Aesthetic lives and the economic taint

I blogged fairly recently about authenticity and how it's not a look. The fact is that I have to tell myself this over and over. Like when a small independent designer launches a collection and I want to support it. Or when I want to improve my fitness but it all seems to come with some kind of expenditure. I know this isn't true, necessarily. But unpacking that is a slow process that sometimes my days don’t leave space for. It’s very easy to get caught up in some spending cycle, believing there aren’t alternatives, because our cities peddle the beautiful life and convenience for a price.

So much so, that it’s easy to think that goals - even non-material goals - are tied to income. It’s easy to believe that everything is just more attainable for those with the cash to spend. It’s easy to talk yourself into spending more and convincing yourself that you’ll be better off for it, in some warped way. I believe part of this is because we’ve knotted up the concept of authenticity with goods and services. And in many ways, we’re right to: It is better to shop at the farmers' market than at the supermarket. It’s better to spend more on one beautiful dress, made locally by a creative talent you know and support than to buy 5 sweat-shopped items for the same price. But, making those either/or decisions is different from being sucked into spending money you wouldn’t otherwise spend, driven or justified by a pursuit of authenticity.

Our blogs and social media can compound these problems and pressures. We Instagram weekend flowers and brunch, lattes and new purchases. (Of course, we also Instagram walks in nature and the light hitting a favourite armchair at the right angle; it’s not all or nothing.) But I reckon it’s fair to say that many people feel the need to find fodder for blogs and social media by spending money. And I don’t mean that we’re walking around weighing up every purchasing decision in terms of Instagram. I mean that from a lifestyle perspective we’ve now incorporated a certain awareness of being on display and that that awareness may be one driver of our decision-making structure.

One of the many reasons I stopped being a lifestyle journalist was because of the way it simultaneously necessitated and devalued product consumption. Even in my small corner there was implied pressure. You couldn’t go to Fashion Week without having a certain outfit, a great purse, make-up just so. But, on the flip side, there was a lot of free stuff being thrown around without reflection. Most of the time, the freebies weren't things I needed or wanted. It was difficult to hold onto a sense of the worth of things when products were being tossed easily into swag bags for you. Objects held so much significance and yet their value was completely washed away.

Easy as it is to be scornful of those who get trapped in this life, it’s worth reminding ourselves that even as readers we’re part of it. Look at the most successful bloggers and the high-consumption games many of them are playing, no doubt driven in part by the appetite their readers have for it. Now, I don’t know if they can all afford it, if their hidden partner is an investment banker, or if they spend some of their time feeling trapped and overwhelmed by what readers want from them: Vacations and Kate Spade accessories, handwritten letterpress cards, weekly flowers, freshly subway-tiled bathrooms, $200 fig trees as a finishing touch. No wonder, then, a right rail full of ads, the giveaways, the selling out to affiliate programs, RStyle, Sulia (whatever the heck it is) and native advertising. And much as I can say I opted out of lifestyle journalism and these blogging decisions, it’s also true that I never quit the cubicle for my blog. Maybe if I had made that jump (a jump we all lauded), I too would have justified doing “whatever it takes” to pay the bills and to grow my business. And, still, even though I chose to opt out of those things, I too feel the pressure.

Some things I remind myself of when I'm in the money spins:
- Every time my income has risen, my expenditure has risen too. Small luxuries are quickly normalized and then those special things lose their special place... and it's pretty sad when that comes to pass
- Some of the work I’ve done for extra cash - mostly freelance work I wasn’t particularly invested in - meant that both the money and the work was all sort of easy-come, easy-go. I was really no better off with it than I was without. Not all dollars are the same... and it's important to me that mine are earned in a way I stand behind, with work I'm proud of. Wiser purchases seem to stem from a solid work ethic.
- And most important: I just wouldn’t be me still if I had the kind of money I sometimes fantasize about. It wouldn’t be just the same me but with a nice house and garden and the perfect sofa and that free-standing tub. It would actually change me. Money changes more than the ease of certain decisions, it changes how others perceive and react to you, it changes one’s own priorities and wants too. It brews further expectations. It creates its own offshoots, some ripe with possibility, others carrying an economic taint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this and about L’Wren Scott. Of course, I'm not a bit like L'Wren Scott. 
But I also believe that all of us bloggers, life aesthetes, authenticity-pursuers, can relate to this article in the NYPost (yup, the Post) to a certain extent. We like to ignore the fact that there’s a price-tag on so many of our pursuits. But loving the “beautiful life” (even the normcore or rustic kind) is not free. Even when we think we’re not materialists, that we like second-hand rugs and flea markets and potted plants, there’s money tied up in all of it. And there’s pressure to complete the look, to finish the room and to share the results.

Pretending we’re immune, too smart and self-aware to be susceptible to these kinds of pressures isn’t doing us favours. It’s true that I sometimes feel like I need things I patently don’t need. I often convince myself that I’m one modest windfall away from utter contentment. I sometimes feel like my own blog carries pressure to look a certain way, build a certain kind of life, even though I try to keep things honest here and come at the stuff from a standpoint of “abstract appreciation” rather than implied consumption. I sometimes buy things I can pay for, but perhaps can’t afford. And I often worry about money in ways big and small. I’ve always been interested in “stuff” and therefore always somewhat preoccupied by money. However, I don’t think the answer is to pretend that I don’t care about design, or that I don’t love beautiful objects because that’s patently untrue too.

And there’s no pithy conclusion to this post, no magical ah-ha moment. Part of the reason I wanted to blog this is because I think it’s perceived as ugly or unintellectual to even raise the economic taint, especially in creative circles. Like my relationship with food and exercise, this is one of a constant reflection and revision, outlining of goals, sometimes adhering to them and sometimes erring into extremes (both of ascetic restraint and devil-may-care indulgence). I don’t expect I’ll ever arrive at a constant state with these things and, to be honest, I don’t want to. After all, it’s fun to let go sometimes and just book that trip or buy that pair of shoes or eat that slice of cake. But I do want to carry more awareness into even those moments and to open my mind to alternatives I may not always perceive in the rush.

Somewhat related posts I've had rattling around:
- We need to value material things more, not less (I agree. I also think that anti-materialism, reverse snobbery etc. are dangerous, dogmatic mindsets. But I also think we need to leave more room to care about non-material things)

- The kabillion blog posts that have been written about working for free, especially those in "cultural" jobs, less comfortable with plain business talk, e.g.. Also, Doing What You Love (a post I that I'd argue against in many ways, but think is worth considering)
- Ben's rent versus buy post, which I've linked to before. I don't know Ben, but I suspect he'd be different in some way if he were financially free to buy both his homes. I've really come to believe that these decisions, these compromises, shape our characters in deep and persistent ways
- The Primitive Accumulation of Cool
- A food take: OMG and Kale
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