exists in english?

  6. What is the name of this clock?