In What Spirits the Americans Cultivate the Arts focuses on comparing the role of production and fine arts in aristocracies vs democracies, how class impacts perception of value, and materialism. Tocqueville maintains that democratic people value utility over aesthetic, stating “They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful”. Makes sense. Only aristocrats have the privilege to afford (and appreciate) things whose only purpose is to be gazed upon, and aristocrats don’t survive into democratic ages.
Aristocracies depend upon generation after generation following the same rules, each inheriting the wealth and status and continuing the tradition. With power, money, and privilege (PMP) consolidated with the elite, they do most of the consuming of what the lower classes produce and thus determine the status of the lower class based on the value of what they produce. These lower classes are forced to abide by these rules of inheritance, because they have no political power of their own to implement change that would benefit them. The society accepts inequality as a norm, that’s just the way things are. The same rule of inheritance applies to lower classes as it does to the elite; along with inheriting a skill set or occupation, one also receives the status that comes with it. With the elites maintaining their PMP over time, this forces lower classes to do the same which makes upward mobility non existent. There is no point in trying to obtain more PMP because the folks who have it are not letting go. In a way this is like trickle down economics; the privileged administer PMP down to the lower classes by determining what goods and art is of value to them.
Lower classes view the goods and art pieces of the elite as desirable because they can’t afford it, and with classes having monopolies on the goods or art they produce (exclusively for the elite), there is no “economy” option for the poor to obtain. Tocqueville writes, “In aristocracies, then, the handicraftsmen work for only a limited number of fastidious customers”. The poor have no purpose or even understanding of the luxuries of the elite. Tocqueville writes, “It often occurs among such a people that even the peasant will rather go without the objects he covets than procure them in a state of imperfection”.
This class-based monopoly on production goes out the window in a democratic society as the PMP is distributed. Anyone is now free to try their hand at producing any good or art they like, and more importantly they are able to sell their product or service to a larger market. Tocqueville points to the difference in demand between democracies and aristocracies being the reason for the drop in quality. In Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times, Tocqueville writes “Thus they transport into the midst of democracy the ideas and literary fashions that are current among the aristocratic nation they have taken for their model”. Even though no true and traditional elite has existed in America at the time of his writing, a desire for luxuries still exists. More people can afford those luxuries in a democracy than in an aristocracy, so the quality of these items suffers. Furthermore, an even larger number of people feel entitled to these luxuries since they too work hard and deserve nice things.
Tocqueville describes materialism when he writes “In the confusion of all ranks everyone hopes to appear what he is not, and makes great exertions to succeed in this object”. Image has become just as important as function to democratic people, one might even say that image is the function as it makes one appear wealthier, more privileged, or more powerful than they really are. Democracy spurs competition according to Tocqueville, and the winner is the richest and most powerful. Those victors then emerge as the new elite, influencing the “lower classes” in what is desirable or valuable and what is not. Those “winners” have come to define what success in America looks like, and they do not humbly relish in their wealth. They flaunt it through luxuries so all may see their success instead of just knowing about, for through hard work they’ve earned this privilege that not all have.
Tocqueville’s description of blossoming materialism in America reminds me of Kanye West’s song All Falls Down particularly when he says:
Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious
That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches
Rollie’s and Pasha’s done drove me crazy
I can’t even pronounce nothin’, pass that Ver-say-see!
Then I spent four hundred bucks on this
Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this.”
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team