FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Joshua Glenn| Boston, USA
Monday, 25 October 2010
tags: americas, brand worlds, consumer culture, contributions from, culture, disciplines, emergence, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense
American lifestyle magazines and reality shows are relentlessly on-message, at the moment, when it comes to clutter. Forget any romantic notions about the artist/genius whose studio/office looks like a disaster zone, or the un-uptight family (e.g., the Sycamores in Frank Capra's 1938 comedy You Can't Take it With You, or George Bailey's happy family in It's A Wonderful Life) that collectively refuses to stress out about domestic disorder. The media's message today is 100% modern, all business: Clutter is never OK.
The aesthetic of the spa, which is evoked by the layout of magazines like Real Simple and Martha Stewart's Body+Soul, is a modernist one: spartan, lots of white space, restful for the eyes because there's so little to see. Le Corbusier described a “white world” of precision, clarity, and order, and a “brown world” that is cluttered and muddled; the former is modernist, the latter romantic. But the former is the aesthetic of Dabney Coleman's evil corporate boss in Nine to Five (1980); the latter is Lily Tomlin's heroic aesthetic in that movie. The former is the Death Star aesthetic of the bad guys in Star Wars; the latter is the Millennium Falcon/Tattooine aesthetic. Which side of the Force are you on?*
From the dominant cultural perspective, clutter is a symptom and sign of an out-of-control, excessive lifestyle. There's also a social class angle: yards littered with rusty vehicles, sprung couches, and lawn ornaments are the first thing to disappear when a working-class or poor neighborhood is gentrified. However, in recent years, the moral discourse around clutter — it dates back to the Puritans — has been medicalized, lent a scientific aura. The title page of a feature article (shown above) found in an issue of the magazine Weight Watchers speaks volumes about the mainstream anti-clutter position. "Getting a handle on clutter is the key to living better — and losing more [weight]."
As the author of the feature shown above puts it, "in the same way we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter." I'm pretty sure that this statement is what Aristotle would call an example of ignoratio elenchi, i.e., an argument characterized by a conclusion that does not logically follow from the stated premises… but let it pass. The dominant cultural theme is apparent: Men and women whose homes or workplaces aren't spartan and tidy are fatally, suicidally self-indulgent. In an economy that encourages workers to be rolling stones, it's forbidden to gather moss.
Many other magazine features, particularly in women's magazines, link clutter to psychological stress. In the same way we surround ourselves with clutter, one pseudo-expert after another warns, we overwhelm our fragile sense of wellbeing with mental clutter. Reality TV shows like TLC's Clean Sweep and A&E's Hoarders take this meme to its logical extreme: they visit the homes of obsessive-compulsive clutterers and, in doing so, encourage the viewer to ask him- or herself, "How close am I to being one of them?"
Despite my snarky tone, I'm not opposed to keeping one's household or workspace neat and tidy. Nor do I disagree that Americans consume too much, goods- and food-wise. However, marketers and others looking for an emergent way to signify psychological wellbeing or balanced lifestyle should think carefully before adopting the usual modernist aesthetic. A romantic, cluttered "brown" aesthetic is due for a comeback any time now.
* See Gareth Lewis's recent Semionaut post suggesting that in the UK it's not necessary to choose sides in the clutter vs. order culture-wars.