The value of a work of art is a sum of various parts. Beauty is one. Another is scarcity. The simplest way to elevate a work is to make it scarce. The oldest works of art are typically embedded with precious gemstones. The rubies, the sapphires and the emeralds all possess their own beauty and allure, but their composition on a golden chalice does more than transfer their splendor onto the work — it imbues the work with the scarcity of the gems. In this way, the gemstones are not mere decorations, but carriers of scarcity, carriers of subjective human value. In the context of the early works, the gemstones display the power of the owner. They show the viewer the great lengths that the creators have gone through to put together the work, the amount of effort required to find, dig up and cut the little gems gleaming before their eyes.
Scarcity of resources used in the work is the most primitive way of creating value. Another is to create scarcity through labor. Work created by human hands is scarce by its very nature. Every little creative decision and every small imperfection introduced in the making of a handmade good makes it unique, even if the good is based on a common design.
In early days of art, when all labor was done by the human hand, there were two key differentiators of value: scarcity of resources, and scarcity of skill. Either, you cover your golden chalice with a coat of precious gemstones, or you hire a master craftsman to cover it with a most delicate ornamental work.
The age of machine production not only made it easier to mass produce common goods, it made handcraft more valuable by making it more scarce. Now, you could buy a cheap mass produced good that was the same as any other, or you could buy a handcrafted good that was unique to you. The amount of labour needed to produce something always contributed to the measure of its worth, but with the introduction of a machine-made choice (for the most part — the machines, of course, still had to be operated by human hands) the value of handcraft rose immeasurably. Now it was not merely about the difference in the amount or quality of human labor, it was whether the good was handcrafted at all.
The modern aesthetic, introduced in the 20th century, is in turn a reversal of the above dynamic. Instead of embracing the imperfections of the human hand (nicely embodied by the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi), the modern aesthetic embraces the perfection of the machine-made good. The more perfect, the better.
In the modern aesthetic, the carrier of value — that is, of scarcity — is the mind of the creator, and this is expressed both in the design of a thing and its implementation through a mechanical process, which is itself a product of the mind. The insides of a modern consumer product like an iPhone are all products of the mind, a zenith of thousands of years of human civilization, but, as is with most technology, they are hidden from the human eye. All that we see is the outer shell, a shell that expresses through its design the value of the human mind.
The modern aesthetic presents itself as a Platonic ideal. Its shape and style is that of pure ideas. It is wholly abstract, wholly objective. The structure of modern aesthetic is composed of geometric shapes. The color is mathematical, either a pure shade or a logarithmic gradient. The lines are absolutely straight, the curves are perfectly round. The manufacture of a consumer device in such an aesthetic requires no error in the assembly line for the shell must remain pure — clean, smooth, undamaged. Even though human hands take part in the assembly, their role must be hidden, their imperfections removed.1 The modern aesthetic presents itself as a triumph of mind over matter, a representation of idea in reality.
A thousand years ago, the gleaming emerald on a golden chalice carried the value of a work of art. Today, the perfect forms of the modern aesthetic embody the brilliance of the human mind.
- I say this as an observation, not as approval. Turning humans into mindless tools is certainly not a good way of going about manufacture — neither do you preserve their dignity nor use their strengths. That said, the aesthetic itself is separate to the manufacturing process and it is possible to produce modern design without abusing low-wage labor. Software design, for example, is a work of the mind reproduced wholly by the machine. Ideal design would use the human hand for its creativity and the machine for its power, but such a design aesthetic would need to embrace imperfection as much as it embraces perfection, an idea impossible in a commercial society composed of brands that define themselves by the consistency of their products.