Monday, January 18, 2010

Brief: More on measuring how aesthetic the zeitgeist has been over time

Returning to a previous attempt to measure how aesthetically minded people have been over time by using diversity in baby names, let's see if the frequency of relevant words in the newspaper of record agrees. I searched the NYT for "aesthetic" and "beautiful" back to 1852, and here are the results:

"Aesthetic" trends upward from the beginning through the early 1910's -- only some of which may have to do with Aestheticism in the arts -- and then declines until the mid-1940's, after which there is a gradual rise through the mid-1990's, and then an explosion from then until the present. "Beautiful" shows a pretty similar history, except for an initial decline during the 1850s (although the number of articles is much smaller in the beginning). It also has two apparent upward shocks: one in mid-1920's -- perhaps reflecting the 1925 world's fair in Paris that popularized Art Deco? -- and the other in the late 1970's. In the graph with moving averages, you can see how similar their trajectories have been. (They are also similar after 2000, but I left that stage out in order to better highlight the ups and downs in "aesthetic," which are hard to see against the recent explosion.)

They also agree well with the movements in the baby name diversity graph. Those data only go back to 1880, but there too we saw a rise from 1880 through the early 1910's, a slump through the mid-1940's, a moderate increase from then until the late 1980's, when it shot up even faster.

After the dizzying changes of industrialization during the latter half of the 19th C., and especially with the outbreak of WWI, many in the West became disillusioned with embracing global interconnectedness and cultural dynamism. Roughly from WWI through WWII, we became more inward-looking and focused on normalcy. We left that behind after winning WWII somewhat restored our faith in global relations and cultural change, and even more so during the most recent era of increased globalization.

There really does seem to be something about a cosmopolitan zeitgeist that makes people more concerned with aesthetic matters -- and clearly not just because the artists can now find mercantile patrons. It's not as though America in the Roaring Twenties wanted for wealthy donors. And a cynic would say that when the culture is becoming more cosmopolitan, status-seekers will try to one-up each other by showing off just how diverse their tastes are.

But I think it's more due to encountering new and exciting things from those other groups you're doing business with. And not only those across the world, but even from strange parts of your own country. Besides, it's not as if rich status-seekers are driving those trends in baby name diversity -- they're too small to count in data taken from social security cardholders. Ordinary people too get swept up in the age of aesthetics, as Virginia Postrel documents in The Substance of Style. To follow her most provocative example, Wal-Mart's website offers about five different streamlined styles of toilet brushes and as many different styles of toiletpaper holders. Wal-Mart shoppers are far below the elite in rank, and because hardly anyone will get the chance to see their brushed stainless steel toilet brush or abstract tulip-shaped toiletpaper holder, these items are unlikely to be only so much ammunition in the status war.

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