Why are sets of things so much more soothing than hodge-podges that don’t match? Sometimes it seems that anything is better in identical sets, from crockery to triplets to Christmas tree decorations. It’s so fundamental it seems odd to ask ‘why’?
We discussed this as I decorated the tree last week with my very un-matched collection of decorations acquired a few at a time. It’s been one of my pre-Christmas tasks to buy attractive or unusual tree decorations each year since the mid 1980s.
If you read decorating magazines, then you’d think that Christmas trees had to have a theme. Thus:
That makes perfect sense for corporate trees, but I have a friend whose tree is always that coherent. She’s the sort of gal – she’ll paint her nails on Thursday so it will match the shoes she’s going to wear on Saturday. There is no denying that Christmas trees like hers look much better than ones like mine, which is full of random stuff bought on my travels from Sainsburys to China and back. Mine’s not stylish: it’s barely in focus. But that’s phone cameras for you.
The question I’m asking though, is WHY do we find my mish-mash disquieting? What is it that makes us prefer sets and themes? We do, oh we do; it’s infuriating for example when a publisher changes the style of an author’s book covers when we are half way through buying their books.
At the far end of the un-matched aesthetic there lurks surrealism.
Q: How many surrealists does it take to decorate a Christmas tree?
If this effect of liking things matching and orderly is not limited to the visual, then it is presumably the underlying reason why Mozart and Vaughan Williams are more sweetly accessible than Stockhausen and Penderecki.
When you stop to think about it, it is peculiar, this preference for things to match, and the almost physical disquiet when they don’t is really odd. Every answer I’ve arrived at so far has been circular: we dislike it because it’s unsettling, it’s unsettling because it unsettles us, it unsettles us because we dislike it. And so on. It’s intrigued me for years. Ants and bees have a strong sense of orderliness of course, but when we consider primates do we find that chimps and orang outangs prefer their fruit the same size and arranged in straight lines? Maybe we do. I’d like to know.
Ach, I could draw unsustainable parallels between this desire for homogeneity and the drive for standards, this being a business-related blog and all, but they’d be tenuous.
Instead I’ll leave the question open, and take the opportunity to note the turn of the year with the solstice today, and wish you a happy break and a better, more prosperous and more peaceful 2010.