Marxism, fashion and unequal exchange - a detailed story from the Youth for International Socialism site

David McDonald dbmcdonald at comcast.net
Tue Jul 22 08:38:15 MDT 2003


Jurriaan:

I have been thinking lately about fashion and aesthetics, you know the
things that remind us about the beauty of life, how life could be and the
joys it offers (as against the downside of life often accentuated in Marxist
discourse, which does not prettify bourgeois society)...

Response:

I am very interested in aesthetics under socialism. My life has taken me in
the direction of photographing gardens for a living. It is a consistent
observation of mine that gardeners are different from most people one meets
in the US and Canada. I have drawn the conclusion from hundreds of
encounters with strangers who morphed into friends or acquanitances, that
long-term devotion to gardening changes people profoundly.

Now, in the US most gardeners I've met are white, older, and live in houses
rather than apartments. It is fair to say that most are middle class. No
money changes hands between me and the gardeners whose work I photograph,
since I am paid (if I'm paid) by publishers of books and magazines, so there
is no commercial motive to humor me.

I, on the other hand, have hair half-way down my back to compensate for
being bald and am pretty clearly not from the mainstream of society, judging
by looks. Yet it is my universal experience that gardeners invite me into
their homes without the slightest hesitation, feed and succor me, often
leave me on their properties while they go out to shop without locking their
doors, inviting me to use the bathroom and kitchen, have on occasion invited
me to take naps during the useless-to-garden-photography middle hours of the
day, have invited me to be a house guest on the spot, and generally fail
completely to display that paranoia and suspicion of strangers we expect to
find among suburbanites with their demographics. In fact, I have come to
realize after 10 years of this that failure to be nice to me is a sure sign
that the person does not do his/her own gardening, but hires it out to
landscape architects, garden installers and maintenance people and operate
like any other rich person who derives his/her enjoyment from directing the
labor of minions, like a little general with an idle batallion.

My conclusion is that gardeners change themselves by being engaged in the
production of culture. Ornamental gardening (as opposed to food production
in one's own plot) is an aesthetic pursuit. It is an attempt to produce
something beautiful for its own sake. Now most of what Americans do when
they are not working, if it has anything at all to do with culture, involves
its consumption, not its production. (I leave aside cooking, which has its
own vast aesthetic, for no particularly good reason other than I am not
capable of extending this analysis there.) We eat out, we go to movies,
plays, sports events, we consume.

But gardeners produce culture. This seems to make them want to share what
they produce, to be more open to others, to be accepting of reality and
determined to change it. Moreover, gardeners accept a particluarly punishing
art form to work in, since plants notoriously die for no good reason, grow
the wrong way, are subject to damage by elemental forces like floods, high
winds, and droughts. Gardeners try and fail, try and fail, try and fail and
then succeed; they must come to terms with their faltering bodies as they
age and have trouble bending, lifting, spending hours on their knees.

Now, of course, one could get mystical/sappy about all this. It is good to
remember that there are gardeners who will steal plants from your garden on
visits, who are insanely competitive, who are collectors of the worst sort
trying to fill that hole in the heart with living stuff, yada yada, yada.
But I do not yield on my main point.

So, I ask, how is it with ornamental gardening in Cuba? Not the officially
maintained stuff, which I am sure is world class and very interesting given
Cuba's devotion to saving and cherishing its history and uniqueness among
the nations, but what the people do in their little plots, on their
balconies and steps, and perhaps in common areas where the motivation is not
food production but the production of beauty.

I believe investigation of this would provide a little window into the
understanding of how people have changed themselves under the impact of 44
years of revolution.

David McDonald






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