No ideas but in things
—William Carlos Williams
It is as though the bar for aesthetic acceptability has been raised unilaterally. Whether this is a result of a generation having come of age under different architecture and album design or of Apple having taught the masses what a curve means, good design is so ubiquitous now, and the collective eye so trained, that the vagaries of generations past smack of serious deprivation; we use the term “aesthetic crime,” and mostly we use it to reference a particular decade in American production. All this good design sense can be blinding, breed complacency, etc., especially here in the Northwest, where even government buildings – libraries, fire stations, city halls – once the bastion of the bland, are so dedicated to graceful, progressive monumentality, that it is hard to keep in mind that there is nothing “natural” about these choices, that it wasn’t always this way, that, as the poet Jane Kenyon writes, “It might have been / otherwise.”
Indeed, trying to tell my students what the world was like in the 1980s is an exercise in exotica. You couldn’t get coffee anywhere. There was literally no place where you could go and sit to study, chat with friends, do a bit of journaling. There was your house, and there was the bar. And bars weren’t quiet and cool like (many here) are now. They were loud, smoky and dominated by the jukebox and the pool table. You couldn’t go and write in one like Hemingway did in the Parisian ‘30s. And beer? Forget trying to get a beer. People drank Miller by the gallon. Budweiser was the “King of Beers.” You drank the soda pop that the TV told you to, wore the jeans and sneakers that were ordered by your caste and ate nonorganic, factory-farmed food. It wasn’t that nothing mattered; it was just that things didn’t matter.
Enter: recycling, the Internet, craft brews, thrift stores, grunge rock and cappuccini, and suddenly, when I want to send a birthday card, I go to a boutique shop where I rifle through stacks of letter-pressed stock on hand-made paper, beautifully designed limited-edition prints, usually run on a vintage machine and usually out of someone’s garage. Suddenly, when I get a birthday card, it’s not a semi-fancy holder for the cash I hope is inside but a gesture — often, one so lovely it precludes the necessity of a gift.
The plums on the table matter again, because the table is solid wood, hand-planed by a friend of mine, and because I bought the plums from the farmer at an outdoor market; they’re organic, local and in-season. So delicious. So cold.
In short, “the thing” has done a 180.
John Keats attempted a schematic answer to the “what is a thing anyway?” sort of question in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1818, dividing “Things” into three types: “Things Real, such as existences of sun, moon and stars — and passages of Shakespeare; Things Semi-real, such as love, the clouds, etc.; and Nothings, which are made great and dignified by ardent pursuit. It’s a good thing he got out of doctoring; Keats makes a bad scientist. What he calls “Things Real” are gaseous nebulae, about which he could have had almost no certainty, and bits of poetry. Of course, there’s a sense in which these are the most real things a human can encounter – I teach Shakespeare and believe his work to be with Keats’s the lasting-est of human productions – but it is the poetic sense that believes this, not the scientific. This is not a problem, unless one is trying to erect a system of delineations whereby we can better understand the nature of the thing.
Still, in elevating Shakespeare’s writing to “Things Real,” Keats has his finger on the pulse of something that the city also seems to know: that there’s a quality of craftsmanship – whether applied to poetry, product design or the distillation of spirits (alcoholic or ethereal) – that moves things up the categorical chain into a new kind of being. “To change the world” is now, strangely, a cliche, but the made really makes the world different. When Jean Baudrillard asked, in his final philosophical mediation before his death in 2007, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared, his question was as much about the notion of disappearance as it was about the notion of the (every)things doing the disappearing. It’s a semi-real question posed by critics, curators and certain dwarf planets, and it is left for our designers – poets, consumptives, craftsmen – to call back across the distance (of time? of the country?) to answer.