Is a toaster the ultimate Pop Art? Does a hair dryer have more heated significance than, well - drying your hair? According to ''Aesthetics of Progress,'' an intriguing new exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Hayden Gallery (through June 24) that displays these and other common objects in an otherworldly environment, the answer is yes.
The exhibit focuses on two distinct time periods, the 1930s and the 1980s. Objects ranging from cocktail shakers to computers are enshrined in a windowed X-shaped structure and bathed in a mysterious white light.
According to curator Katy Kline, progress toward an improved condition ''has been for centuries the unchallenged fundamental of the American world view.'' This sense of forward motion can be seen in the objects from the '30s, which have a sleek, streamlined look that recalls the ''new'' speed of the airplane and the locomotive. For example, the lunging lines of a gleaming chrome pitcher, inspired by the famous French liner the Normandie, appear poised to plow forward into a limitless future.
By contrast, the objects from the '80s are static and austere. Tied into the technology of the computer, they are slick and anonymous. With the threat of nuclear war making the idea of progress no longer as certain a reality, designers must look to the ''black box'' of high-tech for inspiration. The results are ''no frills'' objects: A camera, desk phone, even the revolutionary Steinberger guitar - all end up looking remarkably the same.
''The Aesthetics of Progress'' not only questions what art is, but it also stimulates us to consider how the things we take for granted reflect our collective beliefs and identity. So save that Cuisinart - we know it chops our veggies, but it may also process our symbols and dreams.