For food and wine lovers, Robin Givhan’s piece in the Washington Post, “The Case for Luxury” is a very solid essay with an important argument in this age of bad taste parading as opulence. The occasion was Ralph Lauren’s over-the-top celebration of the release of his Fall 2017 collection, which included “a show and dinner in the private garage that houses his collection of rare and exotic automobiles”, a collection reputed to be worth $300 Million. As you might imagine, a vitriolic backlash to this ostentatious show of wealth ensued especially at a time when economic inequality is through the roof.
Givhan acknowledges the legitimate arguments behind the anger:
High-priced consumption is unseemly, wasteful and selfish — narcissism writ large. And it is especially problematic juxtaposed with today’s abundant supply of distressing news — an epidemic of opioid addiction, a tide of refugees cast adrift, an American health-care system in turmoil. How can the well-off justify spending thousands of dollars on a designer dress when that money could be used to feed their hungry neighbors?
Indeed. The gap between rich and poor in this country is a travesty, impossible-to justify-thievery, offensive to anyone who cares about justice.
But there is another side of the argument that is equally important to acknowledge.
Yet amid all the legitimate concern surrounding wealth and inequality and unfettered capitalism, it can be easy to forget the other side of the argument: that luxury can be more than just a high price tag. That luxury products can be astonishing, glorious — even inspiring. That luxury items — some of them, the best of them — can be examples of human artistry at its finest. That they can offer enduring beauty. That their inherent creativity propels the world forward. That luxury, true luxury, can in fact be sustenance for a culture.
This also is true. And arguments that we can dispense with “human artistry at its finest” are as bankrupt as arguments justifying gross inequalities of wealth. Such an argument seeks to banish human excellence from the face of the earth.
The wine world offers a good example. Wines of great quality and distinction are almost always produced by small-to-midsized wineries. Even the largest Premier Crus Chateaux in Bordeaux produce only about 25,000 cases. In Burgundy which now features the most expensive wines in the world, meritorious vineyard plots are tiny with no room to expand. When supply is limited and word gets out that a wine is distinctive its price will inevitably soar. The point can be generalized. Anything that is rare, distinctive, and well-known will be expensive. There is simply no way around it. Do such wineries artificially restrict the supply to maintain prices? Of course, some do. But the point still stands—if it’s rare and distinctive it will cost you because it’s rare. The alternative, if the price is artificially limited, is that the product will be unavailable, snapped up by the people who get there first. So it’s still rare and unavailable to most of us. This is true regardless of whether our economic system is predatory capitalism or democratic socialism.
Thus, the argument against luxury goods cannot be that they’re too expensive. It must be that they are not of genuine quality. And this is the important point that Givhan makes.
The essence of luxury used to be innovation and quality. And there was an audience that appreciated both. Today, innovation and quality often are lacking in the most ubiquitous luxury brands, and the size of the audience with the knowledge to appreciate either is dwindling….The result is that luxury has become disengaged from its historical context: no legacy, no sense of craft, no understanding of the raw materials, no appreciation for inventiveness. It’s all just a bunch of really expensive stuff in the minds of its critics. The perception is that luxury products are only tools for lording one’s status over others, not also demonstrably better products. In the sea of generic marketing campaigns that categorize everything from stainless-steel appliances to candles as “luxury,” the term has been devalued.
Again the wine world is a good example. The great wines–some of the Napa cult wines, the Bordeaux Premier Crus and some Burgundian Grand Crus, for example–are of genuine quality. But we all know that price is no guarantee of quality. Many high priced wines rest on their reputation for years while producing plonk. They sell because some customers don’t know any better and are simply looking to show off.
As Givhan argues, it’s the older form of luxury synonymous with quality and artistry that is worth preserving. This is the heart of the argument. Wine, art and other products of culture are not necessary except for the enjoyment they bring. Yet the sort of enjoyment that comes from appreciating genuine displays of human creativity and craft are priceless, and human life would be much diminished without them.
So how do we square a concern with economic justice with the existence of luxury? By returning to social norms that admire moderation and condemn excess, by recognizing that what is rare and distinctive must remain rare and distinctive and that means sometimes being content with less so others can flourish. It is not wealth by itself that is of value but genuine quality. If we got rid of the junk in our lives we would have more resources for the social goods that lift everyone.