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.
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.”
Art needed more than ever
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA
I would hardly call purchasing original artwork the “squandering of money on pointless possessions.” In fact, in these economic times, I am finding that people are purchasing paintings because of the need for beauty in their lives. Art is never a pointless possession. True collectors are in love with what art brings to them. It is a way for them to speak the language of painting without actually painting. It represents how they feel about the world around them, spoken in the artists’ unique tongue. There is a connection between the artist and the art collector, an indelible thread. Now is the time to surround yourself with what you love, and the solace of beauty. In these troubled times, people will find that they need art more than ever.
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Get a real job?
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
It’s been many years since I studied Thorstein Veblen in Freshman Literature at Temple University. Certainly, we need conspicuous consumption to keep the economy going and nothing is more conspicuous than a wealthy collector of whatever. People who accumulate wealth seem to find a need to have tangible manifestations of their success. My thought may be a little off the subject but I see many artists catering to the tourist trade and doing tourist art. From my standpoint, it would be better to get a real job, with real income and benefits, and pursue the perfection of one’s art simultaneously. This was the advice I gave to my good friend whose sales are plummeting through no fault of his own. He gave up law to pursue art and has done nicely until now. A little hiatus from the starving artist lifestyle seems necessary for the foreseeable future.
Don’t lose sight of ‘why’
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
Once again you have written a timely letter for these topsy-turvy times we are experiencing. While it is true that a Picasso today is worth big bucks, it wasn’t always so and there was a time for him when he struggled like many artists do today. He worked hard and paid his dues and success followed. I’m not sure that his goal was to be rich but it is obvious that he loved his life as an artist, the process, experimentation and the looking into the unknown and going there feet first. I have painted for many years, have never shown in a commercial gallery, haven’t sold a lot of my work and I’m quite content with that. I just love to paint. I would suggest to others not to lose sight of why they are artists, or examine their motives and make the necessary adjustments.
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The end of overpriced art?
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
Regarding the rarified world of mega-star artists and biennials, collectors, curators and dealers who surround them. It has become such a house of cards/tanks of formaldehyde that I think anyone who collects this art is taking a risk. If you look at the recent sales in London and NY there were a number of works that came on the market and were sold for millions that are now selling for well less. These sorts of art works are promoted by dealers and bought by persons whose main desire is to impress their associates of their wealth and “taste.” So perhaps as this market begins to subside, the market for work that’s produced without the compulsion to chase “the next new thing” will heat up. Suppose?
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Role of the artist
by Paul Wolf, The Pas, MB, Canada
And poo poo to Veblen! Art is insight, emotion heightened to the extreme, to be shared with sentient others. It is done by artists, not on whim, but because they have the need. They need to point out to others aspects of life and the world about them that social dynamics automatically filters and suppresses. Ergo, if something appears that is not within the social/experiential reality construct of the viewer, it cannot be seen. Artists, of whatever sort, are the sensitives of society, the cackling geese, and they will warn of the unseen whether it leads to riches or to rags!
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Collectors looking for ‘safer’ art?
by Gillian Bull
My view is that the economy is not going to make any difference to what, or how I paint. I don’t paint with a market in mind. Since I’m poor (and lazy) about marketing, I struggle with whatever I am pushing myself to do, regardless of what is going on with other people. I teach, and I paint with other people, and have a wonderful, busy life. Thank goodness I have something compelling and gratifying to take my mind off the bad things in life.
I suppose there are collectors who collect because it is fashionable or so that they can show off to their friends, but there are also collectors who buy what they love. Yes, with, economic downturn, they will be circumspect about the amount of money they spend and probably will be more likely to buy art that is ‘safer.’
