The Power of Glamour, by Virginia Postrel.
One of the duties of our public intellectuals is to mine the culture for fresh new ways of seeing and describing the world, bringing together seemingly disparate examples and finding regularities and order in what had only been vaguely understood before. Virginia Postrel has been at this for years, and her latest work is a wonderful read that will help anyone in design, advertising, photography, publicity, or any of the arts of persuasion understand at a deeper level how this dream-making works.
When I was living in Vancouver, I had a friend — Clark Candy, a cousin of John Candy’s — who had recently moved from Toronto after a career in advertising. A motorcycle accident had crushed his knee, and during the long rehab process he decided not to go back to work in advertising, which he felt had little meaning — persuading people to buy things they did not need by trickery and slick lies, eliding ugly realities. He later went on to help produce glamorous TV productions like Once Upon a Time, so he ended up doing much the same work as he did before; perhaps if he had read this book then he might have seen more meaning in his advertising work. Mad Men‘s Don Draper is a character who creates glamours for a living, and is himself a crafted image hiding a troubled soul; but without glamour and aspiration, life would be drained of the spur to progress and self-actualization of these imagined futures.
Glamour, she writes, exists between the viewer and the viewed. It is a subjective illusion of an effortless life, a higher and better self that you might become if only you could put yourself into the picture. A glamour is a spell, like a reverie or dream of your future created by images and ideas. She points out that glamour has always existed — Homer’s epics recited in ancient Greece produced yearnings for lives of heroism and unforced grace in listeners not dissimilar to today’s comic book heroes; artists were commissioned to create paintings of idealized existences to reinforce and inspire the real models, as well as present their favored image to others.
But the enormous increase in mass-produced imagery in the last century has given glamour a new importance, as more and more high-powered images are present in even the poorest people’s lives. Like any tool of persuasion, glamour can be used for good (inspiring young people to work toward careers they might otherwise have never achieved) or ill (politicians use glamour in propaganda — Nazis, Italian fascists, and the USSR, for example.)
With a wealth of examples, the reader is able to make generalizations and follow along as she lays out a new vocabulary for discussing glamour: Sprezzatura, the effortless grace of achievement, a stylish performance without apparent sweat or concern (which of course conceals endless practice and polishing;) theatrical grace, the kind of glamour produced by the artifice of hiding the effort to produce it behind the stage scenery; darkroom grace, created by editing and eliding the flaws and selection of what to leave out (as of a photo) to produce an image with the emotional power to fuel a dream unencumbered by the details of its production.
She casts her net wide in the cultural landscape and brings in examples from every part of high and low culture: Hollywood, comic book heroes, cowboys, Gibson Girls, Star Trek, Princess Di, Che Guevara, Helen of Troy and Achilles, theater, industrial design, Mad Men, and Apple. The examples and photographs are delightful and consistently entertaining.
The hardcover itself is an example: perfectly laid out, a sensual pleasure to read and feel. I rarely read anything but ebooks these days, but for this work about a primarily visual phenomenon, the hardcover is the wise choice. It’s the ideal coffee table book.