Ju­lia deville and the lux­ury of imag­i­na­tion.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Robert Nel­son

The sculp­tures and jew­ellery of Ju­lia deville are both lux­u­ri­ous and for­bid­ding. No baroque ex­trav­a­gance is alien to her reper­toire: sil­ver charg­ers with car­touches on their ar­chi­tec­tural flanges, urns with vo­lutes and florid ar­tic­u­la­tion, co­pi­ous or­na­ments from the age of author­ity. As if pre­par­ing the mise en scène for some ex­quis­ite ban­quet, she then sets the ta­ble with splen­did rar­i­ties, like foetal deer or baby rab­bit.

With these del­i­cate condi­ments, how­ever, the other side of baroque con­scious­ness— van­i­tas— looms fate­fully and grimly through taxi­dermy: all life, how­ever young, ends in death. As spec­ta­tors, we aes­thet­i­cally savour an­i­mals who died in ex­quis­ite per­fec­tion, their bod­ies mor­bidly con­served as el­e­gant arte­fact, en­crusted with gems.

The idea of com­bin­ing opu­lence and death has more than lurid mo­tives. Deville’s dis­course is not about love-death; her work has no in­ter­est in the vi­sion of volup­tuous ex­piry, where Ro­man­tic artists might have seen some heady ap­peal in per­ish­ing aes­thet­i­cally. Her ten­der beasts sit in state and ex­pe­ri­ence nei­ther ec­stasy nor pain in suc­cumb­ing to their death, which must have hap­pened in the ab­stract. Rather, her com­bi­na­tion of nat­u­ral beauty, or­na­men­tal grandeur, sen­ti­men­tal­ity, and the lan­guage of gastronomy in­vites us to con­tem­plate the aes­thetic econ­omy, right down to the struc­ture and ba­sis of lux­ury.

Few con­cepts are so fraught with moral and aes­thetic con­tra­dic­tions. Lux­ury, though sought with envy and cul­ti­vated com­pet­i­tively by all the ad­vanced economies, has al­ways at­tracted crit­i­cism. The am­biva­lence is so deeply a part of Euro­pean cul­ture that it finds an ex­pres­sion in the very lan­guage by which the idea is com­mu­ni­cated. Our word lux­ury de­rives from the Latin for plenty (luxus) which spawned a de­riv­a­tive (lux­u­ria) that al­ready in­di­cates a kind of rank su­per­abun­dance, a sense re­tained in the English term lux­u­ri­ant, as in de­scrib­ing thick un­der­growth or a pro­lific pot of basil.

In the Re­nais­sance, how­ever, the some­what wan­ton and over­grown as­so­ci­a­tions of the Latin over­took the root, so to speak, to ex­press an out­ra­geous li­bidi­nous en­ergy, im­pul­sively lusty and ex­press­ing lack of con­trol. The Ital­ian term lus­suria ex­pressed lust or ‘il­le­git­i­mate lewd­ness’, as Ce­sare Ripa says in his book of em­blems from the early sev­en­teenth cen­tury, which be­came a fa­mous source-book for artists.

1 Is lux­ury good or bad? You can al­most see the de­vel­op­ment of lan­guage neu­rot­i­cally hedg­ing its bets. To get around the em­bar­rass­ment that we don’t know, that we si­mul­ta­ne­ously want to ad­mire lux­ury (and to pos­sess it) but also to ab­hor and stig­ma­tize it, the Euro­pean psy­che hatched two terms which might take care of the equiv­o­ca­tion. Let lus­suria be dis­gust­ing and lewd; let it go wild and con­vulse, whence it in­di­cates moral aban­don and for­ni­ca­tion along­side the randy ap­petites of goats and rats. Mean­while, let us—as peo­ple of cul­ture and as­pi­ra­tion—have the lux­ury of things, lusso, grand halls be­dight with pic­tures and stucco and re­plete with ta­bles bear­ing un­af­ford­able sweet­meats.

