he idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in relation to the production
and reception of works of art.
The concept of conspicuous consumption as coined by the twentieth-centurywriter Torstein Veblen has received criticism for being too reductionist. If this isthe case, however, how does the concept operate when forced to confront avariety of contexts? Th
is paper takes as its base Veblen’s conception of
conspicuous consumption, which is outlined as an economic rule to account for all expenditure applicable to all human history. By exploring this in light of art production and reception, it is possible to unpack and challenge the statement that reputable expenditure is always of superfluities. Focusing specifically onmediaeval illuminated manuscripts, three key strands become apparent: judgements of the base concept against other prominent functions, motivated consumption versus inherent value, and how to evaluate reception and
ownership by groups and institutions (as opposed to Veblen’s strong focus on the
individual). The producer, who has a vested interest in the item produced for reception, is also considered. I have specifically selected texts of different genres for consideration
secular, religious and legal
to highlight the variety of implications latent in producing and consuming objects even of the some kind of form. The paper also acknowledges the moral criticism frequently levelled at
conspicuous consumption. A further strand questions Veblen’s assertion of
continuity by considering the reproduction and reception of works of art,sometimes centuries removed from their original context, in light of some recent examples: additions, the art dealer and the museum or gallery. I conclude that the basic concept of conspicuous consumption is indeed too reductionist and,when made to consider different contexts in art production and reception, must be modified to, at most, a degree of conspicuous consumption working withmultiple motives in human judgement.
‘Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods
or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to
effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities.’
Veblen, 96. All references to Veblen in this essay are taken from Thorstein Veblen,
The Theoryof the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions