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Speculations on the Origins of
Thorstein Veblen's Aesthetic Criticisms

By Jonathan Larson

The notion that Veblen's writings have anything positive to do with the subject of aesthetics strikes many as bizarre. The picture of a slovenly professor shuffling about in mail-order clothing with his socks pinned to his trousers is quite at odds with the common conception of an aesthete. More importantly, Veblen hurls some of his sharpest verbal volleys at the conspicuous waste that is part and parcel of the norms of beauty and refinement in his Theory of The Leisure Class.

The evidence abounds that most of what passed for beauty in Veblen's time thoroughly disgusted him. And since he was neither an artist nor a designer himself, he would never be more than a critic.

Yet what a critic! Of all the occupational categories, it has been my personal experience that artists are the most receptive to Veblen's writings. The reason is simple: Veblen truly understood the problems of the working artist/ artisan and wrote from their perspective. If economics was as open to Veblenian thinking as the artists, his would dominate the profession, for in many ways his aesthetic criticisms have become almost generic.

When I discovered Veblen, I was making a Spartan living designing new solutions to old problems in a neighborhood of St. Paul; where I had restored a Prairie School rowhouse that was surrounded by crumbling Victorian homes.

568-74 Dayton-St.Paul-July-1976
568-74 Dayton Ave. St.Paul, Minnesota July 1976

568-74 Dayton Ave. St.Paul, Minnesota June 1979

Having done much of the carpenter work myself, I had collected a useful set of tools that I also decided to employ in fabricating the furnishings as well. Between restoring the rowhouse and furnishing it, I had many long and passionate discussions with neighborhood artists and architects as to what was permissible for a Prairie School restoration in an historically significant Victorian neighborhood. We like to think we know something about Prairie School architecture in the Midwest because that is where it was invented--largely by Frank Lloyd Wright. A neighbor had one of Wright's early books describing his thinking on design. At the end Wright had listed his intellectual influences and there was the name of Veblen. I had heard of Veblen before and was mildly curious about him as a fellow Minnesotan, but now I had an economic reason for reading him.

Because I "discovered" Veblen through Wright, I tend to consider them bookends that surround a coherent design philosophy. While Veblen described the absurdities of what passed for aesthetics in the Gilded Age, Wright showed us the immense possibilities afforded those who free themselves from that absurd aesthetic. At the same time that Veblen was writing the Theory of the Leisure Class as a lowly instructor at the University of Chicago, Wright was perfecting his design philosophy in suburban Oak Park. Wright's stunning creations make neighboring Victorian homes appear about as silly as Veblen's descriptions of the leisure classes.

Oak Park
Wright-designed house, Oak Park, Illinois

Wright lists other intellectual antecedents of course, and there is no reason to overstate the effect of Veblen's writings. Even though they had much in common in life, I have uncovered no evidence they ever met. By 1899 when Leisure Class first appeared, Wright had already developed many of the significant design principles that would guide his life's work. Like many designers who would follow, Wright used Veblen as ammunition to buttress his case. Because of the simultaneous nature of their work, their agreement is better understood as two people who came to very similar conclusions by very different routes.

As someone who was forced by his work to think in the Prairie School genre, I found Veblen's thinking authentic because of his remarks on aesthetics. His views on aesthetics were so true to my experience, I became interested in what else he might have to say on other subjects. Veblen resonates with artists, designers, and architects because he not only describes what is ridiculous about so much that is called art, but explains why customers and art patrons are so tasteless. Most artists come to loathe their rich sponsors. Leisure Class provides them with footnotes and quotes for why this happens.

It is my contention that Veblen's aesthetic judgements are so substantial, they are just too damn good to have been learned only from a book. There are other important influences such as the beauty of nature in his rural childhood, his father's examples as a working artisan/ artist/ tool freak, the democratic Scandinavian traditions that made design their most important export in the 20th century, and the consequent awareness of the logic of mass production as applied to aesthetics.

Veblen could call himself the son of Norwegian immigrants because Norway had defined itself as a separate culture with the decline of Imperial Sweden. Yet even though he was very much a true cultural son of 19th century Norway, Veblen maintained a lifelong interest in the far larger Viking culture, which while in imperial decline since the 17th century, had once dominated from North America to the Black Sea.

For almost a millennium, the Baltic was a Viking pond which resulted in striking similarities along its shores in religion, governments, town design, economic strategies, and even people.
Veblen attributes aesthetic judgements to habituation. He was not exempt. In fact, his "independent opinions" on the subject of aesthetics can best be attributed to a superior upbringing.

Veblen Farmhouse
The Veblen home in Minnesota built by Thomas in 1865-67--restored 1992-93

The Viking/ Baltic/ Scandinavian design philosophy is rooted in a deep and abiding love of nature and natural forms. Because nature defines what is beautiful, everything we humans create is but a pale imitation of the real thing. To reach Veblen's level of aesthetic sophistication, it was essential that he first understand the beauty of nature.