Al­though the idea of lux­ury as a purely ma­te­rial su­per­fluity—un­tainted by erotic ex­cess—re­tained a sep­a­rate term (lusso), in fact this form of priv­i­lege was also not with­out anx­ious sus­pi­cions and con­cerns for so­cial con­trol. Any­thing good by the neu­ro­sis of west­ern cul­ture is also some­thing bad, be­cause it might be owned by the wrong peo­ple or put to the wrong ef­fect. In the fourth book of his in­flu­en­tial trea­tise The Book of the Courtier from the early six­teenth cen­tury, Bal­das­sare Castiglione im­plores us to ‘tem­per all su­per­fluity’ for eco­nomic rea­sons, be­cause wast­ing re­sources lays cities to ruin. Around lusso,

2 he in­cludes over-sump­tu­ous pri­vate build­ings, ban­quets, ex­ces­sive dowries and pomp in jew­ellery and clothes. Pro­duc­tive cap­i­tal would be tied up in aes­thetic non­sense or van­ity.

In the ex­or­bi­tant dec­o­ra­tive cen­tury that fol­lowed, lusso would re­main un­der sus­pi­cion, even with such a flam­boy­ant poet as Marino, who saw ‘soft lux­ury and bar­barous or­na­ment’ as a phan­tasm that se­duc­tively gets into his hero’s nos­trils; though Marino is not such a hyp­ocrite that he doesn’t also

3 ex­press his fond­ness for ‘su­perb lux­ury’ else­where be­cause he fla­grantly

4 demon­strates his lik­ing for it. What­ever one de­cries as un­nec­es­sary one can equally ex­tol as su­perla­tive. It de­pends on your ex­pec­ta­tions and val­ues, which are likely to be in con­tention in all epochs

This am­biva­lence ex­plains why Shake­speare, whose lan­guage is at least as lux­u­ri­ant as Marino’s, sings: ‘Fie on sin­ful fan­tasy! / Fie on lust and lux­ury!’ or com­plains of ‘hate­ful lux­ury, / And bes­tial ap­petite in change of lust’, al­ways as­so­ci­at­ing lux­ury with libido. As if re­mem­ber­ing the et­y­mo­log­i­cal link with lust, Shake­speare as­so­ci­ates ‘the devil Lux­ury, with his fat rump and potato 5 fin­ger’ with lech­ery. It’s why old King Ham­let’s ghost as­so­ci­ates lux­ury with 6 erotic vice in the fa­mous lines: ‘Let not the royal bed of Den­mark be / a couch for lux­ury and damned in­cest’. 7

And it’s also why Lear makes an apol­ogy for lech­ery and ‘lux­ury, pell-mell’, be­cause adul­tery couldn’t pro­duce worse off­spring than his own treach­er­ous sur­viv­ing daugh­ters, who were nev­er­the­less ‘Got ‘tween the law­ful sheets’.

8 In the world that Ju­lia deville in­hab­its, the ar­chaic con­fu­sion of lux­ury and lust per­sists. In­fu­ri­at­ingly, in fact, ex­pen­sive con­sumer goods or ser­vices for the so­cially as­pi­ra­tional are associated with sex through ad­ver­tis­ing. One capri­ciously rep­re­sents the de­sired prod­uct or ser­vice with the vec­tor of naked legs or youth­ful cleav­age. So strong is this ap­peal that decades of fem­i­nism and ra­tio­nal re­flex­ion are to no avail.

Wealth and power are pop­u­larly con­sid­ered to have aphro­disiac prop­er­ties, so the ar­chaic link be­tween lux­ury and lust is not likely to dis­ap­pear any time soon, no mat­ter how much we rec­og­nize that the con­nex­ion is il­log­i­cal. But deville as­so­ci­ates it with death.

