On the matter of "curating", the snob effect and jumping on the bandwagon

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(Image: assembledhazardly.com)


I bet you probably saw this coming, didn't you?

I'll bet that you've been wondering what the heck I'm doing with my endless Instagram posts of clothing and home goods and food and purchases and all the while espousing some terrible spiel about consuming less and more discerningly. Yes, I confess I've fallen off the high horse and I've given in to keeping up with the endless pictures of flowers, brunch and shoes. I've been trying to keep up with the holidays, and artisanal jewelry and the artfully arranged coffee cups, and Kinfolk magazines (well, in my defense, I don't do the Kinfolk magazine bit because I find it slightly insulting to anyone with an ability to read, but that's a different story altogether).

Either way, I admit that I've been sucked into the vortex of false pretenses and keeping up with the Joneses who earn about 10x as much as I do through affiliate links. Why? I don't really know. Maybe it's the fact that I'm 30 (ish) and still in school, the fact that I will never be tall enough or rich enough or thin enough or know enough obscure artists or pottery makers. Maybe it's the fact that towards the end of my mid-life, all I have is a rented house and few pairs of designer shoes and the ability to name all The Beatles albums in chronological order, sing along to every single Morrissey song and quote 'Back to The Future' word for word ('McFly! Hoverboards don't work on water... unless you've got power!!!'). It's not a bad thing, being regular - except that nowadays, social media makes you feel like you're really just not good enough.

Over the past year or so, I've had the opportunity to travel to a few lower income countries. It has been a simultaneously interesting and depressing experience, mostly because the pace of globalization and development far outweighs the ability of the general population and the environment to prevail. While I'm glad that more people have access to clean water and education and healthcare (okay, I guess Pakistan is an exception), I've been extremely dispirited with the rate that the most fragile amongst us are being left behind, and the rate at which we seem to be plundering the earth whilst feeling that it's some sort of entitlement for merely being part of the human species. 

When you travel to Bhutan or Brazil as a tourist, all you see are the nice and sugar-coated things; you see the new architecture and the beautiful scenery and the remnants of an odd, bygone culture. You taste the churrasco at DOM, get foot massages at the Aman and profess how great the nightlife in São Paulo is. It irks me that people think that being peasants and having working-class communal dinners is trendy, without addressing the fact that most peasants and/or working-class people don't really have access to $10 beeswax candles and overpriced dinnerware or time to enjoy a communal dinner of haddock and freshly-picked mushrooms.  When you live in Bhutan or Brazil, you see how farmlands and hillslopes and villages are destroyed for mining and dams and World Cup stadiums. You see how hard people work for measly wages and for things that we in the higher income countries take for granted. You see how a piece of meat and homemade cheese and homegrown chilli peppers from your yard in the village will make the most delicious meal because you've worked so hard and don't get to see your family for years on end.

What I've found amusing lately is this new fangled obsession with "curation" - a term that yupsters with time for leisurely pursuits seem to throw around as if they've spend years in training learning the fine art of slapping together several Futagami trivets and Ann Demeulemeester jackets.  It used to be that being a curator meant that you had a degree in the fine arts, or history or something meaningful that allowed you to defend your choices in the matter you "curated".  If you were a curator in a Museum of Modern Art, it meant that you needed to be learned in the works and life of Sebastião Selgado or Joseph Beuys. I'm not even sure if most people know who Oji Masanori is or that Ann Demeulemeester left the company last year. The new direction of "curation" these days veer towards the spartan and heritage and the Japanese. In some bizarre twist of fate, the Japanese who invented the whole wabi-sabi aesthetic is falling for this scheme; Kinfolk magazine is so wildly popular in Japan, the good folks at Kinfolk had to create a Japanese-language magazine and a peasantry-based set of clothing just for them.  The funny thing also, is that the well-curated stores are almost always similar - minimalist website design, quirky item descriptions, the same Japanese household items or the same line of clothing by certain people known for prints and dresses Made in India etc., etc. The only thing different is the timeline of when things go on sale and the prices.

I bring this up because I'm no less guilty of trying to "curate" my life - from the coffee I drink to the dishware I use and the rugs I own. It used to be that people just called it good taste; these days, choosing the right paraphernalia for your home or your body is supposedly a skilled artistry. Some people even choose the skincare they use based on the packaging and how it looks in their bathroom (hint: Aesop). The New York Times ran an article a few years ago on how the word curate may be a reflection of self-inflation (ironically, the article was written by the spouse of a well-known online lifestyle "curator"). I find it particularly true that most people who swing the word "curate" around nonchalantly seem to be the ones that are most pretentious and judgmental

In 1950, Leibenstein wrote about the snob effect and the bandwagon effect which are essentially microeconomic theories on consumer demand and preference. It seems to me that more than ever these days, that people tend to display both social phenomenons. I'm not entirely sure if it's social media enabling the bandwagon effect but snobs seem to garner copycats and followers almost instantaneously. Everyone always seems to be going on about something that isn't really even that good, and only because someone else said it was good. Maybe I'm the judgmental asshole who thinks that everything isn't good enough. Anyhow, I'll give the example of the quality of a certain well-known Japanese linen company that has its products sold in every "well-curated" store known to man. While cheaper than other brands, the quality just doesn't hold up to the ones from Libeco (Belgian linen) or Brahms Mount (woven in the USA, source slightly shady) or the ones that Alder & Co. sells that are manufactured in France. Thorstein Veblen argued in 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' that lower-status members of a society tended to emulate the higher-status class in order to move up in status. Anyone who disagrees with this theory need only look toward Instagram and the mass infiltration of the same pictures with the same coffee cups and magazines over and over again.

All these point to "curate" being the new terminology for the "snob effect". I suspect that coffee, brass trivets and hand-sewn shoes are becoming Veblen goods even though the shoes don't quite fit right or the trivets leave scratches on your table. Why settle for local roasters that charge $12/lb of Yirgacheffe when it makes you that much more pretentious to buy from microroasters that charge $22/lb for the very same beans albeit in a "minimalist" packaging? Can you really taste the finer nuances of melon and strawberries or are you going by what the package says? Which brings me back to my obtuse story about traveling to Brazil. The family I stayed with owned a coffee plantation and could tell the price and quality of the coffee just looking at the raw beans. When I asked if I could get whole, fresh roasted beans so I could lovingly grind it in my Hario Skerton which I lugged all the way across the continent in my carry-on, they laughed in my face and said, "Who has time for that?!"

And maybe that's why I find this whole thing about curating so irksome, that some people have taken what is really an upper-class, slightly elitist terminology and applying to consumer goods meant for the middle-class plebs. We're all pretending to be part of the leisure class when the we're really just at the higher percentile of the income curve with some time to waste. I don't know about you, but the bohemian mothers and the Brooklyn hipsters with the same sheepskin rugs (guilty!) and Eames chairs (guilty!) and the Kaico pans (guilty!) and Chemex coffeemakers (guilty!) don't exactly scream high class to me. It just says that we all kind of like the same items, can afford nice thing, have access to same goddamned websites, and follow the same people on social media. We also probably have a knack for procrastination and a tendency to argue on forums while we pound away on computers for work. Say we have good tastes, say we like the finer things in life, say we like artisan goods but don't say we "curate" our homes or we shop from "finely-curated" stores because it doesn't really mean anything and we're just really jumping on the bandwagon.

P.S.: I feel like I've contradicted myself somewhere but I'm not entirely sure. Also, I apologize for my lack of cohesion in the above rant. My lack of reading of any useful material lately has definitely taken a toll on my ability to reason logically.