I have been thinking recently about concepts like vintage, familiarity, and the fundamental temporality of aesthetics. The unthinking ability of people to interpret familiar items and symbols within a socialised construction of their meaning is something I’ve discussed before, but the power of these constructs to change imperceptibly yet often rapidly can still surprise me.
Think of a period drama, or an old-fashioned postcard. It will be visibly, obviously, of a different era. The buildings and the geography are likely to be largely unchanged. Indeed, it is the longevity of architecture and city street forms that we celebrate with the accolade of “built heritage”, fascinated by the way they have survived many lifetimes. But what, then, creates the obvious sense of distance, of displacement in our timeline? Vehicles, dress, colours, the aesthetics of shop frontages or street furniture – all build a visual picture of a situation that is Other to our own time.
Yet these things change not just generation by generation, but over the course of a lifetime. Any readers who have no photographs of themselves from fifteen or twenty years ago in clothes which now provoke intense cringing are either very fortunate or very young.* The shift of fashions from new to current to old happens with glacial imperceptibility, and is often unnoticed (save by the hyperbolic accolades of the “next big thing” that are such a constant feature of the media in capitalist societies that it would seem like more of a dramatic change if changes came unheralded by unnecessary fanfare.)
The sight of the world around us is more constantly changing than we realise. It is this very pace of change that prevents us from seeing everyday items as ‘heritage’; more so now than ever before in an acquisitive, disposable economy of possessions. A car which runs efficiently and without remark for five years before being replaced by a newer model is simply a part of life, not a piece of personal heritage, and can often be discarded without any emotional sense of bereavement. Yet in thirty, fifty, or a hundred years’ time that car parked visibly in a photograph may be the feature that allows people in the future to recognise our time period as identifiably different, its characteristics belonging to an age of parents or grandparents, family histories, documentaries and out-dated or classic art forms. That car will have acquired meanings far beyond its current function.
What marks our current era? Skinny jeans, bulky Mini Countrymans towering over their vintage ancestors, Harry Potter paraphernalia, mustard yellow fashion accessories, the faded sage colour on the external frontage of all pubs or restaurants wanting to signal a shift upmarket, Beats by Dre headphones, or those luminously coloured children’s toys with terrifyingly large, staring eyes? Things that are not valuable, or interesting, or even particularly memorable, but make up a whole world that, once passed, will never return.
This is what it means to be human, to be constantly pushed onwards in an unstoppable tide of time that will never turn. The world around us will change and we will change in it, without noticing until the moment we are shown how different “normal” has been at different points in our life. That is part of the comfort of heritage: items or places that offer stability and constancy as generations change around it, suggesting that some part of our own lives and world may make its way into the future so we are not forgotten. Yet the sheer variety of pieces which make up our complex, wonderful, extraordinary everyday serve as a reminder that we cannot hold everything as heritage or live pointlessly mourning in nostalgia for what is gone. The world will inevitably change and all we can do is try to make the changes for the better.
*No, I’m not showing you any of mine.