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Explore the idea of 'conspicuous consumption' in relation to the production and reception of works of art.

Explore the idea of 'conspicuous consumption' in relation to the production and reception of works of art.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Kemp. Originally submitted for Approaches to Art History at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Julian Luxford in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Kemp. Originally submitted for Approaches to Art History at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Julian Luxford in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
 
-
1
 Explore t
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, motivateconsumption 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 a
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.’
1
 
1
Veblen, 96. All references to Veblen in this essay are taken from Thorstein Veblen,
The Theoryof the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions
(London, 1924).
 
 
-
2
 
Acknowledgement of 
The Theory of the Leisure Class
appears compulsory to
exploring the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’.
In coining this term, Veblencomposed a label to encompass his theory behind any expenditure above the
‘bare necessities’. In essence, huma
ns have an inherent propensity for ostentationand have developed expenditure, the sole purpose of which is to assert theiridentity comparative to that of other hierarchical ranks of society.
Interpretations of Veblen’
s term vary. Reid claims
it symbolises one’s ability to
waste whatever one wishes.
2
T
his differs somewhat from Veblen’s sense – 
the
‘fact’ (and
Veblen has been criticised by Daloz as positing generalisations aslaw)
3
of spending to display social position does not reflect spending ability tosuch an extent.
Reid’s a
ssessment obscures why and how people pursue thisaction. Veblen is emphatic there is only one sole reason. Yet this claim toexclusivity does prompt challenge. My aim is to explore how
‘conspicuous
con
sumption’
operates (or does not) relative to the production and reception of works of art. I will particularly examine examples of art definable as mediaevalilluminated manuscripts.The range of illuminated manuscript genres opens the challenge that a range of accompanying motives may be discernable for expenditure on them. I start by
introducing the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’ to the concept of select
products existing for reception. Examples of illuminated secular texts such as the
2
 
Jim Reid, ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ Illinois State College of Art and Sciences Information
and Technology website: <http://lilt.ilstu.edu/jhreid/foi/conspicuous_consumption.htm>
3
Jean-Pascal Daloz,
The Sociology of Elite Distinction: from theoretical to comparative perspectives
(Basingstoke, 2010), 17.
 
 
-
3
 
‘Rochefoucauld Grail’
4
compilation of Arthurian legend are easier to dismiss asitems ripe for reception as signifiers of identity, whether or not this corresponds
with Veblen’s class hierarc
hy assumptions. Whilst Berry indicates thatostentation is not the same as luxury, his connection of luxury to physical/basic
needs is useful in light of the ease with which the concept of ‘conspicuous
consumpt
ion’ can be paired with above necessity
refinement connoted byluxury.
5
A
text of this kind could correspond to Berry’s category of ‘recreation’.
Consequently
if 
such a product is consumed in a way that is visible to others,then it could be a matter of weighing up whether need for recreation or instinct toincite an audience reaction by displaying identity was the most prominent reason.Perhaps physical need is a stronger prompt than physical inclination. Perhaps it isnot. The comparison is at least between concepts of the same kind.The same is not true for examples of illuminated religious texts. Religioussustenance, as a need of the soul, is an abstraction even further removed from ourphysical world. Veblen distains spiritual motive as a valid challenge toconspicuous consumption. He accepts that there will be more than one reason forexpenditure, but claims these other reasons, particularly religious observance, aresupplementary to the core reason. Such expenditure is no less effective at
displaying wealth for being grounded in ‘more approvable motives’
.
6
However, Iam not sure we need
take Veblen’s word for this.
The attitude adopted towardsreligious belief is significant. Wiek claims the popularity of illuminated Books of Hours in the Middle Ages can be pinned to the direct, potentially uninterrupted
4
 
Tom Peck, ‘Blood, Lust, Romance: a rare page
-
turner’ in
The Independent 
(United Kingdom,2010), 32-3.
5
Christopher Berry,
The Idea of Luxury: a conceptual and historical investigation
(Cambridge,1994), particularly 6-8 and 30.
6
Veblen, 76 and 100.

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