This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. His sixth chapter is titled Pecuniary Canons of Taste.
We’ll finish Chapter Six with this post. A while back we noted how easy it is to increase one’s standard of living, but how difficult it is to cut bak. Any retrogression is viewed as ‘a grievous violation of our human dignity.’ This doesn’t prevent us from going back in time, however. Veblen points out that for the past half dozen years or so (that would be in the 1890s, the Gilded Age, indeed it still holds true today), candles have been the preferred source of light at the well-appointed dinner table, chosen over oil, gas or electric light. As it happens, candles were no longer the most inexpensive source of domestic light as they were thirty years previously. He points out that the light they shed is of no use ‘for any other than a ceremonial illumination.’ Doesn’t he sound grumpy?
Veblen says that the perception of beauty has also been warped by the desire for novelty: if something is ingenious or puzzling, a curiosity, then it is alleged to be beautiful. He names a number of exotic hand-wrought items which have no function in a developed society, but rather than use his examples, I had another idea. We sometimes tour grand houses such as those owned by the National Trust and many of those homes include a ‘curio cabinet’ just for the display of odd items picked up on their travels. The items will perhaps not have cost a great deal at the point of acquisition, but they demonstrate wealth because of the travel required to collect them.
Veblen moans about this need for novelty in domestic and public architecture which, to be fair, was pretty over the top in his day. In his view the ‘neglected’ sides and back of the buildings were their best features.
To polish off (ahem) some more of Veblen’s examples of how our definition of beautiful is influenced by the rules of conspicuous consumption, we’ll return to his earlier example of a hand-wrought silver spoon. He tackles the Arts and Crafts movement and names William Morris and John Ruskin as among those who highly valued hand-made items. Of course, hand labour is the most wasteful form of production in a machine age. In order to fulfil all the pecuniary criteria, a hand-made object must display the highest level of skill but may not be so perfect that one could mistake it for machine made. If it isn’t obviously expensive, it cannot be beautiful.
Another example is Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Veblen qualifies his case as only applying to the economic question of book production.
“Even a scientific periodical, with ostensibly no purpose but the most effective presentation of matter with which its science is concerned, will concede so much to the demands of this pecuniary beauty as to publish its scientific discussions in old style type, on laid paper, and with uncut edges. But books which are not ostensibly concerned with the effective presentation of their contents alone, of course go farther in this direction. Here we have a somewhat cruder type, printed on hand-laid, deckel-edged paper, with excessive margins and uncut leaves, with bindings of a painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude. The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity — as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone — by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee — somewhat crude, it is true — that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer.”
In this desire to return to old-fashioned designs, Veblen believes
“the canon is to some extent shaped in conformity to that secondary expression of the predatory temperament, veneration for the archaic or obsolete, which in one of its special developments is called classicism.”
This affinity for archaic ideas is a theme he develops further in a later chapter. For now, it comes to my mind that for many generations a ‘classical’ education was considered befitting of an upper class gentleman. Veblen says he objects to this canon of pecuniary repute and the relationship with classicism because
“It is a regulative rather than a creative principle. It very rarely initiates or originates any usage or custom directly. Its action is selective only.”
Chapter Seven is Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture!