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

24 comments:

  1. That Post article really resonated (can't believe I'm saying that?) with a smaller-scale blogger world I see, especially in LA. I was just talking to a friend about how insane it is (and I am guilty of it) that circles of creatives hang out and give each other or trade their products, when most of us can't even afford the products we're given and wear around. So we project this look and feel of a lifestyle we ourselves couldn't even be a part of if it weren't for being friends with designers who make those pretty things. I get a lot of stuff through photography trades and lately I am so choosey about doing that because I can't pay my rent with a damn silk dress. I'm always really sensitive to that when I price my own products - could my friends afford this? Am I being realistic and marketing to my own demographic? It's a tricky world.

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    1. It's so true, Kate. I often notice how many indie creators are friends and share their products among themselves, which makes perfect sense in many ways. It seems almost like a subset barter economy.

      I'm always worried for independent makers -- so many seem to undervalue their time in order to keep their prices down. The fact is it's incredibly difficult to compete with the price expectations large retailers set. And while there's certainly a growing population that appreciates the difference, that appreciation doesn't mean that they can afford to support. I truly appreciate how hard this is from the retailer/maker perspective as it is from the supporter. It really is all so tricky!

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  2. Awesome truth, I love your thoughts.

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  3. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and raising my own awareness of these issues.

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  4. Really great post, Jane. As transparent as we claim to be with our readers, we never talk about money or how this whole shebang is being funded/supported. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

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    1. Thanks Bess. It's not that I think we owe financial confessions to our readers (gosh, we already share so much!!)... but I often think only half the story is being told when indie makers etc. are being profiled. Financial truths once in awhile might take some of the stress off ourselves and others.

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  5. I feel like my attitude toward money is as fluctuating as my attitude toward the future. When I feel stressed and panicked about the future, I tend to economize, but when I manage to relax and "live in the moment" I spend more. But is not as simple as that, of course, because any other type of stress or anxiety can bring on spending urges. Besides that, like you mention, there is the conflict between appreciation for beautiful things and the desire to consume less (although spending ethically does make it much easier to digest, I think you are very right about that, and maybe that's where the answer might be found?). I don't know if individually or collectively we can ever find a good balance, but maybe as long as we stay aware of these issues, we keep ourselves less susceptible to falling into any of the extremes.

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    1. I agree, Lori. I think awareness is key. I think we also need to feel like we can acknowledge feeling stressed and pushed and pulled by these forces without feeling like some kind of brainless shopaholic. It's one of those things that you seems to settle once you say it out loud.

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  6. I completely agree with the key points you're making here, and I find that the internet exponentially increases the beautiful images and products that cross our eyes to help us construct an image of who we want to be, and that identifying with certain brands becomes and expression of ourselves, more than actually, you know, being ourselves or finding non-consumerist ways of expressing our personalities. and how by wearing or consuming certain brands and products, we are pretending that this is a sort of creativity, a sort of expression of ourselves. Particularly in how we dress and style ourselves- we're trying to simultaneously homogenize with our chosen culture, and distinguish our personalities. Brands and companies are only too happy to help us believe that we can only construct this through consumerism.

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    1. I even feel the same is true of handmade clothes... I know many knitters and dressmakers know how much they spend on their craft too. For me, in this post, the issue isn't about brands and expression, it's with how we seem to forget that this aesthetic life we all pursue is often/nearly always driven by some kind of expenditure and that spending of this kind is often overlooked or minimized. And I think that's stressing so many of us out.

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  7. This is a great post. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I've stopped following a lot of "lifestyle blogger" instagram feeds because it was a whole lot of pretty and it all started to look the same, not to mention all of the products that started making their way into each picture. I'm still trying to figure out what this all means - why we feel the need to show everyone what we're buying. Same goes for Pinterest - I found myself spending hours pinning "stuff". Most of it was stuff I couldn't buy. Finally I realized there really was not point to what I was doing - I was actually wasting time when I could be reading books, going on adventures, taking pictures...things that better my life. It's so easy to get caught up in all of it, though, and I think it's because we use social media, which means our lives are now shows and we all are striving for acceptance. I just wish "unique" was favored over "pretty" more often.

