Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bringing Back the Aesthetic of the Useful

One of the most common objections I hear to implementing more energy-efficient solutions in our everyday lives is that people don't like the way they look. Standing at a solar panel display at a home and garden show, you could hear people talking with one another about how solar hot water would be nice, but who wants such an ugly thing on their roof? Neighborhoods in many parts of the USA have CC&Rs prohibiting hanging out one's laundry, and vegetable gardens in the front yard are equally forbidden. Right now, our country is caught in the last thralls of the Aesthetic of the Useless.

This aesthetic can be seen everywhere from the starving fashion models on the cover of magazines (in countries where food is scarce, thinness is hardly to be valued - only in a culture of plenty can we exalt in emaciation) to the sterility of the bark mulched and shrubbed subdivision landscapes, devoid of any biological diversity let alone food-growing potential. I think a sea change is blowing in, but people will hold tightly to their last public displays of uselessness.

Myself, I'm finding that the more I live around people who value utility, the more aesthetic I see in this kind of lifestyle. After all, how many fabulous photographs of clothes dryers do you see? Meanwhile, Flickr has entire groups dedicated to beautiful pictures of nothing more than drying laundry.

Benvinguts a Sant Andreu
Originally uploaded by TalkingTree

In the caption for this stunning image, the photographer tells us that "Nearly everyone in Barcelona, if not all of Spain, hangs their clothes to dry from balconies and roof tops."

Meanwhile, photographer g. s. george shows us an image of well-utilized urban space in Venice:

Clothesline City II
Originally uploaded by g. s. george

And homeowners Stan and Priti Cox in Salina, Kansas have transformed their suburban front lawn into an edible paradise, paving the way for other homeowners to embrace the aesthetic of the practical in this Edible Estates project. In returning to more sustainable lifestyles, we might shy away from making such bold moves, worrying about "what the neighbors will think". I've had people ask me whether my neighbors mind my chickens roaming the front yard, or my wintertime laundry solution of hanging clothes in the open doors of our south-facing garage. But often, it just takes a few "early adopters" to turn the tide in the other direction from where things are currently headed. So go ahead, hang that laundry, grow those tomatoes!


Wendy said...

When I first put up my clothesline in my front yard, my elderly neighbor told me, with an approving smile, that I took him back sixty years :). All of my neighbors like my garden (in the front yard) and my chickens (in the back yard), but I don't live in a "typical" neighborhood, and I do consider myself lucky for that ;).

justpeachy607 said...

Hmmm. I think Bourdieu would have something to say about the aesthetic of the useful (if you're into critical theory). A few prestigious early adopters can quickly transform popular conceptions of beauty.

Back in the day when I washed clothes for nine people, I systematized the order--all large towels together, all washcloths together, same colors together. In retrospect, I see it wasn't just neurotic perfectionism, but an attempt to beautify the mundane. Now that I'm grown and married, we've been resourceful (if a little ghetto) about air drying clothes when a line isn't handy. But there's nothing like a snappy breeze and long, strong lines just above eye-level!

rhonda jean said...

When I first heard of this no hanging clothes outside rule, I didn't believe it. I wondered how any sane local government could think that this was okay, and even more, why would those people who this rule applied to, stand for it? If that is not worth storming the next meeting, nothing is.

What has happened in the land of the free when you can't hang your own laundry in the fresh air to dry?

And don't get me started on the no chickens rules. ; ) It's a wonderful post, thank you.