Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Debate of Luxury

The key debate of luxury concerns responsibility to others. Controversial juxtapositions of European luxury fashion design amid impoverished India, above from Vogue India, 2008 and below Marie Claire France, November 2009.

Author Christopher Berry describes the moral debates of luxury in the 18th century. This was a time in which luxury was slowly accepted as a valuable part of economic growth. Dutch-English writer Bernard Mandeville was one of the first to legitimize luxury and suggest that prosperity is increased by expenditure and personal vices keep the economy going.

Bernard Mandeville

To illustrate his point, Mandeville wrote a now famous text The Fable of Bees. He describes industrious bees who build a hive and enjoy luxury with vice. In the second case, bees get rid of all ease and also vice, move to a simple hollow tree and only as expected without growth. Mandeville was suggesting that productivity is aligned with growth and though it may have vice it is better than simplicity.

The industrious bee left, works to build a hive and enjoys prosperity and luxury, the idle bee right, resorts to a hollow tree and simplicity

Mandeville uses a dialectic, a strategy that makes it seem as though we have only 2 choices, work ethic and luxury or simplicity and virtue. The text however gives an important defense about the relationship between work ethic and wealth, encouraging the drive for consumption.

Some suggest work ethic creates respect for luxury. Many reports on lottery winners reveal that for 80% instant winnings are not maintained by winners as they do not know how to respect and manage the money they have not earned through effort.

Mandeville also points out that it is not luxury that weakens man but folly (lack of good sense/judgment). Below Goya began by painting Spanish aristocracy in the 18th century and slowly showed deranged images of their folly.

Goya, The Blind Hen (1788-1789) & Witches Sabbath 1790's

David Hume

Two additional views on luxury. Above David Hume felt that luxury helps society advance their skills, pushing us forward and that private property is justified. Below Adam Smith believed that luxury was a selfish interest but if each is driven toward selfish gain, we are all together making a stronger collective.

Adam Smith

At the close of the 18th century, there was a general consensus that pursuit of happiness was tied to good commerce. By the 19th century through the present we have gained a better understanding of the historicity of needs. There are basic needs for human life but they vary based on historic moments and what is available. Social norms vary by each culture in time and in place. We can see what are the accepted needs by looking at what is available for the lowest economic level. Below the homeless are often neglected in the pursuit of luxury. Artist Michael Rakowitz created tents that could be inflated by building air exhausts, PARAsite, 2003.

Marx suggested that root of social problems was not luxury so to speak but private property which is about territorial defense. The homeless tent above is contrasted with the Hearst Castle by Julia Morgan, 1919-1947 with 165 rooms, 127 acres of pools and gardens.

The ruling classes protect their wealth and access to luxury and comfort by a number of strategies. They stand in firm alliance, opposing the mass standard and demanding a higher standard. They keep the most advanced comforts private and alien to the lower classes.

Martin Parr, 2010

Other important writers on the debate of luxury and wealth were Georges Bataille, author of The Accursed Share (1946) who suggested there is always an excess in the economy which is destined for luxury or waste, and Thorstein Veblen, author of Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) who suggested that the ruling classes strategically use luxury to make excess wealth and thus status evident to others.

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