Beauty, burgers and Wilde's blue china: on the power of aesthetics

Do the "consumers of radicalism" Jon Moses refers to in his recent essay actually exist? An exploration of beauty and rebellion, through the lens of our relationship to the aesthetic.

In March 2012 I took the train from London to York. I arrived with my friends at King’s Cross station, newly refurbished. We complained. We criticised the non-descript modernism, the peculiar honeycomb structure of the ceiling, tinged with pink light, a pseudo-naturalist touch that leant the concourse and the outlets of the usual corporate suspects a comforting, womblike glow. The space, we felt, was deeply offensive only by virtue of the great pains taken to be inoffensive in every possible way. The new King’s Cross, we decided unanimously, was a place that nobody could ever really love, but most would find difficult to hate. We board the train. Two women are sitting at the opposite table. As we roll out of the station, one of the women leans in at the table, first words. “Doesn’t the new station look nice?”

In openDemocracy’s last Friday essay, Jonathan Moses explored the tendency for capitalism to emulate or appropriate even those cultures that originate from a desire to disrupt it. The theme is nothing new, Che Guevara and the Soviets know all about life on a T-shirt or tracksuit.  Moses’ assessment is rather a reminder of an old danger, one made all the more timely by a society outraged by crisis(!) and austerity, and yet apathetic about politics. His is a warning against a consumer culture that will sell your protest back to you whilst doing nothing to alter the injustice that made you want to protest in the first place. Moses writes at one extreme about the characterless, glass-and-steel buildings that conceal the labour relations that built them, while at the other he dissects Byron Burgers, BrewDog and MEATMission, the culture of Dude food and the punk-grunge irreverence that uses bare wood and hanging wires as an aesthetic antidote to conformity. That all this is provided within the convenience of a consumer culture is, needless to say, the final insult to the radicalism that first produced the aesthetic.

There are a couple of stones Moses leaves unturned. MEAT arguably treads closer to nihilist than radical, with water called ‘government juice’ and one burger on the menu named ‘the dead hippie’. In the case of Byron, Moses looks at the Upper Street (London) outlet, decorated as a (painfully contrived) ruin, whereas what I always found more interesting is how the chain creates its decor depending on the punters and styles typical of a local area. A north-east London outlet gets the ‘ruin look’, Cambridge is upholstered in royal green and brown leather, while the residents of Manchester have a matter of weeks before they find out if their new outlet will be styled for Madchester or industrial revolution chic. The Byron model is that of a parasite adapting to the body of the host.

I would argue that we are seeing not only the emergence of consumable radicalism, but also a corporate response to the human need for curiosity and chance. The ubiquitous deli chain, Pret a Manger, has its policy of a ‘joy giveaway’, whereby staff are instructed to periodically give a customer their coffee for free. Bistro-come-bakery, Le Pain Quotidien, have an elaborate tale celebrating the small number of red bowls that are inserted randomly amongst their ordinarily beige ceramic bowls. These are rationalised, top-down initiatives implemented to lend consumer experience a sense of the random in a world that has been meticulously predicted and planned. The article, ‘Rebranding London’, raises perhaps the cruellest incidence of this, whereby historic buildings have their facades protected even as, beneath the walls, development is free to force out local business and pursue the newest and most garish forms of corporatism.

This leads us to the question, who is it that is being tricked? In other words, who are the assumed consumers of the radicalism? The critique implies individuals possessed of political persuasions at once receptive to radical non-conformity, and yet sufficiently lacking in scrutiny that they fail to spot the contrived hand that created it. Does this individual actually exist? Is the Žižek lament of a population sold inauthenticity one that was drawn-up by – and on behalf of – those who have clearly not bought into the illusion? Meanwhile, those who are consuming may well not have defined themselves as radical to begin with. The reflection begins to sprawl, not least because within the code of consumer capitalism is the proviso, the nod to each of our individual intelligences, that everybody else has been fooled by the ruse we ourselves have spotted. Perhaps the entirely gullible consumer is just as much a creature of fiction as the Spartan cynic who has spotted the hypocrisies, and somehow managed to stop consuming.

