Neue Luxury is a global dialogue on luxury in the 21st century.

Neue Luxury

Luxury

 

 

The sculptures and jewellery of Julia deVille are both luxurious and forbidding. No baroque extravagance is alien to her repertoire: silver chargers with cartouches on their architectural flanges, urns with volutes and florid articulation, copious ornaments from the age of authority. As if preparing the mise en scène for some exquisite banquet, she then sets the table with splendid rarities, like foetal deer or baby rabbit.

With these delicate condiments, however, the other side of baroque consciousness—vanitas—looms fatefully and grimly through taxidermy: all life, however young, ends in death. As spectators, we aesthetically savour animals who died in exquisite perfection, their bodies morbidly conserved as elegant artefact, encrusted with gems. The idea of combining opulence and death has more than lurid motives. DeVille’s discourse is not about love-death; her work has no interest in the vision of voluptuous expiry, where Romantic artists might have seen some heady appeal in perishing aesthetically. Her tender beasts sit in state and experience neither ecstasy nor pain in succumbing to their death, which must have happened in the abstract. Rather, her combination of natural beauty, ornamental grandeur, sentimentality, and the language of gastronomy invites us to contemplate the aesthetic economy, right down to the structure and basis of luxury.

Few concepts are so fraught with moral and aesthetic contradictions. Luxury, though sought with envy and cultivated competitively by all the advanced economies, has always attracted criticism. The ambivalence is so deeply a part of European culture that it finds an expression in the very language by which the idea is communicated. Our word luxury derives from the Latin for plenty (luxus) which spawned a derivative (luxuria) that already indicates a kind of rank superabundance, a sense retained in the English term luxuriant, as in describing thick undergrowth or a prolific pot of basil.

Her tender beasts sit in state and experience neither ecstasy nor pain in succumbing to their death, which must have happened in the abstract. Rather, her combination of natural beauty, ornamental grandeur, sentimentality, and the language of gastronomy invites us to contemplate the aesthetic economy, right down to the structure and basis of luxury.

In the Renaissance, however, the somewhat wanton and overgrown associations of the Latin overtook the root, so to speak, to express an outrageous libidinous energy, impulsively lusty and expressing lack of control. The Italian term lussuria expressed lust or ‘illegitimate lewdness’, as Cesare Ripa says in his book of emblems from the early seventeenth century, which became a famous source-book for artists.1

Is luxury good or bad? You can almost see the development of language neurotically hedging its bets. To get around the embarrassment that we don’t know, that we simultaneously want to admire luxury (and to possess it) but also to abhor and stigmatize it, the European psyche hatched two terms which might take care of the equivocation. Let lussuria be disgusting and lewd; let it go wild and convulse, whence it indicates moral abandon and fornication alongside the randy appetites of goats and rats. Meanwhile, let us—as people of culture and aspiration—have the luxury of things, lusso, grand halls bedight with pictures and stucco and replete with tables bearing unaffordable sweetmeats.

Although the idea of luxury as a purely material superfluity—untainted by erotic excess—retained a separate term (lusso), in fact this form of privilege was also not without anxious suspicions and concerns for social control. Anything good by the neurosis of western culture is also something bad, because it might be owned by the wrong people or put to the wrong effect. In the fourth book of his influential treatise The Book of the Courtier from the early sixteenth century, Baldassare Castiglione implores us to ‘temper all superfluity’ for economic reasons, because wasting resources lays cities to ruin.2 Around lusso, he includes over-sumptuous private buildings, banquets, excessive dowries and pomp in jewellery and clothes. Productive capital would be tied up in aesthetic nonsense or vanity.

In the exorbitant decorative century that followed, lusso would remain under suspicion, even with such a flamboyant poet as Marino, who saw ‘soft luxury and barbarous ornament’ as a phantasm that seductively gets into his hero’s nostrils;3 though Marino is not such a hypocrite that he doesn’t also express his fondness for ‘superb luxury’4 elsewhere because he flagrantly demonstrates his liking for it. Whatever one decries as unnecessary one can equally extol as superlative. It depends on your expectations and values, which are likely to be in contention in all epochs.

