The great social prophet in consumer society is the bearer of taste refinement. This is a figure who can assuage our innermost disquiet over the dizzying rounds of having, holding and re-leveraging that make up our economic lives. Sure, we might, from time to time, inspect the great storehouse of disposable junk and value-free financial instruments that sustain the fictions of our pecuniary well-being, and find a still small voice offering variations of the great existential questions “what does it all mean?” or “why bother?” But tastemakers can briskly smooth over our worry-ravaged brows; they realign the often brutal prerogatives of the market with the heaving tremors of the soul, and divine in the passing stuff of our consuming fancies the very essence of our expressive being.
That’s why, in this moment of great material derangement, Vanity Fair has done us the inestimable service of mobilizing the authority of no less than fifteen makers of taste, freely offering their charismatic tips of consumer mastery to the anxious republic.
Sure, the exhaustive inventory is modestly titled “My Stuff,” but the editors at Vanity Fair online have tipped their hands by packaging it in the site’s Culture section. For not only is stuff of all kinds — its extraction, classification, and exuberant fetishizing — one of culture’s main activities; navigating the populace through the bedlam of consumer desire is also one of the most urgent tasks of the culture hero.
For a litany of accumulated dosh, it is admirably purposeful and pared down: This is clearly no time to tarry with inessential matters. With the exception of two Asian entries — they are, after all, the model minority, so why not go ahead and make them into the modeling one in the bargain? — every taste exemplar here is white. Hardly anyone, apart from restaurateurs David Chang and Thomas Keller, can be said to hold down a real job; fashion designers and interior decorators abound, with an occasional exotic variant supplying a thrilling glimpse of how pointlessly reticulated such endeavors can become — e.g., “ambassador for Chanel” Caroline Sieber or “cult” decoupage artist John Derian.
And while every entrant’s taste panoply is subject to the closest forensic inspection, down to preferences for underwear, sheets, toothpaste and “favorite scent,” none is shown favoring anything so gauche as a book, a religious belief or a political conviction. Where more vulgar personalities may enshrine such ponderous culture legacies, these taste paragons always favor the sleek, the streamlined, and the just-in-time. Typically, they list favorite gadgets (chiefly, duh, the iPhone and iPad) and treasured movies (for the most part, a revealingly presentist and maudlin selection, from E.T. and Dead Poets’ Society to When Harry Met Sally and Clueless). In Conde Nast’s version of the Over-Soul, Culture is clearly something you either log onto, broadly sentimentalize or scrub down with.
Indeed, one’s own patient and forensic inspection of the “My Stuff” package yields a discomfiting realization: These people are children. Some, like actress/comedienne/”cupcake aficionado” Amy Sedaris, and tedious Upper East Side candy baron Dylan Lauren, have crafted aggressively marketed images as thirty- and forty-something moppets. Sedaris, the author of the newly published, not-at-all-condescending Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, is shown in the brightly bedecked “craft room” of her New York apartment, and heard recommending “lollipops with cuff — white” underwear, a “45 RPM denim shoulder bag” and an “enamel mouse pin with shakable eyes.” For good measure, she names “bunnies” as her favorite pets.
Lauren — who by merest coincidence, also has a booklike object, Dylan’s Candy Bar: Unwrap Your Sweet Life to promote this month (on top of what already appears to be a lucrative product-placement deal for swoony Vanity Fair coverage) — is of course pictured in the cloyingly colorful environs of her candy franchise, festooned with lollipops and creepy plastic teddy bears. And in the true solipsism of childhood, most of her taste preferences are strikingly Dylan-Lauren themed; her favorite stationery is Dylan’s Candy Bar note cards; her favorite day bag is a Dylan’s Candy Bar tote; and her favorite T-shirt is a Dylan’s Candy bar T-shirt. This, plainly, is one Manhattanite who doesn’t face an identity crisis every time she leaves the house. And when she runs out of her own favorite self-branded accessories, well, there’s always the handiwork of her fashion-emperor father, Ralph: He is, of course, listed as her favorite designer, as well as the creator of her favorite brand of evening bag and bed sheets. We leave the stunted daughter’s equation of dad with night-themed pleasures to psychiatric professionals.
Sedaris and Lauren (oh, and Katy Perry — honestly, I just don’t have the energy to write that entry up) may represent the limit-case of the starchild trendsetter, but the entire roster of “My Stuff” profile subjects shares the same broad kidcult affinities. (The monotony of these elite tastes is a sermon for another occasion, but it is worth noting in passing that when ironic T-shirts, vintage furniture and thrift-style costume jewelry serve as an entire social class’s markers of quirky individuality, its members might just as well chuck the whole enabling conceit here and start donning Maoist uniforms.) They display a strikingly uniform penchant for low-cut Converse sneakers, sickeningly sweet desserts and pet-themed charities. This is to say nothing, of course, of the frictionless infant-gratification menus on their pet Apple mobile devices, which not only serve to decimate attention spans but to promulgate an infantilized relationship to digital culture at large.
Then again, why expect anything other than a long record of self-admiring impulse indulgence from the ranks of the overindulged? They are merely playing their appointed role as assessors of cultural value. As the dour German sociologist Max Weber explained, culture heroes of the sort lionized in the Vanity Fair pantheon possess the most elusive yet indispensable sort of social authority — personal charisma. As opposed to the other main bulwarks of modern social order, tradition and bureaucracy, charisma, by Weber’s lights, issues from the unstable compound of divine inspiration and individual accomplishment. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to ensure the survival of charisma over time, since it is so forcefully inheres in the persona of the culture hero. Charismatics are also, he notes, profoundly anti-economic figures, since much of their appeal is founded on principled scorn of everyday routines of work, the surface niceties of the fallen material world, and the like. And as Weber, a true connoisseur of social bummerhood, explains, the firebreathing legacies of the charismatics fall ineluctably prey to economic “routinization”: “Every charisma,” he writes, “is on the road from a turbulently emotional life, which knows no economic rationality, to a slow death by suffocation under the weight of material interests; and every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end.”
In other words, dear Vanity Fair readers, cleave the wisdom of Dylan Lauren and decoupage impresario John Derian close to your anxious breasts; their dubiously material brands may lord over the cultural horizon now, but they are far too precious and gossamer a thing for this world. After all, as the consummate sociological professionals at Conde Nast remind us, yesterday’s stable of meticulously choreographed taste preferences are merely fodder for tomorrow’s ironically packaged crafts-for-the-poor insta-book.
Chris Lehmann rarely shops in the rarified boutiques of the Village’s East 2nd Street.