The an­cient cri­tique of lux­ury as an in­ap­pro­pri­ate way of spend­ing re­sources also has a con­tem­po­rary coun­ter­part, which in many ways is dear to deville’s heart. We are wary of many lux­u­ries for rea­sons of sus­tain­abil­ity. The more lux­ury we de­sire, the more lux­ury is pro­duced, the more en­ergy is con­sumed and emis­sions are pro­duced. One is anx­ious about the ex­po­nen­tial global con­sump­tion of goods and ser­vices, which is now reck­oned to be un­sus­tain­able and also im­pos­si­ble to ar­rest.

The an­i­mals that deville puts on her ex­trav­a­gant plat­ters are much more than mor­bid to­kens of a veg­e­tar­ian dis­taste for car­niv­o­rous cul­ture. To the ethics of breed­ing live­stock in or­der to kill it, we now have to add a set of en­vi­ron­men­tal scru­ples that make meat even less morally palat­able than be­fore. Once upon a time, we only had to think of the dam­age to the an­i­mal it­self, whereas now we are obliged to think of the dam­age to the planet as well. The car­bon foot­print of the steak is sev­eral times greater than that of the tofu; and so meat—though not yet a lux­ury in our rel­a­tively pros­per­ous com­mu­nity —is fur­ther stig­ma­tized as an eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe.

As a veg­e­tar­ian, deville could af­ford to be sanc­ti­mo­nious about these scan­dals; but she is an artist who spec­u­lates rather than a moral­ist who de­nounces. In this dis­course, we need hu­mil­ity, be­cause all cul­tural pro­duc­tion —in­clud­ing this text that I fondly preen and primp on a snazzy lap­top while sit­ting in a hand­some arm­chair—is a kind of lux­ury. For my sur­vival as a per­son who eats, needs shel­ter and nour­ishes chil­dren, I don’t al­to­gether need a li­brary crammed with mu­sic or a cabi­net with dec­o­ra­tive glass.

Like­wise, deville needs to pro­duce art and, up to a point, her work, like any­one else’s, can be thought of as a lux­ury, some­thing that you could, if push came to shove, do with­out. Given that her iconog­ra­phy of épergne and salver is os­ten­ta­tious, you are in­vited to see both form and con­tent as a lux­ury, a sign of priv­i­lege, an ex­pres­sion of rank by means of ex­or­bi­tance. And of course her work is not cheap, be­cause it is highly col­lectable and sus­tains her as an artist.

Any­thing pres­ti­gious could be deemed a lux­ury and con­demned ac­cord­ingly. It is a pu­ri­tan­i­cal fool­ish­ness which Je­sus him­self con­sid­ers short­sighted. When Mary Mag­dalen anoints Christ with ex­pen­sive unguents, the dis­ci­ples ob­ject: ‘they had in­dig­na­tion, say­ing, To what pur­pose is this waste ( )? For this oint­ment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.’ Je­sus how­ever an­swers them: ‘Why trou­ble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor al­ways with you; but me ye have not al­ways. For in that she hath poured this oint­ment on my body, she did it for my burial’.

9 The dis­ci­ples only see the ma­te­rial value of the myrrh but Christ sees its sym­bolic value as obla­tion, which turns out to be nec­es­sary in hon­our­ing his divine mis­sion. Maybe this is not a good ex­am­ple if you con­sider the higher re­li­gious pur­pose an ir­ra­tional su­per­sti­tion; nev­er­the­less, the point is made that def­i­ni­tions of lux­ury are rel­a­tive. What is a lux­ury? The cri­te­ria are never ab­so­lute. What looks like money-down-the-drain for one pur­pose is es­sen­tial for an­other.

In deville’s sculp­tures, cu­ri­ously, the sac­ri­fi­cial char­ac­ter of the al­tar and sacra­ment are not so far away, be­cause the lamb, so to speak, has its throat cut and the host is pre­sented for some mys­te­ri­ous trans­for­ma­tive or re­demp­tive pur­pose.