Biographical sources agree that Veblen as a child was extraordinarily curious about the flora and fauna that surrounded him. His father's woodlot was on the edge of what is now Nerstrand State Park--a beautiful little jewel in the Minnesota State Park system. Stories of him capturing furry woodland creatures for closer examination survive because his sister found young Thorstein's curiosity so remarkable. If one is to develop a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility, the Nerstrand Big Woods is far from the worst place to form initial opinions.

To build from wood, one must first kill a tree. Veblen's father was a carpenter who from all remaining evidence, understood that if one destroys a tree, he is responsible for crafting objects that glorify the beauty that was once in nature.

Thomas Veblen's training as a builder had been completed in Norway. This was no minor accomplishment. Norwegian woodworkers can trace their professional heritage back to the builders of the longboats and the stave churches. It was an occupation that combined craftsmanship with structural engineering and design. Within the confines of Norwegian culture, Thomas was a high-status professional with superbly developed skills.

stave church
Borgund stave church, Norway

Thomas demonstrated his Viking woodworking heritage and structural design gifts in building both the house and barn. Some of the joints employed can be traced back to the longboats. Modern computer analysis indicates his original barn structure is more than sufficient to carry snow and wind loading.

But Thomas did more than build structures that have survived 125 Minnesota winters, they are also quite beautiful and practical because he also understood the organic mandates of design. It is here that the traditions of longboat design still apply.

There is nothing natural about a boat--nothing lives on the surface of the water. Yet no human design must be more sensitive to the mandates of nature for the seas are very unforgiving--especially the seas crossed by the Vikings. When the function is to traverse the angry interface between two fluids, form is all important. Not surprisingly, the most beautiful boats have always been the fastest, most graceful, and most seaworthy. The idea that form follows function is a 1000-year Viking mandate.

Oseberg longboat. Oslo Norway

This is not to say that the Vikings never decorated their longboats--quite the opposite is true. But the Vikings did not lose their design perspective--form and structure were essential--decoration was well, just decoration. There exists an example of Nordic shipbuilding that deviates from the harsh mandates of sound design over decoration--the warship Vasa which was so filled with carvings to please the King of Sweden's royal eye, it rolled over and sank within sight of its launch. In the 20th century, the Swedes spent a score of years and millions of crowns to recover it from the mud of the Stockholm harbor so it could serve as an object lesson for anyone who would ever confuse design with decoration again.

Warship Vasa. Stockholm Sweden

Even though Thomas could never have known the whole story of Vasa, it is obvious he understood the lesson involved. The house and barn are beautiful because they are highly functional, robustly crafted; a lesson in elegant proportion and layout combined with a love for the intrinsic beauty of wood. With the possible exception of a two-toned paint scheme in the dining room, virtually nothing in either structure could be dismissed as mere decoration.

By the age of ten, Thorstein would already have understood two basic elements of what was to become his aesthetic ideals: nature is the source and definition of beauty; but when men create, their creations are beautiful in proportion to the functional requirements of human survival in nature.

Watching his father work would have also taught Thorstein other valuable lessons about the nature of human creation. Great building is a function of organization, planning, and making wise decisions--in short, it is about taking adult responsibility for what is being created. No one told Thomas how to build his farm--he built from principles gleaned from traditions of excellence. Thorstein would also learn that the limits to the possible was constrained by the available tools. Humans simply cannot transform nature without tools. The relationship between tools, planning, and design would fascinate Veblen throughout the whole of his social analysis and would in many ways, define his life's work.

What is called the industrial revolution was in reality, an explosion in the capabilities of tools. Most economists and other social observers have missed this fundamental point--Veblen never did. If one learns as a child that tools merely define the possible, one is never trapped by the notions of technological determinism. The existence of factories does not in any way mean that slums are inevitable, for example. Better tools should lead to better societies--if they are used well. The whole of Veblen's social criticisms can be summarized in his frustrations over the huge gap between what was possible and what was. When he refers to the Wall Street maggots as industrial saboteurs, he was not being cute or satirical. Rather he was expressing his most fundamental social rage.

As the tools of mass production became more sophisticated, the logic of Veblen's social criticisms became more obvious. Besides Wright and the Prairie School of architecture, the possibilities of sophisticated tools would manifest themselves in other design movements that had social overtones--Bahaus being the most obvious. Essentially the idea became that if goods were mass produced, consumption would become more democratic.

In many important ways, both the Prairie School and Bahaus were design failures. Wright was a singular genius and in spite of efforts to spread his ideas at Taliasen, his students were never very good. The attempts at democratic production of Bahaus designs were notorious flops. The great Bahaus designs such as the Barcelona chair cannot be mass-produced and much that was, is extremely ugly.

Taliesen, Spring Green, Wisconsin

Taliesen theater
Student Theater, Taliesen

Significantly, only the Scandinavians truly understood the possibilities of great mass-produced designs. The origins of the Scandinavian design movement are usually traced to a thin little book published in 1911 called "Beautiful things for everyday use." The essential recommendation of the book was that factories should employ artists to assist them in improving the quality of their output.

This seems in retrospect a less than earth-shattering idea, yet the outcome was a Scandinavia whose products became internationally respected for their great design. To understand the great success of "Beautiful Things" is to understand the cultural motor that drove Veblen's aesthetic criticisms.

