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, Robert 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."