Walking through Old Montreal with my Mother, popping into galleries filled with 5000$ paintings (and people buying them!), we came across the strangest store. Called “Hyper-Stylish Books and Objects”, it was superficially a book store. But, unlike any book store I’d ever seen before – all of the books were wrapped in plastic. So, you purchase the books without even flipping through them! And then I looked at the pricetags – for a large collection of golf course photographs the cost was over ten thousand dollars. Books on the shelves looked not so different from the bookshelf at an art gallery bookstore, except again, all covered in plastic wrap.
The answer is of course, that it is not a book store but an object store. None of these books are for reading – they are for decorating rooms, for looking at, mostly at the spine.
Is this so strange, today? That books might be used as objects of style, of decoration, of “comfort”? No. In fact, the store fit in perfectly with the art galleries – perhaps art is being consumed in the same way – as decoration, as style, as prestige. Not as transgressive, evocative, form engendering. Or is this opposition now false? Is art’s fully authentic, magical act something sold by the yard? If so, would not this hyperstylish object store be the epidomy of such a commodification?
I am not averse to the ownership of fine things – what might be in some interpretation “hyperstylish” objects. Aside from a stack of library books, desk is cluttered with a piece of dinosaur egg, a stone sculpture, an orange solar lamp, an art-nouveau stainless steel french press, even a 1930’s copy of “The Floating Republic” – a historical chronicle of the British Naval mutinies of 1797. What is the purpose of these objects, these idols? These ideals? Is it not to comfort, to show off, to dwell alongside?
Is it perhaps that the quickly observable superficiality of the plastic-wrapped bookstore conceals a common essence to things and our relationship to them? All things of this sort gather us, reflect us, bring us home. Things are what we want to be, which in late modernism is always also how we want to be seen – but not only this! We really are how we desire to be seen – there is no “fooling”, there is only a re-inscription of reality in terms of pure appearance!
The question for ethics here, for “how ought one live” is whether there is any measure which allows us to judge one set of things from another – whether one persons idols are more soulful, more genuine than those of another? I do not see how, without positing a set purpose for such objects/things/idols, any such measure could be drawn.
But does this mean that we should pay no heed to what we surround ourselves with? Does this mean we should, because of this lack of a standard measure, stop judging others by the content of their house rather than the content of their character? Of course not (although I would caution against the latter). Rather, we should concentrate on being mindful of the purposes of our idols, our objects, our things, such that proper measures can be drawn given the uses, values, purposes, and directions that draw us to acquire and tend to things.