1) The logic of the machine age is driven by the realization that mass production is only possible with heretofore unheard-of accuracy. Within a few constraints, consistently "perfect" production had become the new norm.

2) The most important of these constraints was that such accuracy was only inexpensive in regular geometric shapes--especially the combination of circles and straight lines. Other forms were possible but they were very expensive and suffered from less production accuracy. Regular geometric shapes are very rare in nature and folks are not especially pleased by them--associating them with the unnatural and ugly. Most of the early output of the machine age was universally considered hideous.

3) The role of the artist was to design pleasing variations of geometric shapes. If this was impossible, the shape must be so pleasing its large production volume could justify the far more expensive tools required by irregular shapes.

4) With regular shapes, it costs exactly that same to produce something visually pleasing as ugly. The same is only slightly less true for irregular shapes--generally speaking, one irregular shape is as expensive to produce as another for a given application. The only serious cost consideration comes when an irregular part is substituted for a regular part at the bidding of a designer who is arguing only aesthetic considerations.

5) Form is especially critical if form is all you are selling. Decoration, the traditional method of relieving the monotony of regular shapes, is not especially compatible with machine production because machine-produced decorations tend to become rapidly boring as well.

6) Folks can be "educated" to like certain shapes and styles for short periods of time, but certain forms will eventually dominate the markets. If people can be aesthetically educated for short periods, they must also be receiving a long-term education. Long-term aesthetic education is demonstrated by the emergence of schools and trends in art. The life-long, persistent, and permanent aesthetic education, however, comes from nature. If you intend to bet the company on the success of a new design, the safest bet is to borrow your forms from nature. (One can almost hear Veblen muttering, "I TOLD you it was habituation!")

Noted Veblen scholar Clarence Ayres correctly pointed out that technological progress was driven by the interplay of science and industry--the advance of one was required for the success of the other. The Scandinavians demonstrated that market success driven by aesthetics was best accomplished by the interplay between design and production. The two giants of Scandinavian design--Hans Wegner, the father of

Hans Wegner chair

the modern Danish furniture industry and Alvar Aalto, the dean of Finnish architecture--both made a lifetime practice of working closely with favored artisans.

Alvar Aalto stool

This manifestation of social democracy is still widely honored in Scandinavia--the last time I visited the Orrefors crystal works, a designer and glassblower were collaborating on a prototype with a view towards evaluating the possible production problems. The relationship between the two was clearly one of deep mutual respect. Beautiful things for everyday use is a highly democratic concept--it works best of the people engaged in the production of these goods are democratic in spirit and in practice. This Veblen understood as well.

It has taken most of the century for these rather simple concepts to become universally accepted here in USA. Business Week annually awards a prize for industrial design and the Harvard Business School now has a professor of industrial design.

The Japanese have taken the concept one step further by locating their design studios in California. Their logic is that because an automobile is by definition an unnatural product, aesthetic clues from nature are limited--especially now that the possibilities of wind-tunnel design have been largely exhausted. If that is the case, it is best to locate design studios in an area where amateurs have been attempting to define "carness" for decades--an equally effective form of aesthetic habituation.

Because the distance between Japan and Southern California precludes the sort of regular face-to-face collaboration perfected by the Scandinavians, an alternate strategy for production cooperation has been used. Essentially, the Japanese have told their designers, if you can draw it, we can build it. This stems from a realization that computer-controlled machine tools have now more or less equalized the costs between regular and irregular parts.

Much evidence exists to support the contention that Veblen would have found much to like about late 20th century industrial production--especially in the fact that in the main, good designs usually supersede bad ones. That this process has taken so long says much about another of Veblen's great conceptsthe preservation of archaic traits.

For even while the triumph of great aesthetics could be detected in the USA of the 1980s, this decade was also marked by a resurgence of leisure class values as Veblen describes them. One can only speculate on his treatment of the Yuppie phenomenon. Aesthetic triumphs also combined with social decadence in the 1920s which leads one to wonder, are aesthetic considerations merely another sign of decadence. The evidence suggests as much.

The 1920s and 1980s shared an important similarity--they were both very difficult for the people of production. This in part validates the notion that artistic excellence is a product of hardship--the starving artist phenomenon. As production conditions become more difficult, design is seen as economic salvation. But as decadence deteriorates into economic collapse, artistic impulses lapse into far more austere forms.

This suggests that missing from the Jazz Age/ Art Deco and Yuppie eras was a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical role of natural laws in the ideas governing aesthetics. This time, the only salvation from the miseries of the late 20th century industrial societies will come from the ascendence of a design aesthetic that not only incorporates the forms of nature, but the processes as well. Until economic thought understands the nature of human design, little can be done about the current industrial-environmental dilemmas.

Veblen was the only political economist to truly understand the economic role of aesthetics. What he could not have known was that someday design would become economic's defining issue rather than an interesting diversion. His clear-eyed logic that would become institutional analysis was aesthetically accuratemuch more than he could have ever known.

RETURN TO: Correcting the history about T. B. Veblen

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