Conspicuous consumption

February 24, 2009
by Robert Genn

When Wisconsin-born economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term 
"conspicuous consumption," he was reacting to the over-the-top 
wastefulness of a gilt society. Veblen died in Palo Alto, California 
in 1929, just three weeks before the stock-market crash and the 
onset of the Great Depression. 

Veblen had plenty to say about the arts and the reasoning behind 
their support. He thought our ideas of beauty were inextricably 
tied to rarity and expense. He compared art to diamonds. While 
similar in many ways to common glass, diamonds are rare in the 
earth's crust and difficult to dig out. Seen under these contexts, 
they become beautiful. Further, while a Picasso oil might be worth 
big bucks, it's also big bucks that make a Picasso worthy. Veblen 
noted that frivolities and false values came about due to the 
human need to demonstrate wealth and to establish status.

Veblen was also aware that attitudes evolved and that social 
mores changed over time. Such pressures exist today. In our rapidly 
greening world, Hummer ownership is now uncool. In some places 
these wide-stance, gas-guzzling SUVs have become embarrassing 
to have in a driveway. You're going to find this difficult to 
swallow, but the expensive and impractical Hummer's demise bodes 
poorly for art. 

Whether it's a Joe Bloggs watercolour purchased for home use for 
$200, or a $140 million Jackson Pollock dripper purchased for a 
public gallery, art needs the frivolity of conspicuous consumption 
to make things happen. If the market were to turn around (the way 
it has for Hummers) and the need to display expenditure becomes 
diminished, we're in big trouble. 

In our current economic climate, economists and politicians are 
anxious that we begin spending again. In these days where money 
is not just fluttering down Main Street, I've noticed that some 
collectors are being more careful. "Canny" is the operative word. 
They're looking for real quality and in some cases they're looking 
for discounts. These days it's not so cool to blow the big bucks 
in front of others. It's become unfashionable to spend.

Veblen argued that wealth display and the squandering of money on 
what he considered to be pointless possessions was a component of 
human nature. Just think what might happen if this didn't exist. 

Best regards,


PS: "Beauty is commonly a gratification of our sense of costliness 
masquerading under the name of beauty." (Thorstein Veblen, 1859-1929) 

Esoterica: What's an artist to do in times like this? The answer 
is that art goes on no matter what's happening in fashion or 
economics. But getting an understanding of what's going on never 
hurt anyone. Picasso, Michelangelo and Salvador Dali were not 
denied the curiosity. Picasso taught himself to be canny. Michelangelo 
stood up for himself. And Dali reacted with enriched playfulness, 
humour and insight. "I am not an artist," said Dali, "I'm a 
manufacturer of wealth."