This ambivalence explains why Shakespeare, whose language is at least as luxuriant as Marino’s, sings: ‘Fie on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!’ or complains of ‘hateful luxury, / And bestial appetite in change of lust’, always associating luxury with libido. As if remembering the etymological link with lust,5 Shakespeare associates ‘the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger’ with lechery.6 It’s why old King Hamlet’s ghost associates luxury with erotic vice in the famous lines: ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / a couch for luxury and damned incest’.7  And it’s also why Lear makes an apology for lechery and ‘luxury, pell-mell’, because adultery couldn’t produce worse offspring than his own treacherous surviving daughters, who were nevertheless ‘Got ‘tween the lawful sheets’.8

In the world that Julia deVille inhabits, the archaic confusion of luxury and lust persists. Infuriatingly, in fact, expensive consumer goods or services for the socially aspirational are associated with sex through advertising. One capriciously represents the desired product or service with the vector of naked legs or youthful cleavage. So strong is this appeal that decades of feminism and rational reflexion are to no avail.

Wealth and power are popularly considered to have aphrodisiac properties, so the archaic link between luxury and lust is not likely to disappear any time soon, no matter how much we recognize that the connexion is illogical. But deVille associates it with death.

Wealth and power are popularly considered to have aphrodisiac properties, so the archaic link between luxury and lust is not likely to disappear any time soon, no matter how much we recognize that the connexion is illogical. But deVille associates it with death.

The ancient critique of luxury as an inappropriate way of spending resources also has a contemporary counterpart, which in many ways is dear to deVille’s heart. We are wary of many luxuries for reasons of sustainability. The more luxury we desire, the more luxury is produced, the more energy is consumed and emissions are produced. One is anxious about the exponential global consumption of goods and services, which is now reckoned to be unsustainable and also impossible to arrest.

The animals that deVille puts on her extravagant platters are much more than morbid tokens of a vegetarian distaste for carnivorous culture. To the ethics of breeding livestock in order to kill it, we now have to add a set of environmental scruples that make meat even less morally palatable than before. Once upon a time, we only had to think of the damage to the animal itself, whereas now we are obliged to think of the damage to the planet as well. The carbon footprint of the steak is several times greater than that of the tofu; and so meat—though not yet a luxury in our relatively prosperous community—is further stigmatized as an ecological catastrophe.

As a vegetarian, deVille could afford to be sanctimonious about these scandals; but she is an artist who speculates rather than a moralist who denounces. In this discourse, we need humility, because all cultural production—including this text that I fondly preen and primp on a snazzy laptop while sitting in a handsome armchair—is a kind of luxury. For my survival as a person who eats, needs shelter and nourishes children, I don’t altogether need a library crammed with music or a cabinet with decorative glass.

Likewise, deVille needs to produce art and, up to a point, her work, like anyone else’s, can be thought of as a luxury, something that you could, if push came to shove, do without. Given that her iconography of épergne and salver is ostentatious, you are invited to see both form and content as a luxury, a sign of privilege, an expression of rank by means of exorbitance. And of course her work is not cheap, because it is highly collectable and sustains her as an artist.

Anything prestigious could be deemed a luxury and condemned accordingly. It is a puritanical foolishness which Jesus himself considers shortsighted. When Mary Magdalen anoints Christ with expensive unguents, the disciples object: ‘they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste (απωλεια)? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.’ Jesus however answers them: ‘Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial’.9

The disciples only see the material value of the myrrh but Christ sees its symbolic value as oblation, which turns out to be necessary in honouring his divine mission. Maybe this is not a good example if you consider the higher religious purpose an irrational superstition; nevertheless, the point is made that definitions of luxury are relative. What is a luxury? The criteria are never absolute. What looks like money-down-the-drain for one purpose is essential for another.

In deVille’s sculptures, curiously, the sacrificial character of the altar and sacrament are not so far away, because the lamb, so to speak, has its throat cut and the host is presented for some mysterious transformative or redemptive purpose. Even without those symbolic associations, and whether they are sacramental or not, luxury is in the eye of the beholder. Luxury is extensively subjective and dependent upon prior values. In a beautiful comedy by the eighteenth-century playwright Carlo Goldoni, a shrewd English noble, Milord Wambert, says to his skeptical creative compatriots: ‘Friends, if you so detest fashion and luxury, if you so love the common good and reformed custom, why do you yourselves make such rich works which wreak such waste (recano dispendio) and cause damage? You earn your bread with silver and gold. You study unusual ways of shaping shoes. Therefore, O wise and prudent heroes, luxury is only harmful when buyers don’t spend on you!’10

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