Living up to my blue china

A brief look at the human relationship to the aesthetic is rewarding. Levi-Strauss advanced aesthetics as part of a bricolage that in turn creates the emotional, mythical tapestry of society, constantly drawing on the objects humans find around themselves. Though his work was ethnographic, it is significant that we no longer afford our own society the same gaze anthropology is expected to lend other cultures. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida makes the useful distinction that society is made up of many ‘Texts’ that need to be read. In so doing, Derrida facilitates the understanding that beneath the visual of the aesthetic lurks much more, but he also frames the idea that not all Texts will be visual. It is Oscar Wilde, however, that provides some of the most accessible accounts of the effect of the aesthetic. His famous line, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”, presents the notion of aesthetics as existing in perfect proportion, creating entities that possess a pristine sense of balance beyond that which humans could ever hope to attain.

For my money, Wilde was wrong. His existence was more significant than that of the aesthetic of his fine china. Yet in consciously and openly scrutinising the triumph of the aesthetic over himself, he admits to the allure that corporations from Byron to Givenchy mean to harness. To look at the social consequences of this, Lord Henry’s statement from The Picture of Dorian Gray is apposite:

“Beauty is a form of genius, is higher, indeed than genius, as it needs no explanation… It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”

Oscar Wilde acknowledged the triumph of aesthetics

If we take beauty as the highest form of genius, we can understand how growing injustices are tolerated in modern society. Taking Wilde’s perspective, consumer society has not deprived us of fairness and freedom in exchange for nothing, but it has given us an abundance of Beauty in return. Lavish experience is now bestowed upon us: we have been made princes, masters of rebellion or sophistication, or simply owners of garments and accessories that will sparkle for us without end.

It is also valuable not to separate our experience of visual aesthetics from our interaction with other short-term, shallow Texts, sensory encounters that we experience quickly before moving to the next instalment. A similar analysis might also be made of our relationship with news headlines, Facebook notifications, growth forecasts, outpourings of mass public grief, polished pop sounds, foods with high sugar content or synthetically enhanced flavours. What slowly takes shape is a population, and at this point, we may as well refer to ourselves more as a ‘species’, that takes short, shallow doses of pleasure, ease or activation, assembled in such comprehensive bricolage that we need never stray far from something else carefully designed with our user-experience in mind. We are accustomed to a superiority of form over substance so all-pervasive that the triumph of the immediate is complete.

Just past his two hundredth birthday, Søren Kierkegaard remains relevant in helping to explain (if not quite understand) what is happening around us. For Kierkegaard, life consists of the finite, the infinite and the tussle between the two. The banal, physical and finite world craves the meaning of the infinite and ethereal, while the infinite craves the physical presence of the finite. What we see in the sensory experience that stems from product and place is a concerted effort to load the finite with the infinite, transforming life and experience from an organic and time-intensive process, into an endless stream of nanomoments that synthesise what might once have required history, engagement and accumulation. Moses refers to the monotony of modern architecture, the glass which does nothing but reflect our very own individuality right back at us. In Wilde and his blue china, meanwhile, we are left to consider the prospect of humanity crushed by the aesthetics we created through our own longing for the infinite.

As in any school of thought, scholars of postmodernism see their particular discourse as the tool by which we make sense of a world without the many structures and institutions that might once have ordered it. The idea is that postmodernism is smart, rational, empowering; humans outfoxing chaos by the power of intellect. The premise here, however, is that the world around us is in disorder, spinning into a post-structural web of contradictions, distraction and manipulations of truth. And yet what if the scholars have it the wrong way round? What if postmodernism does not describe the world outside of us, but rather the world inside our head? The atoms of the world continue to move much as ever they have done, and it is only in the space between our own ears that the structures have collapsed. The intricacies of postmodernism are direct evidence of the elaborate contortions of thought required to piece things back together.

If carefully designed aesthetics and Texts empower us as individuals eager for emotional experience, perhaps the lasting problem is for those of us with a Text of social and material equality at the core of who we are, for whom there exists the unsettling thought that the equality we are being offered is not the one we wanted. If someone is indeed experiencing a sense of radicalism, euphoria, or plain beauty, is the greater problem that they are… or that we aren’t? “Subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity”, as Kierkegaard would say. As far as the women boarding the train in a newly renovated King’s Cross station were concerned… the world had just got slightly better.

Kings Cross Station. Image: Craig Shepheard

About the author

Julian Sayarer writes at (this is not for charity). The site and blog arose from his 2009 world record for a circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, a protest against the corporatisation of sport and human endeavour. He is currently writing a book about the experience and is a cycle courier by day.