On the value of refinement

Refinement can be described as the continuous improvement of what is already acceptable. In the unrelenting rush to make things as cheaply and as widely available as possible, it's easy to lose sight of how valuable refinement can be.

Refinement, or quality that has been achieved beyond what was once already considered to be reasonable, often gets pushed aside as being unnecessary for profitability.

The culture of business is coloring areas of modern life that were once relatively unconnected to business, and at the same time, the modern emphasis on business is encroaching upon cultures throughout the world.

While that may lead to certain economic improvements, it also exacts a cost in terms of values that are difficult to measure monetarily.

The conceptual preference of American business school graduates has found its way into many areas that were once not as business-oriented.

Universities, for example, are now run essentially as corporations (catering to obsessions with dubious market standards such as US New & World Report's annual rankings).

The MBA mentality increasingly imbues the worlds of artistic and media production, and has even begun to permeate organizations claiming to pursue spiritual ends.

The trend toward biz-think has already been widely noticed. What has perhaps not been noticed quite as often is how the value of refinement in today's business-driven dominant culture has essentially become invisible.

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It's not necessarily true to say that refinement is completely disdained. Mainstream society just doesn't give it much thought or attention.

Because refinement has no obvious economic meaning and has little exposure in business-driven culture, most people find the notion of refinement hard to connect to or understand. That is probably especially true in the United States and in highly Americanized parts of the world.

While quality itself is generally not ignored (because it helps sell goods, or at least the appearance of higher quality does) quality for the sake of quality, rather than quality only for the sake of improving sales, raises value only indirectly, and those indirect effects are somewhat hard to measure.

Proximal value, or value added indirectly through the refinement and higher quality of nearby goods, offers less incentive because what is hard to measure is also hard to remunerate.

An example of proximal value is when bland, ordinary houses sell for higher prices when located near a park or near a neighborhood of elegant buildings from a past century.

Despite a few such examples, in most situations the prevailing attitude suggesting that "more is better" renders refinement irrelevant.

Although the market tends to undervalue refinement in the case of particular goods, the overall market effect of refinement raises the value of many goods that are associated with the goods that have undergone refinement.

Refinement produces a knock-on, or tangential, effect from which other, less refined goods benefit, while the refined goods themselves do not necessarily benefit to a proportionally greater degree as they become more refined past a given point in relation to the rest of the market.

As a result of that principle, the incentive to pursue refinement will gradually diminish in a business-driven culture.

Refinement produces a knock-on, or tangential, effect from which other, less refined goods benefit.

Vulgarity arises perfectly naturally. It is the "road most traveled".

It consists of choices, small and large, where deeper values are sacrificed for the sake of convenience or immediate satisfaction. (The problem comes in saying precisely what "deeper" means.)

The word vulgar comes from Latin for "mob" or "common people", but vulgarity appears as often among the wealthy as it does among ordinary people.

Showing off inherited wealth is an example of vulgarity, because generating wealth, especially by doing good rather than by conning or manipulating others, is much harder to do than just inheriting it.

Using debt to purchase ostentatious clothing, cars, or houses in order to give a false impression of being wealthy is also vulgar. Today's consumption-driven economies actually make it relatively easy to acquire such emblems through debt.

Accepting standards of style delivered through media images or marketing propaganda, rather than forging one's own personal tastes, is another common example of vulgarity. Vulgar tastes are usually characterized by the fact that they are relatively easy to imitate.

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The scourge of chain retail architecture is another clear example of vulgarity. While such stores take advantage of scale to bring goods more cheaply to a wider range of people, their architecture is graceless and insipid, or worse, it conflicts aggressively with surroundings in order to attract attention. The overall effect is insidiously degrading.

The problem is that such architecture offers nothing special, and by its very existence it monumentally affirms that crass, generic commercialism is more important than uniqueness and imagination, thus reinforcing vulgarity.

It needn't be this way. We can imagine a time when global corporate interests will recognize the implicit value that comes from refinement.

The problem is that on the financial balance sheet the advantages accrued through vulgarity exceed those offered by refinement. That is a fault with the methods of accounting, however, because refinement ultimately does enhance business value immensely.

Another worthwhile example is Apple Computer. Despite having invested much greater care and expense in refining its technologies, Apple has often had to struggle to stay in business.

Does Apple's example suggest that refinement is hopeless from a business point of view?

Probably not as clearly as some observers have suggested. One point to consider is that for much of its history, Apple has not applied as much effort to refining the way it treats it customers.

