freelance writer & illustrator

The Unbearable Moralism of Ascetic Aesthetics

March 16, 2018

 

 

 

 

When I was in college, I took a course on art of the Dutch Golden Age. Having previously read The Girl with the Pearl Earring in my late teens, I was enchanted by what I thought was the air of mysterious romance that characterized Northern European living in the 1600s. I was in for a disappointing awakening.

 

Much of what I learned in the course made the seventeenth-century Netherlands seem to me, a twenty-something college student in San Francisco, bizarre and other-dimensional. Through their works, Dutch artists of the time appeared virtually obsessed with the coarse relationship between vice and virtue—and, more importantly, with maintaining Protestantism’s influence in Dutch society.

 

I quickly developed a bit of a prejudice against the Dutch folks of the olden days. After learning about the “Protestant work ethic,” which, as Bruce Gordon of Yale University's Reflections puts it, “named and sanctified work and commerce as part of the godly life,” I came to think of Dutch’s society’s positioning of hard work and thriftiness as rungs on an unduly moralistic ladder.

 

Consequently, their “masterworks” didn’t seem, to me, to be worth half the hype they received. They were, after all, just a bunch of paintings about the same thing: don’t masturbate or you’ll go to hell. Maybe not literally, but admonitions of the sort made their way into the course textbooks. Of course, I saw the obvious prophetic reflections of contemporary society in the paintings my professor lectured on, such as through the repeated condemnations of sex work.

 

Like the other obscene activities whose participation the Dutch warned against, sex work was considered a dangerous exercise in excess (it was the bedfellow, after all, of adultery and disease). So were drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco or opium.

 

Conversely, a woman who dressed modestly (i.e., with a bonnet, high neckline, and ankle-length hem) was considered virtuous. This analysis is as dry now as it was back then when I was given two options as a twenty-two year-old undergrad: memorize the seemingly archaic norms of Netherlandish society or fail the course.

 

Since taking the class in 2012, I’ve made scarce attempts to access the knowledge I obtained about the conflicted Dutch Protestants of yesteryear. However, I have been reminded of them recently. My girlfriend and I moved in together a few months ago, and we are currently living on her income alone. Arranging our shared lifestyle is a constant joint effort.

 

What to spend money on raises the question of what constitutes a necessity, and there are almost always, it seems, moral implications to the corresponding answers. Needing less material possessions makes one better than another who needs more, is a common one. Of course we don’t say these sorts of things to each other.

 

It’s not even that we necessarily even feel them about each other. But we have become increasingly suspicious of progressive (and, notably, secular) tastes for anti-excess. Held in high regard for its seemingly noble anti-materialistic intellectualism, the modern practice of exhibitionist self-deprivation, as it turns out, is mostly just a reboot of Calvinist thrift, moralistic cast and all.

 

Luckily, my girlfriend and I aren’t neo-Calvinists: we both have a healthy addiction to red meat, junk food, alcohol, weed, and, when we’re feeling particularly adventurous, the very occasional bummed cigarette, or three, or five.

 

But it’s tough when it comes to the clutter around our apartment, and deciding how to furnish it. How many articles of clothing to keep, and that sort of thing. The decisions that need to be made in those respects have me thinking about the Dutch and their one-size-fits-all approach: less is more; less is virtuous.

 

And thinking about the Dutch folks of the 1600s has me thinking about trends today—the ones that are sold to folks with alternative politics. Folks with non-normative politics. At least, that’s the schtick (still-capitalist-and-non-radical) companies sell their customers on.

 

Take, for example, clothing line Everlane, whose advertisements seem like less sexually exploitative reproductions of those put out by clothing brand American Apparel before it wised up and rehabilitated its image in order to stop alienating its customers.

 

Everlane boasts “radical transparency” on its website—a reference to its honest pricing practices (and the top-notch, non-exploitative factories it employs around the globe). What it doesn’t boast is anything over a size 14. For women, that is. To be sure, according to their FAQ page, they currently only carry a women’s 14 “in some styles.” But not to worry, size diversity is “on [their] mind.”

 

A quick tour of the website, however, may leave you second-guessing Everlane’s fierce commitment to innovative dress, which, I’m guessing, they set out to achieve in two ways. First, by offering a clothing selection whose overall color selection deviates very little from a mostly monochromatic/neutral palette.

 

And, second, by presenting shoppers with diversity in, apparently, the only way it counts: the models aren’t just white. Consider your prayers, à la representation, answered, folks; the marketing strategy of United Colors of Benneton isn't completely dead.

 

In December 2017, Racked ran an article on the dearth of size inclusivity among the emergent class of “innovative” fashion startups. Author Amanda Mull writes,

 

If you read the “about” pages on apparel startups’ websites, it’s clear most of them take care to envision their ideal consumers and what they value. The end result often paints a picture of a curious, engaged shopper who cares about manufacturing practices, material sourcing, and the social or political statement made by spending money with a particular company…None of the brands say it so bluntly, but the shopper they want is intelligent. In that context, it’s all the more jarring that so few entrepreneurs could conceive of a fat person who is also smart.

