“A Taste for Shiny, Pretty Things”

Eric Koch is spending two weeks in Europe. A number of his regular readers have generously volunteered to compose guest-postings – this is the Michael Gundy’s third contribution.

That is a headline from The Globe and Mail “Report on Business” dated May 27, 2011. The article went on to describe the prosperity of luxury goods manufacturers such as Burberry, Tiffany and Bentley. The increases in earnings and revenue are fuelled by the wealthy found in emerging markets. India now has a Ferrari dealer where an entry level model sells for $485,000 and 450 million live on less than $1.25 per day.

Luxury is multi facetted and certainly not logical..

Abraham Maslow in his psychological theory proposes that we have a hierarchy of needs. One such need is for esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-respect, the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom.

The lower esteem needs target fulfillment through luxury. They proclaim that the owner is wealthy, famous and possibly lovable. Novelists, including our patron, muse and mentor, Eric, have been mining this lode of human folly with great success.

Effect luxury should share the attributes of a successful work of art. By work of art, Dr. Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, agrees it must be created by the human hand and therefore includes architecture, the fine, practical and industrial visual arts as well as all forms of music and dance. A successful work of art should contain elements of:

  • A tension or conflict, better still if that conflict plays out a universal or archetypal theme;
  • The characters or the pieces should be on a scale that humans can connect with;
  • The medium or presentation should be elegant and finely crafted so that the audience is not distracted by the artist’s technical efforts but immediately goes to the “essence” of the work;
  • The artist invites a direct connection with the audience to share meaning that the piece creates.

Claude Johnson, the marketing figure behind the success of the Rolls-Royce automobile firm, made a case that a brilliantly designed and assembled machine or artefact, made from the finest materials, will be more economical in the long term. It does not need to be replaced, just maintained. It provides comfort and reliability with an air of elegant satisfaction. Unfortunately, mere mortals tire of the familiar, requiring the novel and fashionable.

Maslow’s higher-esteem goals are more satisfying than possession of the Koh-i-noor diamond. We are reminded that the Ministry of Natural Resources classifies diamonds and other precious stones as gravel.


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