The Connoisseurship of Cool: An excerpt from Thomas Frank

March 13, 2013
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“Connoisseurship has never been more popular. Long confined to the serious appreciation of high art and classical music, it is now applied to an endless cascade of pursuits. Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light (yes, light, which is not to be confused with the specialized connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.”—“In Pursuit of Taste, en Masse,” New York Times

When the Grey Lady acknowledges herself in an article about the democratization of connoisseurship, we realize how far we’ve come since the days of Giovanni Morelli—when to be a connoisseur meant to keep things close to the chest, so that the cultural treasures amassed might withhold the competition; when expertise in art historical commodities was a kind of pitiable materiality. But as the NYT points out, today connoisseurship is alive and well, if not “vital,” then at least an obviously channel of the zeitgeist for which the number of surfers is plentiful. Thomas Frank, founder and editor of the Hyde Park-originated journal of cultural and political critique The Baffler, is quoted in the article:

“A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery,” said Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books like Commodify Your Dissent, which he edited with Matt Weiland, and The Conquest of Cool. “It’s not about the search for quality, but buying things that make you feel good about yourself. It’s about standing apart from the crowd, demonstrating knowledge, hipness.”

The pithy stance Frank takes on consumer culture originates in part in The Conquest of Cool, in which he explores how 1960s American counterculture shaped—and was shaped by in turn—the emergence of soon-to-be contemporary consumer culture, from the advertising industry to the apparel business. For more on the relationship between industry, social decline, material desires, and mass culture—and to understand what Frank means by his construal of “hipness”—you can read an excerpt from The Conquest of CoolBusiness Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism here.

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