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The elitist split
by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA
My lifelong approach to it has been indelibly skewed by being the daughter of an artist; born into a home where art is commonplace, usual “stuff” makes it a necessity for any kind of even semi-sane existence. I’m physically uncomfortable in places without art on the walls, as if the building has holes, isn’t going to stand. When I taught art appreciation at a junior college, I took the stance that art is whatever the beholder declares it to be, thus taking a kid’s admiration for his car into a conversation about design elements, for instance. Speaking about art as non-elitist worked to draw my students toward art, to think of it as potentially a “normal” part of life. It must come to be seen that way if artists are to survive. Veblen’s ideas neglect caveman-era art as communication tool, and reflect the historical use of art an illuminating tool for what religious leaders wanted followers to envision from scripture, to keep religion a leader-based (elitist) human need. Therein the elitist split, which elites do indeed need to keep them apart from the rabble. And yet the elite also “need” to associate with artists as part of having/procuring and “understanding” the art — perhaps the ancient need to have serfs and peons whom they can control with money… ah, well… But with a houseful of art – my father’s, my own, and that of myriad other artists (yes, even a small Picasso) – even a financially marginal home in a southern mill village feels palatial. ‘Tis a puzzlement — but at least no wall street manipulator can mess with the creature-comfort version of wealth!
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Diversification means survival
by Stephen Aitken, India
I differ in my opinion from those expressed by Veblen. His assumption that art can be viewed as a ‘pointless possession’ reveals his econocentric perspective. Sure the market is driven by the paintings created by many of the big names of the past and present, but it is the everyday artist, the illustrators, designers, the art directors and instructors that are the engine of our creative society. Many of us eking a living from our creative efforts can take the current economic downturn as a challenge to expand our creative skills, to diversify and develop resilience. I work as an editor in the field of conservation biology, as Managing Editor of Biodiversity journal, and one of the most important strengths of a resilient ecosystem is its ability to diversify. An ecosystem short on variety is an ecosystem vulnerable to change and degradation. Diversification means survival today and forever and it cannot be separated from creativity itself. Up against a wall, the blank canvas, the empty book, the empty document on your computer screen, do they not all challenge us all to gird up our loins and create? I firmly believe that the greatest creations of all will come out of these difficult times. Time will tell.
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Human spirit must be fed
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
Consumer habits cut through such a lot for everyone on many levels at this time of course; a great unknown looms. Yet the desire to possess what is excellent will never cease. When looking at art made and collected during the great depression, this is evident. How pointless if people were to neglect beauty, quality and depth of feeling — all of which is embodied in art more than anywhere else in daily life. Now that is more important than having money to spend on anything that breaks down, becomes unfashionable or distasteful. During the ’30s memorable movies were created, great works of art came into being, Martha Graham’s and great ballet troops toured Europe and the Americas — because ultimately the human spirit must be fed with food for the soul. Now more than ever might be a time to bring original art into ‘ordinary’ homes to offer relief, solace and engender creativity in those treasuring human touch every day: quality diamonds may be out of reach of the many, but not so a treasure of a work of art lifting one’s spirits.
Time to stay home?
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
While I fear that you may well be correct: that the display of extravagant — and unnecessary — purchases may be a bad omen for artists who rely on sales of their work to put food on their table, I’d like to think that art may hold its value better than certain other displays of wealth. We have watched the bottom drop out of the stock market; not only have the bonuses of bankers evaporated, but so have banks; we won’t buy cars because the company that builds them may go bankrupt. And yes, the New York art auction houses that value their “lots” in the millions, are hurting. Even oil, formerly measured by how quickly the price went up after the wind blew offshore, seems to have tanked. However, while the media prints doom and gloom, most people still have their jobs, their houses, and their dignity. (And my heartfelt sympathy for those that do not.) And meanwhile, the price of gold, the metal that sets the standard for solvency, keeps going up.
Maybe, in these precarious times, people will opt for things of beauty and items that have value on a personal level. The last recession championed “cocooning”: staying home and cooking comfort food. Recently, analysts were surprised that while consumer spending declined, the sales of big-screen televisions did not: if people are going to stay home, they want to do so with as much comfort and dignity as they can muster. Perhaps the $200 watercolour — if painted with skill and feeling and marketed effectively, may still find a home.
That optimistic view aside, I think that working artists will have to work harder to show their clients the value of what they are producing. I’ve had one gallery (so far) close; I’m redoubling my marketing efforts, and being more critical of the work I produce. That means taking extra pride in my workmanship, not being satisfied with “OK,” but aiming at wonderful, not letting “adequate” out the door until it is as good as I can make it, and finding new venues for displaying my work. If it still doesn’t find a home, well, I have walls too.
