Friday, August 17, 2012

The Leisure Class and the Arts

Every now and then I make observations that I do not know fully how to process. One of these is in relation to our notions of wealth and poverty, and especially wealth and the arts.

It occurred to me as I was reading the diaries of Andre Gide that his "situation" was far different than mine. The Nobel Prize winning French author produced 80 books, many of which were self-published small circulation pieces that were shared with friends. Some diary entries mentioned playing piano for six hours during the day. When he traveled to Tunisia he had fourteen large trunks of belongings. In short, he was not like me. He was from a different class of people.

Having last weekend visited the Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art stimulated questions about the man who many acknowledge now to be the most influential artist of the twentieth century. The Duchamp story is interesting because he achieved so much fame, created such a stir in his earlier life and then abandoned it all to play chess for the second half of his life.

It made me ask questions as regarding his employment, or rather how he supported himself. Some would call playing chess all the time the same as being a do-nothing. I find it astonishing that he did this amazing work before World War I commenced and yet lived quietly out of the public eye right through to the Viet Nam War, passing away in October 1968.

The phrase "leisure class" came to mind and I decided to see what Google had to offer. First, this desciption from

Consuming, parasitic class, represented by an idle elite engaged in continuous public demonstration of their status. Idea particularly associated with the American sociological economist, Thorstein Veblen, who published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. Veblen saw the fundamental human motive as the maximization of status rather than orientation towards any monetary variable. In establishing status, expenditure was more important than income, enhanced status being often achieved by ‘conspicuous consumption’. Thus a leisure class comes into being which dominates and trivializes leisure within a culture, though this pattern of consumption may be a necessary feature of the working of the economic system. Veblen's theories belong in the category of critical analysis of consumer society, a form of discourse embracing such writers as Lewis Mumford, J. K. Galbraith, and J. B. Priestley. — Lincoln Allison 

This passage lead me to Veblen himself and this passage from Wikipedia.

The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899), by Thorstein Veblen, is an economic treatise and detailed social critique of conspicuous consumption, as a function of social-class consumerism, which proposes that the social strata and the division of labor of the feudal period continued into the modern era. The lords of the manor employed themselves in the economically useless practices of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, whilst the middle and lower classes were employed in the industrial occupations that support the whole of society; economically wasteful activities are those activities that do not contribute to the economy or to the material productivity required for the fruitful functioning of society. (emphasis mine)

As for Duchamp, his obsession with chess was all part of his mystique. On one occasion he went to Buenos Aires for nine months and played chess with game pieces he carved himself. He actually became a Chess Master, and algorithms of all his games were fed into a computer so that you yourself can play against Duchamp (or what purports to be his strategic play) online today. Here's how the invitation reads...

Marcel Duchamp is widely recognized for his contribution to conceptual art, but his lifelong obsession was the game of chess, in which he achieved the rank of Master. Working with the records of his chess matches, I have created a computer program to play chess as if it were Marcel Duchamp. I invite all artists, skilled and unskilled at this classic game, to play against a Duchampian ghost.

Do you want to play Duchamp?

As for the "leisure class"... which bears a striking resemblance to one percenters, what painter would not like to have a patron who has oodles of money to buy up one's works? Well, think again. Some of these are people with so much money that a forty million dollar Picasso doesn't make a dent in their pocketbooks. Why would they buy your art when they can own a Warhol? If they bought everything you have ever created, they would then simply have a problem of knowing where to store it all. And that would not be very conspicuous, would it?

For what it's worth, most of us who wish to make art need to support ourselves with other vocations. And that may not be a bad thing. It keeps us in the loop was regard what is really going on in the human race.

Hope your weekend is a great one. Do something creative. And keep in touch.

Disclaimer: The author of these blog entries is both an amateur philosopher and amateur art historian.

1 comment:

ENNYMAN said...

I would like to add, upon further reflection, that I believe envy is wrong and for artists who have to work a day job to be envious of those who can play chess all day does nothing to help one's own situation.

Also, the use of the phrase one-percenter is now so loaded with baggage that it should not have been used in this post either. Ultimately, whether wealth is accumulated by inheritance or hard work and smarts, the recipients of those fortunes are the ones who will be judged as regards its use.

Whatever we have is a gift, snd if that gift is creativity or intelligence or whatever, it's a shame to now use it.