WORDS BY: HANS MAGNUS ENZENSBERGER
PHOTO CAPTIONS: FROM THE WHITE LUXURY STUDY

Exhausted from the effort of spending money, the luxury
goddess relaxes and is amused to note what two different
admirers have discovered about her: the poet and the market
researcher.

THE CONCEPT of luxury is just as relative as the definition of poverty. Not all that long ago, goods like sugar and glass, velvet and light, peppers and mirrors were reserved for a small minority made up of Europe’s rich and powerful.

The list of philosophers and lawmakers, preachers and demagogues who have spoken out against lavishness, displays of splendour and extravaganceis endless. And like the object of their zeal, their arguments have changed through the ages as well.

When all’s said and done, you can’t help noticing that it has rarely been the reprobates of this earth who have castigated public displays of extravagance, but rather their self-appointed advocates. It has been radical intellectuals of the likes of Robespierre, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung or Pol Pot – i.e. lawyers, landowners’ sons, sociologists – who have seen asceticism as the height of virtue and were willing, if necessary, to enforce it with every means of terror available to them. Among the poor, the disenfranchised and the humble, on the other hand, preachers of abstinence are few and far between.

“21 percent of heavy buyers believe blogs are a good fit with luxury brands.”

Much of what any modern-day road worker or hair stylist takes for granted as part of a normal standard of living was not available to any prince of the past: that is one of those truisms that could really get you brooding if you took them at face value.

The luxury debate in 18th century France. At the time, Abbé Coyer wrote in his famous pamphlet: “Luxury is akin to fire: it may be beneficial as well as destructive. In ruining the houses of our rich, it sustains our factories. In devouring the inheritance of the spendthrift, it feeds our workers … Proscribe our stuffs from Lyons, our gold-cloth, our jewellery, and I see not only millions of arms drop in idleness, but I also hear an equal number of voices crying for bread.”

Montesquieu … is more concise: “There is an absolute necessity for luxury,” he says. “Were the rich not to be lavish, the poor would starve.” And Voltaire reduces the problem to a bon mot: “The superfluous is a very necessary thing.”

“Among the poor, the disenfranchised and the
humble, on the other hand, preachers of
abstinence are few and far between.”

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    “42 percent of heavy buyers in the current study stated that they didn’t pass up a good offer.”

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    “Online shops for luxury brands are a must. 60 percent of all heavy buyers expect them.”

With disarming bonhomie, an encyclopaedia from 1815 states: “In this regard, luxury becomes not only highly useful and necessary by facilitating the purpose of man, that is, his physical wellbeing, but also by distributing this wellbeing among the greatest possible number of people and thus counteracting wealth inequality, which is detrimental to the general wellbeing of the nation as a whole.”

The biologists of the 19th century realised that extravagance not only plays a considerable role in human society but in nature too. The quantitative and qualitative excess that prevails in nature cannot be adequately explained by utility calculations alone. Evolutionists have difficulty interpreting the outrageous colours displayed by tropical butterflies along the lines of Darwin’s theories. And the tusks of the Siberian mammoth are no less puzzling, in as much as they did not help the species to survive. Science, then, has a tough time explaining the luxury of nature. As to whether the extravagant tendencies of us humans can be attributed to our biological roots – well, that’s a question that will have to remain unanswered, at least for the time being.

In the first years of the postwar economic boom, the masses didn’t want to listen to the intellectuals warning them of the evils of refrigerators and cars, which were still considered luxury goods at the time. And later on, when the student movement tried to protect people from the dangers inherent in the tyranny of consumerism, its warnings fell on equally deaf ears.

“When the student movement tried to protect
people from the dangers inherent in the tyranny
of consumerism, its warnings fell on deaf ears.”

It was Georges Bataille who carried the philosophical interpretation of luxury to extremes … As wash is way, he came to a radical conclusion: “The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exuberance: the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life.” You don’t have to share Bataille’s metaphysics of extravagance in order to agree with him on one point, namely that, for all the poverty, there has never been a human society that has managed to do without luxury. Never have people saved less than in times when famines were commonplace. And it was precisely traditional societies under constant threat of shortages that were particularly likely to celebrate with absurd displays of splendour. Not because of the narcissism and megalomania of their rulers, but because of the necessity for prestige.

“80 percent focus on fashion and shoes,around two thirds attach particular importance to accessories, watches and skincare.”

The idea that the manifestation of splendour and luxury only served the pleasure of the powerful is a puritanical misunderstanding. If the truth be known, they were in fact obliged, forced even, to treat the world to an exorbitant spectacle at anyprice, even if it led to their own ruin.

And what role did the people – or, in modern parlance, the public – play in these extravagant rituals? It didn’t just have to foot the bill; it had the right to watch as well.

“Mass production has brought about luxury’s
greatest triumph and its decline – both at the same time.”

Neuschwanstein, the fairy-tale castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was considered by his audit office to be “the insane extravagance of a paranoid mind”. Yet today, visitors pay six million marks in admission fees every single year – as much as the entire building cost in its day … What’s remarkable… is the love shown for the royal patient both then and now – despite the fact that he never had anything remotely like a common touch. It is an indication that luxury by no means triggers spontaneous outrage – even and especially when it is out of all proportion.

All of which prompts the suspicion that the aversion to all forms of luxury, even the most modest, can in fact be attributed to the scruples and self-hatred of its critics rather than to the resentment of those who have no part in it.

Mass production has brought about luxury’s greatest triumph and its decline – both at the same time. A huge industry that achieves incredible growth rates even during a recession lives from its decay products. The trend towards branded goods is emblematic of this development. Th e manufacturers’ names have become a universal code. The label represents the object.

It is hardly surprising that private luxury has been lost – even to the envious spectator. When there is nothing more to see, the voyeur turns away with a shrug of the shoulders. Nor can it be a mere coincidence that it is often pimps, gangsters and drug barons who attach the greatest importance to adorning themselves with exclusive crap. Now here is the battle for the label, for the brand name on the gear, as fierce and bloody as in the ghetto.

Text (Spiegel 51/96) with the kind permission of the author Hans Magnus Enzensberger

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