I was watching the Antiques Roadshow program the other day, and was struck by how monetized it was. Everyone was wondering how much their knick-knack was worth – by which they didn’t mean how pretty it was or historically significant or how much pleasure it might give you to contemplate it in the quiet of your own home. Why ask anyone else about that, after all?
No, they wanted to know its money value – and there were some astonishing values. A paperweight worth $5,000, a sculpture worth 20 … I couldn’t believe it. My girl-friend said it just reflected the nature of our society. Capitalism, yes, I get it – though it seems to me there was a time when we cared less about what hockey players made and more about how many goals they scored. And Shakespeare – do we care whether he died rich or poor? Does it matter? To whom? He wrote some wonderful plays.
And I wonder about going to others for validation. Oh, please, Mr. Expert, tell me that this old artifact of mine is precious. And the experts were very impressive, I admit that; they knew their Louis Quatorze from their Early American. But why do we need such external validation?
Human nature, I suppose. We’re social animals. We want to fit in. Or perhaps stand out. Stand out while fitting in, if at all possible. If I like pictures of dogs playing poker, though, I better keep it to myself, at least in the circles I move in …
Fashions change, of course. I was noticing some self-consciously clever ad in the washroom yesterday – the very fact that there are ads in washrooms, let alone self-consciously clever ones, tells you something about the world we live in, a capitalist society gone postmodern perhaps. But at the height of capitalism who would have advertised in washrooms? Has our decorum vanished? Is nothing sacred? The answer to that is probably no; hence the self-conscious cleverness. It is the style of the time. Irony. As if we have all become Oscar Wilde.
Except we haven’t. That self-consciously clever washroom ad didn’t actually work; it wasn’t funny (at least not to me); it didn’t even convey a clear message. Once upon a time if you sounded like Oscar Wilde, you were Oscar Wilde – a lone genius. But there aren’t very many geniuses – and if irony is simply the fashion, you’ll get a lot of people trying to be clever and witty who just aren’t.
In essence this is no different from the 1950’s. Back then the fashion was for earnestness. Ties and suits. Presumably, there were geniuses at that too, but the vast majority were just conforming, getting along, trying to fit in. Now to fit in you’re supposed to be witty and clever, but it doesn’t really mean anything; it’s no sign of genius.
The other day when I discovered something new (and what a joy that is), discovered that in the Muslim tradition it was Ishmael not Isaac whom Abraham almost sacrificed, someone commented, Who cares about these fairy tales? But I care. I’m not sure why. I care about the stories people tell, about what they value. Is it the look of a paperweight or the price it commands? Of course, I suppose it could be both; people can care about money and art. I suppose.
So today we care about making money, or having it, and being cleverly ironic. Post-modern post-capitalism. Or something.