Thursday, April 29, 2010

A brief note in favor of glamour

These are difficult times for glamour. But perhaps the difficulty can be traced back to the ‘60s when, in a spirit of radical egalitarianism, the boomers revolted against anything associated with glamour and at times, even beauty itself, usually on the grounds that such qualities are but side effects of injustice or mere illusions to distract people from their oppression as in advertising and mass media. The case against glamor has a long and at times venerable pedigree. The chief problem with cases against it is that they proceed from an assumption of functionalism. That is, they assume that there is no quality of intrinsic value to a thing, only what interest, use, or function a thing has. This theory has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the quality of how we understand our lives because, in fact, a good deal of human life is intrinsically valuable in a way that is not quantifiable.

Let John Berger’s glib definition of glamor stand in for all the rest of the denunciations. Marxist and/or anarchist art critic Berger states the ultimate functionalist account of glamor in his classic bit of radical rhetoric, Ways Of Seeing. “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.”

Of course this move on Berger’s part is to reduce glamour to its social function, which is to be at best a semiotic code for inequality and power over others and at worst an actual waste of money, the spending of which must surely be causing some poverty or hunger either near or far. (Interestingly, Berger’s scripts for Alain Tanner’s films have a certain glamour in their depictions of certain social milieu in Swiss life and even the stubborn refusal of glamour of, say, the sort of hippie communards and radicals Berger and Tanner depicts, nevertheless has a kind of glamour in their very refusal of consumer society).

The resistance to glamour reminds me of an unfortunate experience I had walking through one of the grand old luxury hotels of New York around twenty years ago. The hotel was not unfortunate; it was most marvelous. What was unfortunate was the company accompanying my walk, namely, the computer scientist boyfriend (and soon to be husband) of my female acquaintance. He launched into a loud and angry fury of sentences, all of which added up to a contempt for the human race and its evil and ruinous love of finery “and shiny, gaudy things” and its destiny to drown in its own excesses and waste due to such depraved love.

Doubtless, from a certain point of view my friend was correct. Humans have problems with using up their resources. Humans do tend to overdo things.

But let us put off to one side THAT problem. The only trouble with this man’s invective is that he hadn’t actually SEEN the hotel. He hadn’t seen its paint colors, its moldings, its Colefax and Fowler upholstery, its antique carpeting, its ornamentation, its sensual high ceilings, its cozy use of space, and above all that great chandelier than brought everything together. Other people might be blind to the hotel for different reasons: usually because its STYLE was the wrong one, might have associations with the out of date or the anachronistic.

What I didn’t know at the time was that his kind would be taking over the world very soon - (this was before the dotcom revolution) - the world would soon be run by engineers whose functionalist relationship to life would make any expression of style inconceivable. These are people, (and alas and alack they are not always or only men) who are blind to style in the same way that the color blind cannot see a Rembrandt or a Pollock.

Glamour is connected with an ancient human instinct for ornamentation and decoration. Glamour is one of the ways we remind ourselves that human life in not functional but rather gratuitous. Gratuitous is not only a pejorative word but also connotative of a certain freedom from that which is quantifiable and instrumental.

Even in our often downgraded popular art there is a hunger for glamour. A large part of the appeal of Lady Gaga and Madonna before her is this value of glamour. Both artists at times excel at the art. Many decades before highbrow intellectuals would write about the mystery of Greta Garbo. People always say of certain old movies and movie stars that they are glamourous. I think glamour is connected to Aphrodite and her claims on us. I think I might very well believe in the existence of Aphrodite in the way born again Christians believe in the present existence of Jesus. If we ignore Aphrodite we do so at our own peril. If we reduce life to utility, even in the interest of a kind of justice and fairness we cut off a good part of our humanity - the part that needs to be in awe of a gesture or creation and have our attention focused in such a way that we are literally taken out of more prosaic and practical considerations. As Crispin Sartwell comments pithily in his book Six Names Of Beauty, “The claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is false because beauty is a feature of the situation that includes the beholder and the object, the situation in which longing is made that in turn makes us move or cry or love or come.”

In our refusal of glamour we live in a social situation in which most civilized and well off adults go around in clothes that seem to be practically rags (as Tom Wolfe remarks, “the dress of people today looks as if they are fleeing an invading army.”) And the awfulness of much of the architecture of the last century and the bare, punishing bleakness of our endless highways and graceless suburbs is a sign too of the costs of banishing glamour.

Perhaps there should be a crash course in glamour. A good start would be an MGM musical circa 1936. We could study it for the wisdom of its art directors and wardrobe and costume departments. We could do a lot worse.


  1. Bravo on this post! Glamour indeed needs to be defended in this orphaned age, when utility and "tech" concerns have so much seized the upper hand, and with them the literal-mindedness and lack of poetry which are so much linked to the philistinism you discuss in another post. Let them watch Golddiggers of 1933!

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