It’s always amusing to see how elites react when the products and trends that had been the province of the rich seep into the middle class.
Consider a recent article in The Atlantic lamenting the production of a faux rusted metal trash can that sells for $99 (on sale; down from $148!) at hipster store Anthropologie. Writer Megan Garber points out that it isn’t just any trash can; it’s a “design-forward trash can. A ‘West Village’ trash can. . . . composed of matte, corrugated metal” that “comes complete with either a rope-based handle or two wooden ones” and has “a rust look.”
Garber worries that because it is being sold at a store like Anthropologie—a store that, according to Garber, provides items to (gasp!) “mall shoppers”—this item has becomes more than just a refuse holder. It’s a symbol of a troubling trend: when rich people “co-opt the objects of poverty, and turn it into ‘design.’”
Garber’s real concern has little to do with the rich dressing up or decorating as poor people do. After all, that’s nothing new (Marie Antoinette often dressed up as a shepherdess and milked cows at her Hameau de la Reine on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the ultimate example of co-opting the objects of poverty). Garber’s real anxiety stems from the fact that mainstream stores like Anthropologie are providing the common man with items that used to be within reach only for the wealthy, and hence taking away those items cachet.
Garber characterizes Anthropologie’s design aesthetic as suburban mall-meets-Paris-artist’s-loft. The offense lies in the fact that it used to be only the elite who could spend hours perusing the wares at Les Puces de Saint-Ouento to find that unique rusted trash can discarded by a Paris artist. Now, thanks to the philistines at Anthropologie, even a mall shopper can have one without sacrificing the time off work and airfare previously required to obtain it.
This sort of lament is common in the food world as well. In a Vanity Fair article last year, food writer Corby Kummer’s wrote about the overused term “farm to table,” noting:
Today, chefs can’t shut up about where every morsel that went into every dish got its start in life.
Just a decade ago, it would have been enough to emphasize exposed-brick walls, hardwood floors gouged by machinery, and harsh, ugly industrial light fixtures with softly glowing “Edison” bulbs that Edison would be unlikely to recognize. But now the entrance was an ersatz farmers’ market with crates of fruits and vegetables, chalkboards listing local farms, and bottles of maple syrup. The restaurant’s brick walls were covered by flimsy strips of wood that turned out to be packing crates. The effect didn’t really say “farm.” It said something more like “farm drag.” And it wasn’t near a farm. It was near a lot of old factories and a huge new Google office complex.
All this is the modern version of Pastis carafes and Gauloises ashtrays in an Akron bistro.
Akron . . . Oh, the horror!
Kummer is correct to take aim at those pretentious, long-form menu items that, as he amusingly puts it, “took on the name-clotted length of petitions” Yet, when he laments that farmers’ markets have “started giving regular people access to the ingredients that had given chefs their competitive advantage” it becomes clear that Kummer’s real gripe is that he and his fellow food writers finally got what they’ve been demanding for years: food snobbery as ubiquitous as fast food chains dotting Interstate 95.
Kummer and his fellow food writers have for years made sport of savaging the modern American restaurant and the hillbilly Americans who enjoy that type of lowbrow food. They have demanded just what Kummer now eviscerates—farm-to-table style eating in every restaurant—and have galvanized a movement where consumers demand “authenticity” in food and a connection to where that food comes from.
And now that farm-to-table eating is more common, much like Garber’s trash can worries, Kummer’s real concern is that the “farm to table” movement is no longer the provenance of the elite. He’s simply annoyed that the great, unwashed masses (like those who live in Akron) and large food companies are doing exactly as he demanded.
Of course, these food and style trends can become annoying and overdone, but these cultural critiques should drop the pretense that there is something more to their unease other than what it is: pure snobbery.