Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vanity of vanities (and a lot of fun!)

My wife and I receive the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and recently I found myself reading the Fall 2013 issue, “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table,” written by a Met curator, Jane Adlin (with contributions by a research assistant, Lori Zabar). This Bulletin issue accompanied the Met’s exhibition of “vanities” (the name for this item of furniture, as well as for much human frailty).

Vanities? Well, yes. It turns out that vanities, or dressing tables, were a form developed and explored over 5 or 6 centuries. For most of that time, they were the showpieces of the rich, and so these seemingly prosaic pieces of furniture were remarkably elaborated over the years. And as art transformed, so did vanities, with remarkably inventive variations on the original form from Gaudi and others. All this may now have more or less come to an end – the catalogue observes that nowadays no one has time for the elaborate preparations that the dressing table facilitated (though I think that’s an exaggeration) – but much human ingenuity, money, labor and artistry went into the exploration of how to provide a setting for getting dressed up. And the tables are really beautiful!

But what’s true of vanities is true, more or less, of everything in our lives. The bookcases, chairs, tables, glassware, dishes, toilets and everything else we bring to our daily rounds have been made and remade over the centuries. We have devoted vast effort to shaping each of these items; there’s a whole tradition around each. Our world is almost overwhelmingly rich in these traditions.

Meanwhile, what seems to be happening now is that computers make everything faster. There is a tradition of fashion, for instance, and part of that tradition is precisely that tastes change, so that fashion never stays completely put. But now, my wife tells me, a Spanish clothing manufacturer she has admired no longer creates new lines of clothing every quarter; the cycle today is 15 days! 24 new rounds of fashion every year, and what’s to stop the speed from increasing? If fashions change because we gradually grow tired of seeing the same thing again and again, and if digital imagery means we can see the same thing again and again very quickly – or if the tremendous multiplication of things we can see shortens our tolerance for second views of anything – then the cycles must get shorter and shorter.

The 24-hour news cycle is another example of the same phenomenon. I’ve heard a government public affairs person talk about the critical importance of getting a statement out to the media a few hours early, because those few hours shape the hours that follow. Things move fast, and ever faster!

I realize I sound a bit breathless, and I do feel that way too. But I don’t feel bad about this profusion of culture. The world is unbelievably rich in the things that interest us, which we make more of every day. If we could spend our days exploring our rich world, we would be fortunate indeed.

It’s just too bad, and somewhat incredible, that while we multiply inventions, in poor countries and in parts of rich ones many other people are living lives of utter desperation.

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