The Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style” has radically shifted my views on the history and evolution of aesthetic pleasure. Lucidly written, Postrel keenly observes trends regarding the look and feel of the world we live in, traces historical precedents, and draws fantastic theoretical conclusions.

When she questions the manner in which Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” places aesthetic value in a position that can only be fulfilled once other needs have been met, Postrel references the vast history of of adornment and decoration present in a diverse range of global historical artifacts from multiple economic climates. She makes a solid claim that “aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”

Furthermore, she strategically breaks down the concept of visual “authenticity” that often places enormous value in some objects but not others, and leaves us with the following:

The demand for authenticity appeals to our desire not to be deceived by surfaces, but the pursuit of an objective definition goes too far. That quest conflates deception–forgery–with recombination, reappropriation, and change. It removes both the subject and the audience, the source and the recipient, from the play of aesthetic symbolism. “Authenticity” becomes little more than a rhetorical club to enforce the critic’s taste. (113)

Referencing a vast assortment of sources from Ann Hollander to Walter Benjamin, Virginia Postrel provides remarkable insight into the world of visual culture that informs our lives. She draws important links between what we choose to wear or where we choose to be (“I like that”) with our identity (“I’m like that”). She also makes important arguments that refute the often trivial and superficial assignment of visual culture, revealing the deep history of aesthetic pleasure that humanity has systematically cultivated.

The book ends with the following quote by designer Karim Rashid:

What really endures are artifacts, effigies, things that speak about a time, place or civilization. When people say to me that everything seems trivial or meaningless, I believe the opposite. Objects outlive us, and they are the symbols of our culture and history. (191)

Find Virginia Postrel’s website here:


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