Dirty backyards and a refined taste in wines: Aesthetics of good life

Posted on September 18 2011 by frank

Examining the backyards of some Nicaraguan countryside homes led me to think about the role that aesthetics plays in good life. These backyards – quite frankly – were far from aesthetic. I do not know how representative they are of the country as a whole but at least in these ones various forms of garbage – buckets, pieces of metal and plastic – had been left to decay all over the place. A few hours of cleaning would do miracles to these gardens because the tropical plants would make a good base for a very aesthetic experience. Yet nobody had done this cleaning for years. Clearly aesthetic backyards was not a priority for the people inhabiting these houses.

Contrary to this, back home I have many friends and acquaintances for whom the aesthetic dimension forms a vitally important part of their way of living. Be it food, wines, music, architecture, clothing or whatever, they have acquired a very refined taste. In their fine-dining evenings they spend hours discussing and selecting the correct wine to their innovative new recipes.

This is fine as it is but for many it is clearly a game where the most important objective is not the aesthetic experience itself but to be ahead of the others: to develop a liking for a new band before others have heard it, to be able to have an opinion about the distinguishing features of every type of wine-grape and to be able to form innovative combinations of haute couture and second-hand clothes. I would go as far as to say that there are many people among us today for whom pursuing this aesthetic dimension forms the main motivational field of most of their daily activities.

Small cat and a big dog

As I have a certain repulsion against such games I consciously try to downplay my abilities in these fields. Many times I have arrived to a party with a bottle of the cheapest wine that money can buy which I have drank straight from the bottle whilst others are parading their wine-choices for today and tasting and discussing enthusiastically their latest findings. Strangely, nobody ever wants to taste my choice. I usually enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of places where things are a bit so-so and aesthetics is not so glaring. This all leads me to wonder why is aesthetics so important element in the life of some people?

According to the influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, taste is about distinction. By having a certain taste I am signaling that I belong to a certain group of people – and almost more importantly: that I am not part of another group. When we, for example, distinguish between working class and bourgeois classes we do not look only at income but rather at their taste as regards clothing, food and different leisure time pursuits. This is why a person from a noble family can radiate an aura of sophistication even when his or her income is almost nonexistent. As Count Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glachau testifies: “Whilst we never had much money, we learned to compensate for what we didn’t have with taste.” Our taste is thus in the end nothing more but an acquired way of signaling what group we do belong to.

With Bourdieu’s theory at hand we start to see how various phenomena of modern times are nothing but ways of playing the distinction game; ways of attempting to put oneself above the others through one’s sophisticated taste. For what else is the recent trend of healthy eating and jogging than a way to distinguish oneself from those who don’t eat as healthy and don’t do running? And what else are the various lifestyle magazines than instruments that help the reader to stay one step ahead in this game of distinctions?

In the France of Bourdieu’s times things might have been relatively simple as regards class: There were the working class, the bourgeois and the nobility with their distinctive manners, hobbies and ways of dressing, speaking and thinking. In modern west the field is more fragmented; instead of clear class distinctions it is more about different aesthetic conclaves with distinguish themselves from others as regards their taste in music, clothing and often also more general life-values. There are the hipsters, there are the hippies, goths, yuppies, hiphoppers and what-not. They all might have started to listen to their kind of music and dress in their kind of way because they simply felt that that’s what they liked. But unbeknownst to them they simultaneously made a selection about what game of distinctions and sophistications they started to play. Their choices made them part of a certain group.


So, if one scratches the surface of any aesthetic sophistication, one finds a person who is eagerly attempting to show belongingness to a certain group and who is attempting to put oneself ahead of the others in terms of the greater amount of refinement that one has been able to acquire in one’s special field.

This brings us back to the backyards of the Nicaraguan village where I made the observations about the non-refinement of their backyards. Even they might be seen as signals in the game of distinctions. The village was formed in the 80s when the lands of a former land-lord were given to the people in a great land-reform. It can be assumed that these people have a strong willingness to distinguish themselves against the higher classes and display their reciprocal solidarity. So by not having too fancy houses and backyards the people are signaling that they belong together, that they are equal. A too refined backyard would signal to the other members of the village that this person is attempting to stand above the others, that the person thinks he or she is something better than the others. The game of distinctions can be played in many ways…

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3 responses to “Dirty backyards and a refined taste in wines: Aesthetics of good life”

  1. frank says:

    Few remarks:

    One should not think that making distinctions and making oneself stand above the others is all there is to aesthetics. In actual human life nothing is so simple. There are clearly some intrinsic qualities in it as well: By learning to cultivate one’s taste in a certain field one is able to have deeper and richer experiences within that field and learn to find and appreciate the beauty that is inherent in life. This applies as much to modern painting as it applies to football.

    But never is aesthetics either simply about pure aesthetic pleasures. A person who thinks that he or she is simply pursuing a certain art for the pure aesthetic pleasures it brings is in self-denial. Aesthetic pursuits are always also about one’s identity and identity is always about identifying oneself against the others.

    And make no mistake: I am not putting myself outside of the game of distinctions by not partaking in the wine-tasting frenzy. I am merely making a distinction between myself and those with a refined taste in wines. I am thus in effect signaling that ‘you have your wine-tasting, I make myself special on different fields’. So not developing one’s taste in certain fields is also a move in the inevitable game of distinctions we humans play.

  2. frank says:

    Some might suggest that the sophistication of aesthetics is largely a matter of economic situation. The more affluent people are, the more time and other resources they have to keep their backyards clean. And the more they feel the need to separate themselves from those who can’t make their places as nice as them.

    But it is not only that. I’ve now spent a few days in a different village in a totally different part of the country. Economically these two communities – the one that inspired this blog post and the one I visited now – are quite much on the same line. Yet in the latter I noticed that keeping things clean was clearly a priority. I didn’t see rubbish lying around and I saw people picking up dead leaves from their backyard. I was also directly told how the village members have regular collective cleaning campaigns where they pick up the litter. So it is a cultural issue also. Something in the culture of the latter village made them put a priority on keeping things clean while something in the culture of the former village made them not see this as an important matter.

    Notably, the villages I visited before where enthusiastic supporters of the revolution whilst in the latter the majority seemed to view the revolution and current government with suspicion. Might it be that the strong collectivism of the former really contributes to people not wanting to stick out by displaying a better image than the neighbour? With my limited sample of two or three villages it is of course too early to draw any conclusions…

  3. […] on kautta aikain liittynyt voimakkasti ryhmätunnon vahvistamiseen, kuten Frank Martela taannoin osuvasti blogissaan linjasi. Viinien maistelu tai taidemusiikin fiilistely synnyttävät kytköksen omaan sidosryhmään. […]

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