Even with­out those sym­bolic as­so­ci­a­tions, and whether they are sacra­men­tal or not, lux­ury is in the eye of the be­holder. Lux­ury is ex­ten­sively sub­jec­tive and de­pen­dent upon prior val­ues. In a beau­ti­ful com­edy by the eigh­teenth-cen­tury play­wright Carlo Goldoni, a shrewd English no­ble, Milord Wam­bert, says to his skep­ti­cal cre­ative com­pa­tri­ots: ‘Friends, if you so detest fash­ion and lux­ury, if you so love the com­mon good and re­formed cus­tom, why do you your­selves make such rich works which wreak such waste (re­cano dis­pendio) and cause dam­age? You earn your bread with sil­ver and gold. You study un­usual ways of shap­ing shoes. There­fore, O wise and pru­dent he­roes, lux­ury is only harm­ful when buy­ers don’t spend on you!’

10 As among the dis­ci­ples of Christ, the ac­cu­sa­tion was that costly for­eign trends are waste­ful and there­fore bad for the pru­dent man­age­ment of the econ­omy. But if you suc­ceed in achiev­ing prof­its by pro­duc­ing very sim­i­lar arte­facts to the ones that you con­demn, all of a sud­den you no longer need to be so crit­i­cal. A case of hypocrisy, then, that trans­lates to crit­i­cism to­day: you de­plore lux­u­ries that you don’t have or that you have no in­ter­est in. Mean­while, you for­get all the lux­u­ries that you have ac­crued and con­tinue to in­vest in al­most un­awares.

Goldoni was acutely aware of this hid­den de­vo­tion to lux­ury in his coun­try­men. Ital­ians, he con­sid­ered, were ridicu­lous spendthrifts both on un­nec­es­sary fash­ions but also on ways of spend­ing time. In four of his come­dies, the Vene­tian hu­mourist re­serves par­tic­u­lar scorn for hol­i­day houses. These va­ca­tion­ers are pure in­dul­gence, which cause fam­i­lies to for­get their busi­ness in town, seek aban­don in un­pro­duc­tive sports, gam­bling and con­sum­ing prodi­gious amounts of wine and choco­late. To­day, he says in the pre­am­ble to The Mal­con­tents, ‘hol­i­day­ing has ar­rived at an ex­cess of lux­ury, waste and li­a­bil­ity’. Echo­ing ideas that he would ex­press in his play called

11 Crazes for Coun­try Hol­i­days, he in­di­cates that it might have been fine for the

12 idle aris­toc­racy to en­joy such in­dul­gences but for the as­pi­ra­tional pro­duc­tive com­mu­nity to con­sume its scarce re­sources in this fri­vol­ity is a recipe for calamity.

Iron­i­cally, the very eco­nomic vigour that Goldoni rec­om­mended ended up do­ing lit­tle but gen­er­at­ing more lux­u­ries, es­pe­cially in the bur­geon­ing in­dus­tries of the Bri­tish Isles that he so ad­mired. The in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion which be­gan in the north at the time of Goldoni’s late plays pro­moted the very mo­tif that he de­spised in mid­dle-class Ital­ian com­mu­ni­ties, namely, as Nardo says in The Coun­try Philoso­pher, that coun­try folk are con­tent to re­main as they al­ways were, whereas city peo­ple al­ways want to be some­thing else, some­thing more, some­thing dif­fer­ent, ‘op­pressed by lux­ury, am­bi­tion and ap­petite’.

13 We could there­fore an­swer Goldoni with an ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion: why be so in­dus­tri­ous and par­si­mo­nious if it isn’t ul­ti­mately to win some greater com­fort, wel­fare, amenity and en­joy­ment for our­selves and com­mu­nity which may also be a kind of lux­ury? Then, look­ing at the ex­trav­a­gant works of deville, we can add the prin­ci­ple: lux­ury is jus­ti­fied if it makes us think and feel, if it adds cu­rios­ity and vi­sion, like phi­los­o­phy it­self. It’s then down to us to lux­u­ri­ate in the work to its full dis­cur­sive po­ten­tial.

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