Also, while Apple's products have almost always been brilliant in many particular areas, there have also been important areas where it has been less than satisfactory from the point of view of a large-volume customer trying to meet its IT needs. Refinement involves many more factors than just industrial design, in other words.

During the 1990s, Apple's almost cult-like followers were ironically its worst enemies. They harmed the firm by indulging its faults and insulating it from the dire need to radically change its way of doing business.

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Democracies tend to sanctify what is average, often by reducing the relative importance of the extraordinary. As a result, vulgarity tends to flourish in democratic societies, where cultivating refinement smacks vaguely of anti-democratic elitism.

At the same time, what is ordinary is actually quite elusive and rare. Sometimes things seem vulgar precisely because they take such pains to seem extraordinary.

Ordinary qualities are difficult to capture in pure and concretely recognizable form. As a result, unadorned ordinariness also evinces refinement.

Democracies tend to sanctify what is average, often by reducing the relative importance of the extraordinary.

Technology enables vulgarity by making it easier to appear extraordinary while doing quite ordinary things.

Digital tools at first lower the threshold for entering the world of media production, for example, and many more people can participate simply by copying and slightly modifying the work of others. Cheap design concepts circulate fluently after the technology becomes generally available.

The cheap designs eventually begin to lose their appeal, however, and more skillful designers emerge from the din to snatch away a bit of attention. The overall effect of digital tools is simply to turn up the level of noise in the culture.

Art clearly transcends technology, and is neither helped nor hindered by it. Art can readily seduce technology by playing with it and coaxing new patterns from it, but art can just as readily scorn technology as a hapless lover.

Media-extending technologies promote vulgarity by enabling a person to produce art or media without having made a commitment to discovering deeper creative values.

Although technology ought in principle to free people to focus on refining their art, it often leads to doing the same with less rather than doing more with the same.

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When refinement reaches such a degree that the pieces of something work together with each other and with their surroundings in an indescribably fine, nimble, and subtle way, we can say that refinement has arrived at the stage of concinnity.

Concinnity almost suggests that the pieces seem to be aware of and responsive to each other, and intelligently form a living whole.

Usually that awareness comes through the mediation of human beings who labored to progressively create and refine those pieces, although natural ecology is itself certainly a masterpiece of concinnity.

Concinnity also suggests elegance, which implies hitting the mark by fitting together without effusiveness or clumsy excess.

A cultivated mind perceives and makes a connection to elegance in nature, in art, and in other people, while a coarse mind is oblivious to those qualities and is distracted by easier sources of stimulation.

In many ways, the crisis in ecology is rooted in the fact that a majority of people have minds that are too coarsened to be able to perceive the majesty of diverse species in their natural habitats.

A cultivated mind perceives and makes a connection to elegance in nature, in art, and in other people, while a coarse mind is oblivious to those qualities.

Granted that democracy and industrial production have brought many benefits, it is also true that the many cultural principles that have sprung from them have to a certain extent overshadowed the richness that comes from cultivating refinement and concinnity.

Every quotidian activity can be a focus of refinement: cooking, social interactions, manner of dress, of speech, and so on, as can be architecture and industrial or graphic design.

French and Italian cultures, in particular, and to some extent the Japanese culture, have admirably never fully succumbed to the dull tastes foisted by mass production and business-dominated thinking, although they arguably also lost ground in this regard during the last century.

What about the argument that noise, dissonance, and gaudiness can also be interesting as design?

Indeed, noise and dissonance are challenging, and require a higher order of playfulness in working toward refinement.

By attempting to eradicate a false air of refinement, however, those who persevere in cultivating and exploring dissonance are ironically creating even further refinement as time goes on.

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The universe seems to be reluctant to share its inner nature. What we see for free on its surface never invokes the same sense of beauty and appreciation as what we find after painstakingly persistent search and development.

That way of thinking contradicts certain implicit values in democracy and mass culture, which suggest that all things are always equally valuable, even without cultivation.

This should not suggest that democracy is undesirable, but rather that democracy ought somehow, someday to become less vulgar in order for it to be more rewarding to the many who enjoy its other benefits.

Perhaps such a profound change can only happen over many generations, as democratic, industrial societies experience and digest the deeper reasons behind the vacuum that comes from abandoning refinement.

Perhaps such a change cannot help but happen, given enough time. Not even that process can be instantaneous.

Michael Webb, 2004

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