Paul Maxwell

Paul Maxwell is a student, theologian, and writer. His interests include psychology, theology, and the Christian life. You can follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

Anxiety and the Rustic Aesthetic

“My subject is the transition from one reality to another: . . . the demise of a rural culture and the emergence of something that is beyond suburban. . . . I will neither lament the passing of the old order nor indict the new. As a son of the middle border, I am an integral part of what has happened in the past and what is happening now. With camera and notepad in hand, I record with compassion this existence of ours.We are of the landscape, and we too change and pass on to something else. Others will record the artifacts that remain from our time on this land.”

 –Richard Quinney, Borderland: A Midwest Journal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 59.

 

Every two years fashion moves backward a decade. Hair gets higher, tighter. Flannel comes out in the Fall. J. Crew starts dressing us up like picnic tables. Jon Hamm becomes a human archetype – aging and clean-cut, an artifact of the 40s (despite the Mad Men setting). It’s a renewed artistic inclination, a trend signaling a majority palate for something that is both streamlined and grassroots. As we rocket forward into an unsure future, our preferences – the preferences of Millenials – are racing back and back and back in time (as Fred Armisen notes, “The dream of the 90s/1890s is alive”), and Millenials are becoming, in a way, a “modern rustic” people group because of it. This is not just an aesthetic to Millenials, but also an expression of a creative mindset. In a time of unprecedented differences between past and present, we locate a modern rustic worldview through it. We don’t simply mean it to be an opinion of beauty.

“Modern rustic” is, more profoundly and basically than style preference, an integration of history and identity. It is driftwood and rusted cast-iron. It is a renewal of the glistening cufflink and full workman’s beard. The rustic design is an attempt to root ourselves in our forward-moving personal narratives – chipping paint and industrial metal: combined, signifies an enduring history behind us, and the innovative industry that makes such histories obsolete.

The common theme here, for us (if I may be so bold as a Millenial), is a search for nostalgia. The rustic aesthetic pulls something from deep down, because it can take us back to something before us, and therefore present us with a perspective that encompasses beginning and end.

 

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We spend time trying to make our white apartment spaces earn adjectives like “quaint,” “countrified,” “homespun” – and sometimes taking Pinterest’s cue, in the truest sense of the word, “picturesque.” We fill our homes with aged timber, sanded paint, exposed ventilation metal, hanging lanterns, and mason jars (rustic, coming from the latin rus [“the country”] points us to pre-industrialized, or rural life-imagery). It’s Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, etc. An ancient structure, style, fashion, location, item, or interaction makes us look toward our origin (and beyond) to experience the world-story of the object, and it also reminds us that we, like this modernized relic, have an end coming to us.

By this homemaking and handcrafting, we pamper our sentimentality by sprinkling present surroundings with past signposts. Rusticity can be a dispensary for needed nostalgia – for a spiritual medication of at-homeness that our nerves desperately crave. This tradition is sourced not far away from ancient cultural practices. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, we reference these Jewish practice which had their own rather rustic temple aesthetic: there is the integration of garden, wooden, and lantern accessories into an otherwise boxy and plain spaces (cf., Exodus 25:10; 27:1; 1 Kings 6:16, 18, 29, 32; 7:18-19, 22, 49), and they are not insignificant enterprises. These attempts are, themselves, textual forms, akin to our own attempts, that allow a people to read themselves better than they otherwise might have been able.

 

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While in this refashioned rustic temple, the Jewish people would pray to connect their spirituality with a sense of nostalgia from their younger selves,  “[The LORD] satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed.” In re-accessing their youth, and coming back again to their older, emerging selves, they easily and naturally resort to agricultural language, even as they prayed in the urban temple of Jerusalem,  “Man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field.” (Psalm 103:5, 15)

Nostalgia is a compound of the Greek words νόστος (nóstos), which means “return” or “homecoming,” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “grief” or “pain.” The emotion signifies a divided self – the heart experiences its unique at-home feeling, but the self also experiences the pangs of longing for the source. The source is the past, forever out of reach. Nostalgia reduces us to our lowest common denominator – it connects who we were in, perhaps, a simpler time to who we are as a distracted and divided person – “so that your youth is renewed,” as Israel prayed. To enter into the past allows us to access an uncomplicated, younger, louder version of ourselves and be assured, “I’m still that person. I haven’t lost myself.” This has been going on for ages.

 

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Emotions, attitudes, and actions seem to exist on a spectrum in our minds. Each may have two ends: emotions could balance between love and selfishness; attitudes, between pride and humility; actions, between joyful and sorrowful. This may be why it’s easy to consider, on some level, anxiety as the opposite of peace. But peace would be a false opposite. Anxiety is encapsulated well in its Greek root ἄγχω (ángcho), a verb which means, “I compress, press tight, especially the throat; I strangle, throttle, choke.”

Anxiety and nostalgia – the same nostalgia we’ve been talking about – are, perhaps, true opposites, then. It is the dichotomy of murderously clawing with one’s strength toward the future, and, for the sake of a bigger perspective, identifying with one’s weakness in the past.

Anxiety could, in this way, very much be opposed by nostalgia. Nostalgia has a strange saving power to it.

All things considered, this presents a major tie-in for us and the draw toward a more “rustic” worldview. These opposites appear in our personal lives in obvious ways: (1) the angst of building a home again, and (2) the journey of remembering (and finding) our home. Unrest and peace are merely byproducts of walking a double path, a complex feat in which we have little choice but to keep taking steps forward.

And step forward is all we can do. The modern rustic style is a powerful way to visually reassure ourselves of the fact that we are human. It motivates in us a penchant for depicting re-appropriated artifacts with a shallow-depth-of-field shot cuts through the superficiality that keeps us motivated to claw, to choke, to forget who we are – and also who we are not.

By resting in the emotional affect of the worn, ancient, and out-of-date – in rebuilding and re-visualizing our sense of home with a timeworn aesthetic – we actually typify the envisioned future depicted by the same rustic-style temple of ancient Judaism, casting their apocalypse, not as a flash of lighting, but as a rustic reappropriation project: “They [the mourners of Zion] shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).

 

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The use of the ancient by the ancients in the Hebrew Bible has a center: the temple. All the texts we have referenced – the temple construction, in the past (1 Kings 6), Israel’s prayer in the temple, in the present (Psalm 103), and rebuilding the destroyed temple, in the future (Isaiah 61:4)  – have their reference to the rustic building at the center of Israel’s cult. Israel’s identity – past, present, and future – finds its reference point in an urban-farm building.

Israel has two chapters in their story that uniquely highlight their inclination toward the rustic: (1) their wandering in the wilderness for forty years after escaping Egypt, so that they had to worship in a tent (Numbers 32:13), and their establishment in the land of Israel, when they could build a temple (1 Kings 6). While they were in the wilderness, the tent was constructed with urban metals – bronze (Exodus 26:11), silver (Exodus 26:21), and gold (Exodus 26:39). But when they were in the city, while they did use metal, in the inner sanctuary “the cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers” (1 King 6:18) and “from the floor of the house to the walls of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood” (1 Kings 6:15).

Israel was always on the brink of war, turmoil, and exile, but amidst the anxieties that plagued them, they returned annually to their rustic house – they returned to their childhood golden-cast, floral-cedar place of prayer to have their “youth renewed,” and to remember that even if their lives are disrupted with turmoil, “they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).  They did not collapse in anxious despair over their past or their future. Their aesthetic would not let them. Perhaps we millenials have found more than a modern use of the old – the modern rustic aesthetic is a rebellion against the despair. It is a rediscovered practice of hope.