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    1. I don't think "unique" is any more affordable than "pretty" though... All these products, even when they're more authentically made, cost money. This is an economy. Even when you feel like you're opting out of the conspicuous kind of label-blogging, the indie-maker circuit isn't a cheap economy either (and it shouldn't be). I think we often think that spending money on authentically made goods is better than the alternative, which it is. But it's still spending money and there's a lot of unspoken financial stress wrapped up in even our authentic / indie / creator world.

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  8. I appreciate you writing this and the general discussion it hopefully starts. I follow a few blogs (or at least pop in regularly) and some of the same people on instagram. There are days when I feel like "what have I done wrong" when I see someone a good 15 years younger than me sporting a purse worth $2K, going on another fabulous trip, plus plus plus. At that age I was scraping together gas money.
    But the other thing I've noticed is that a lot of blogs are starting to have the same voice, and that voice isn't great. They are becoming less personal and more about pushing products. I've already dropped a couple from my reader and am contemplating knocking off another couple. The upside is that I'm on the computer/phone a lot less!

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    1. Thanks. I think we all have that "oh does everybody except me have x,y,z" reaction sometimes (both online and in the real world). Truth is we never really know what lies behind those objects... extreme sacrifice, gift, debt etc. etc.

      I agree too re blogs and voice and how material many of them have become. I wrote about blogging recently and how it has evolved since I've been blogging and how I feel more and more apart from it but also more secure just doing what I want to here in my space. You can read the post here :)
      http://seenandsaid.blogspot.ca/2014/01/peering-out-of-deadlight.html

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  9. So much food for thought here…I'm not certain where to start.
    I appreciate beauty in all myriad of ways. I'm extremely visual,and am stimulated creatively by beauty. I don't have to own it,covet it,or envy the person who has acquired it. I find beauty at the thrift store in a piece of pottery so obviously made by a novice,as much if not more so than the Chanel lipsticks gracing the cosmetic counter at Saks.
    I eagerly await your posts Jane,and love your aesthetic eye as much as your thought provoking,lyrical,highly intelligent writing.

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    1. Thanks so much Kimberly - the kindest compliment!
      I agree. I don't always have to own something to appreciate it... which is why I often post furniture, clothes, art I can't afford. It isn't a huge frustration for me or meant to be an imperative to buy. But... on the other hand there are times I do find myself feeling pressured to buy, or embody my aesthetic.

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  10. Very thought provoking post! I'm mostly a silent reader here, but I wanted to note my appreciation on this one. As a tiny, side activity blogger, I haven't been exposed to that pressure to this extent, but many of these questions resonate with me nonetheless.

    Are we sending out an image of perfection as bloggers, which would make readers feel worse about themselves? Are we inducing consumption? How can we be "authentic" and practice mindful consumption without fooling ourselves about our weaknesses, or demonizing materialism and an appreciation for beautiful things? Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

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    1. Thanks so much Kali. You nailed the push-and-pull. I always felt a bit lonely growing up, feeling that my interest in design was silly materialism. I'll defend caring about fashion and design till I die! That said, it's not an area that we can pretend is divorced from economics and so I think it's only fair to acknowledge that it carries a certain burden, and baggage for many people (in a similar way, I think it's hard to divorce fashion from our bodies).

      Anyway, thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate you breaking your silence!

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  11. Great post! No time to properly comment but I wanted to express my support and appreciation!

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  12. thank you so much for your post. Being a blogger myself, I've always felt the pressure about posting on a regular schedule to keep up readers. However,, when i read advice to do just that, i remind myself that I didn't start my blog for other but for myself. If people care to read my blog and stick around then they are welcome to. But if I start trying to blog to satisfy others than I think i'll start hating it and then it defeats the whole purpose of why I started doing it in the first place.

    I love art and creativity, but it is true that sometimes we get caught up in putting on a perfect image that we stop to enjoy the beauty in the imperfection around us. I have so many creative failures, but I never blog them because they're despicable. But I think maybe I really should write about them and show the dirty room I hide everything in to keep up my "clean" house. Anyway, sorry, these thoughts were sort of random. Thanks again.

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