H_edge, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art 2007, by Cecil Balmond/ Arup AGU. Photograph: Buchard, Brondum & CoAn affluent society, wrote the economist JK Galbraith, makes no meaningful distinction between luxury and necessity. Over three events in the autumn the RA Forum explored the implications of this socio-economic condition for art, architecture, urban space and form. Does it, as Galbraith suggested, increase opportunities for artists and architects, with the potential to open up new intellectual areas?
"The problem of quantitative satisfaction is one for science and technology… That of qualitative satisfaction is for the artist to solve… Beyond the age of the engineer and the scientist lies the age of the artist." JK Galbraith, The Economics of Beauty, 1970
Comments abridged from presentations on Monday 12 October by Jules Lubbock, Robert Skidelsky and Bernard Rieger.
Modernism as a manifestation of affluence
Part of the impetus behind modernism was to reflect the new industrial society, and to help spread the benefits of the wealth it created. Yet many of its theoretical ideas remain rooted in an age when scarcity, rather than abundance, was the principal social concern. Often its aesthetic principles and its ethical goals diverge.
Both Galbraith and Adolf Loos believed competitive consumption should cease to exist as society became more affluent through the fruits of industrial technology. What to previous generations were luxuries and status symbols ceased to have such value when everyone could have them. When Galbraith recognised that this had not happened, he blamed advertising for creating desires which did not previously exist. These desires, whether ethical or hedonistic in origin, merely increase the divergence between modernist aesthetics and popular taste.
Modernism and social control
Modernism emerged later in the UK than the US or much of Europe, but its claims for improving social welfare attracted the intellectuals who came to power in 1945. Applying modernism’s rationalist, impersonal and functional principles to domestic dwellings revealed its aspirations towards social engineering. Where popular taste manifested itself, it found expression in the traditional concept of a private house and garden. The spread of home ownership, not a taste for modernism, is one of the main products of the affluent society in the UK.
Private wealth and public squalor
Galbraith argued for more public spending to overcome the paradox of private wealth and public squalor that occurs in a mass affluent society. Yet once modernist architects operate without competition or challenge they focused on what they thought people needed rather than what they wanted – leading a discrepancy between publicly funded building and private desires. Despite having failed to close the gap between public squalor and private wealth, modernism still lives.
Modernism and affluence now
Modernism has proved compatible with different social orders. Today it is the expression of finance triumphant, shifting from rehousing the working class to providing dwellings for a house owning society. Playfulness and fantasy has taken over – as might be expected in a society with lots of money and leeway for expressing idiosyncrasies.
Comments abridged from contributions on Monday 12 November by Cecil Balmond, Neil Spiller and Indy Johar.
The event identified one aspect of contemporary affluence as the condition of irreducible complexity. We can no longer break down our experience into simple linear chains of cause and effect. What we left unresolved was the degree to which this complexity resides in form itself or in patterns of social behaviour which take place around those forms.
The boundaries of form no longer need to be rigidly defined but can be permeable and osmotic. Form is not just raw material, but matter shaped by an idea or ideas. In this case new possibilities for aesthetic expression and experience open up, but are the ideas purely neutral mathematics or do they have an ethical dimension?
Affluence allows choice of behaviour. That choice may be based on ethics, but different sets of ethics, such as fair trade or localism may be contradictory. Shifting patterns of affluence open up new desires, opportunities and challenges which might encourage manifestations of different ethical systems in architecture.
Artificial and natural
Nanotechnology and cyberneutics challenge the conventional boundaries between living organisms and natural ecologies and artificial forms and systems. It might be possible to programme an organic entity such as a tree to grow into a particular form but to change the outcome during the growing cycle.
The condition of affluence massively increases the range of choices in and complexity of the procurement process. Each choice potentially ethical issues as well as aesthetic ones. By acting as curators, rather than seeking to exercise complete control over the process and its outcome, architects can uncover latent opportunities in the procurement process – as a benefit of affluence.
The art market might display a behaviour-based response to affluence, while the way immigrant communities inhabit and define their sacred space in existing urban settings, suggests an interaction between form and behaviour. If those spaces remain sacred even as one community is replaced by another, it might suggest that some traces of behaviour remain encrusted in form.
Comments abridged from contributions on Monday 19 November by Richard Cork, John Eade, Iain Robertson and Vicky Richardson
Ever since the division of labour allowed wealth to accrue, affluence has existed. However its distribution and how it is manifested continually changes. This process of change is very closely intertwined with evolutions in culture. The Forum Affluence and Culture attempted to look at specific instances when the relationship between affluence and cultural change is evident: the transferral of money, ideas, people and artworks in early Renaissance Europe; immigration and its potential to transform how we read the urban fabric, and the way emerging artistic traditions and new sources of wealth are affecting the contemporary art market.
One fundamental effect of affluence is that it allows people to pay more than the utility value for what they buy. It means that the value of goods can rise far in excess of the cost of labour, materials and transport, so that value starts to reflect perceived cultural importance rather than production costs. Cultural artefacts – even ones as large as buildings – can move between locations. Affluence drives cultural change.
Affluence and culture
As affluence has penetrated further and deeper into society, it has multiplied the forms and extent of inequality. Each of the many possible definitions of culture manifests these consequences differently. Culture in the sense of everyday norms and symbols is profoundly affected by the changing sense of what constitutes necessity, while the vast amounts of money in the art market have the power to transform hierarchies within the arts, between different artists and between different genres as well as to create new media.
Money and humanity
Even a patron as wealthy as Tommaso Portinari was deeply concerned with the plight of individual human beings. The Adoration of the Shepherds he commissioned from Hugo van der Goes depicts not just him and his family as mortal beings but also explores the pathos of simple shepherds as they come to pay homage to the vulnerable Christ child. All human figures depicted are linked by a common humanity. But today this sense of humanity seems to have little place in contemporary culture. Flows of people are more commonly seen as a problem than a benefit. We may need to seek a moral framework that can exist within what the historian Niall Ferguson has termed the Cash Nexus.
Sacrilisation, culture and urban fabric
Globalisation brings flows of people and ideas as well as money. These migrations often make an impact on the urban fabric through sacrilisation of space, adopting the traditional notion of embodied space to reflect their identities. Often considered underclasses, these communities can draw on global cultural networks linked to Rome, Mecca or Amritsar, which make a counterpoint to flows of capital. Numerous spaces have been sacrilised in this way against the backdrop of a massive decline in religious practice among the majority population yet contemporary collectors consider their purchases almost as if they are totems, sacrilising objects rather than spaces.
Affluence and Innovation
The art market has always been a discoverer of talent in a way the public sector cannot. New sources and ever larger amounts of money are uncovering talent in places where the art market has up to now hardly operated, in China, India, South East Asia and the Middle East. The contemporary market is an attractive one for new collectors because it is easier to become proficient in it than markets for established art. This affluence can help to foster contemporary artists, sparing them the penury of many of their predecessors.
The benefits of ownership
The history of the art market shows that investors in art rarely loose. Specialist art funds have given returns recently of 25 per cent annually, but only by treating art purely as a commodity. The economist Bruno Frey has attempted to quantify the amount of pleasure that the owner of an artwork receives, based on a formula that takes into account the hours spent contemplating it and the hourly rate of the owner’s income. But there may be other returns, not based on money or hedonic, personal pleasure, but which depends on making a private collection available to the public.