The future for artists
by Terry Gilecki, Delta, BC, Canada
Unfortunately, in the current economy, the sales of art will undoubtedly suffer, just like the sales of the “hummer,” or anything that could be considered a frivolous or an unwise purchase. The many walls in the homes that are in, or near,foreclosure here and around the world. They will not likely be occupied by people, let alone adorned with “art” for some time. Nor will there be Hummers on the driveways. It is not because these items are no longer desired, but simply because they are unrealistic.
Rest assured… despite of, and even in spite of this economy, there are hoards of people that are not only surviving… but thriving, and many new fortunes are being made as we speak. Many of these people, like in the “old days” have, or had to re-learn respect for the value of a buck, and the hard work it takes to really earn it. The “easy come, easy go” mentality is gone. A more cautious attitude already has, and will continue to influence the way we all will spend our money for some time to come.
History tells us that quality is measured, in good part, by the time and effort invested in making something, and that “quality,” even in the worst of times, is always in demand. Making art that shows an investment of the artist’s time, ingenuity and, of course, level of skill and talent, will fair more favourably than the abstract or more spontaneous and looser styles, unless the artist has grown to a level of fame and collectability as an investment. Expect more scrutiny when it comes to buyers looking to “getting their money’s worth.” It’s instinctive.
I agree that, to some degree, art has relied on, as you said, “the frivolity of conspicuous consumption,” and may require offering “discounts.” Some art will have to, and some will not. “Values,” however, will be reassessed. We should consider the changes we will experience as artists in the future, as the adaptation to a more “realistic” economy, and society… hopefully for a while anyway.
Time to reinvent yourself?
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
I am in a personal financial crunch due to the problems in the real estate market. I had just started a new marketing campaign for my artwork when the world went a little crazy. At the same time, I published a new book with another one waiting in the wings which is no small fiscal task. I’m still buying my favorite coffee, even though it is more expensive than most. The pleasure in that, for me, is immeasurable. If anything, the pleasure is heightened because I have the thought of how dear the experience of each cup of coffee is to me. I made the choice to move out of my expensive, expansive workspace and back into my home to offset expenses. A new space — literally, in my own back yard — awaits my attention when I am able. I dream of it every day, moving cupboards and bins as I build the most charming and efficient studio yet!
Why not invest in the idea that what we create continues to be valuable? Why not acquire new ways of seeing, better and bigger ways to create cash and cash-flow inside the changing times? Those who cling to what was, will go the way of it. Those who reinvent themselves, who find new ways of presenting their ‘wares’ will have movement within their creative selves as well as stay in the game of selling. The first step is putting any fears on the shelf. We can get them down now and then if it makes us feel more secure since fear is such a familiar response. But we must put them back on the shelf whenever we explore new waters. Trusting ourselves and our abilities is good practice. What better time than now to begin!
“There are those who discourage the dreamers of dreams.
Their words will seem little and tidy and clean.
Their fears will seem sensible, simple and sound.
They’re rework and lasso your dreams to the ground!”
(RG note) Kittie Beletic is author of What Color is Your Dream? and Coffee Break: Spoken Stories To Express A Special Blend.
Trumpeter Swan At Twilight
oil painting 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Christy Michalak who asked, “How do we, as artists, help to shift the culture around buying art? Art can be so much more than just a frivolous expenditure for something rare. It can also be a daily reinforcement of something meaningful to the viewer (such as a new habit they are instilling in themselves), a reminder upon waking of a happy moment, an honour for a loved one… etc. What can we do with our websites, our literature, and our daily messaging to get this idea across?”
And also Corky Culver of Melrose, FL, USA, who wrote, “The original writer of Slumdog Millionaire had the central idea as being luck and pluck not fate. The movie went to the ‘It is written’ theme. Considering what you say about predestination actually quashing creativity and discouraging talent, it’s too bad the movie changed the philosophy of the story.”
And also Edward Vincent Sydney of Australia, who wrote, “I humbly suggest that it’s not the spending of wealth that’s become uncool, it’s what you spend it on. To spend big on something that is not helping the future of the planet is what’s frowned upon. A massive dining table that represents the destruction of half the Amazon rain forest is bad. A painting is good!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Conspicuous consumption…