 

When it comes to Everlane in particular, the website includes, as is custom in the fashion world, a category for women and a category for men, and the clothing is worn by uniformly tall, skinny, and bored-looking people, regardless of race or skin tone.

 

It’s Forever 21 with a markup, minus the chubby and/or fat people and fun, daring pieces. By failing to accommodate non-skinny people, brands like Everlane (and their customers) act as the driving force of the teachings of our white, Northern-and-Protestant forebears: fatness is a symbol of excess.

 

Unlike their skinny counterparts, fat people are too busy engaging in their routinely overly-consumptive extracurriculars to engage in pontifications about ethical sourcing and consumption; to want or need to look professional in their workplaces. The life of the mind is the life of thinness, of deprivation, but only by choice, and a noble choice it is.

 

During the Dutch Golden Age, a life of thrift was thought to put one on the “path to the divine.” Of course, you had to earn your segue into divinity by way of discipline: through a deliberate, discernable commitment to piety. In 2018, the right to be dressed by startups like Everlane is conferred upon those who have the good sense to exist outside of the commoner pool: most women in the U.S. wear between a size 16 and 18. From outside the Everlane, et al, customer base, the thinness these startups court looks a lot like merit-based discipline.

 

We, the progressive mouthpieces, funnel our money into Everlane, and brands like it. We discuss with pride, though implicitly, our unrivaled abilities to deprive ourselves of all that has long been deemed pleasurable: color, calories, rest. We defend, at times bearing our teeth, our claims that our newly minted discipline and deprivation have become, to us, sources of pleasure.

 

Of course, we have come a long way in our cosmetic asceticism, often wise enough to leave God (or X deity/ideology that espouses similarly sanctimonious lifestyles) out of our boastings. After all, bringing religion into the conversation would make explicit our moralistic judgments about fatness and would thus belie our skinny progressiveness.

 

Take the folks who opt to drink what is known as “raw water” (collected from “natural sources”). As Sarah Jones for The New Republic puts it, folks who participate in this practice have “adopted a hardship that poor people suffer, and stripped it of its association with poverty.”

 

The raw water trend appeals to a sentimentality for a simpler lifestyle that eluded the most industrious among us on our treks to affluence (or, at least, to the middle class)—a lifestyle that didn’t call for treating one’s water supply for pesky diseases like cholera.

 

Least shocking of all is that this trend’s major epicenter is in Silicon Valley, and not in communities where governmental failings create poverty that forces folks to live with the horrific realities of untreated water.

 

If you, in an effort to advance your lifestyle of temperance, are still wondering whether to make the jump from tap and bottled water to unfiltered, and are unsure whether hookworm will serve as yet another hallmark of your ability to exercise morally grounded minimalism and self-deprivation, I suggest you first Google its symptoms.

 

A deranged cousin of the raw water phenomenon is the “tiny house” trend, which allows one to put their minimalist lifestyle on display to the maximum extent, thus allowing their family, friends, and strangers, to bask in the unparalleled nobility of their monasticism.

 

Participated in by those whose means typically do not require them to do so, tiny house ownership is the peak exercise of masturbatory self-deprivation. (It’s more or less the House & Garden equivalent of U2’s decades-long attempts to position themselves as champions of “refugee” rights without having any conceivable vested interests in any discernable related causes).

 

Willy Staley for The New York Times characterizes tiny house-living as “a vogue for living “simply” in minuscule, movable homes.” Staley further goes on to say that the “trend manages to cram a tremendous number of tedious affectations into tight quarters: design fetishism, ostentatious minimalism, costly self-abnegation.”

 

Dripping with pious magnetism, tiny house-living is perhaps the closest living relative of the thriftiness that characterized the Dutch Golden Age. However, for all its “simplicity,” this phenomenon is not cheap: a tiny house in New York City can run for as much as $100,000.

 

Participation in the tiny house trend and its similarly fetishistic minimalist-living cohorts is not for the faint of heart—or the light of pocket. However, if your bank account has seen better days, but you’re still committed to making sure your participation in capitalism has a sufficiently moralistic sheen, discarding your furniture and most of your wardrobe can, if done properly, cost you virtually nothing.

 

Of course, if you don’t have a lot of money, and you're tired, and you hate your job, and the world is shitty to you because you’re fat or trans or Black or disabled or any combination of those things or more, you probably aren’t on the hunt for ways to taint your water or toss out your sofa, or what little decent clothing you’ve got.

 

If that’s you, and the barrage of highbrow, religiously-infused lifestyle concepts in this article made you feel like a hell-bound, hoarding piece of shit, rest assured—my girlfriend and I are in the same boat.

 

At the end of a hard day, our pleasures involve taking advantage of our drinkable tap water, sitting on cushioned surfaces, and eating processed foods. She just texted me a burger emoji. A sign that fast food is soon to be upon me. We might get Taco Bell tonight, or Burger King, because we have Burger King coupons, which came in the mail when we first moved in. But we’re sacrilegious like that.

 

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Selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in Art in February 2019.

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