A couple of things inspired me to write this post. First, it was the Wellcome gallery exhibition on Dirt that included Anthropometric Modules Made of Human Faeces, then I read a very good article by Louise Jolly on semionaut that talks about the cultural view of ‘naturalness’ taking on a darker edge. Finally, I became aware of the potatoes and carrots covered in soil at the local greengrocer’s, since apparently the dirt helps them retain their nutrients.
So, it looks like we are reverting from the sterilized supermarket reality to ‘naturalness’ through dirt, ugliness, perhaps even decay, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. As if to compensate for the sanitary surroundings. I’m wondering, then, whether the (visually) ugly is becoming the new attractive? And whether this is the case only of the economically developed and suitably sanitized areas, or a global trend.
via Sandra Pickering (Semiotic Thinking Group)
Since the supermarket fruit and vegetables are associated with ‘plastic’ and ‘artificial’, in the quest for ‘naturalness’ and ‘organic’ consumers begin to prefer the dirt, decay and imperfection, and this is beginning to reflect in advertising.
Ian Addie (Semiotic Thinking Group) has pointed out the Persil washing detergent campaign “Dirt is Good” where the brand is attempting to capitalise on an alternate and positive meaning of “dirt” in the context of personal development. This reminded me of a similar Levi’s campaign Water<Less where the brand encourages us not to wash our jeans in order to save water, and promote their new jeans manufacturing process that uses less water.
There is also a connotation of honesty in dirt reflected in the phrase getting your hands dirty and earning honest money through hard, practical work for e.g; on the other hand, the phrase dirty money is used for illegally obtained income, associated with money laundering and somehow evokes the sanitary world of financial institutions.
While the word ‘dirt’ evokes images of earth, the derived adjective ‘dirty’ almost instantly alludes to sex.
Woody Allen quote via Eric Prince (Semiotic Thinking Group)
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, as he ‘digs’ with his pen in the Irish bogs, fuses sexual imagery with death and mire, flaxen-haired beauties and tar. A nod to W.B. Yeats’ “terrible beauty” in a way. In fact, Yeats has said “I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind - sex and the dead;” According to Henry Hart, “Death, sex, and a gruesome fusion of the two find a new and startling expression in Seamus Heaney’s North.”
It is as if Eros and Thanatos are coupled through dirt.
The ultimate irony in sanitizing funerals, which mirrors how people sanitize the naturally dirty aspects of life, is parodied in Six Feet Under. In this scene Nate associates the sanitizing with lack of natural emotion, while David associates the dirt with disrespect.
If Seamus Heaney and Yeats sought out purity and beauty in dirt and violence; the contemporary trends are becoming a subversion of that quest, as we seek out the dirt (naturalness) amidst our seemingly pure (artificial, corporate) surroundings.