Meeting with the Pope, or Mr Xi

A set of three ghastly lithographs by Francis Bacon is to be auctioned by Sothebys’ later this month and, as usual in these modern times, will no doubt reach a farcical price. It is yet another reminder that very rich individuals are prepared to pay enormous prices for some items that, for one reason or another, become fashionable as status goods.

Fred Hirsch, a brilliant economist at Warwick University who died tragically young wrote The Limits to Growth in the 1960s in which he supposed that a shortage of status goods in the future would take away the incentive for ambitious people to become rich. He thought that economic growth would suffer as a result of this. But he was thinking of status goods that were more traditional in his day — countryside mansions, houses set in beautiful sea coves, luxury yachts, Rolls Royce Silver Ghosts, flawless diamonds, rare first editions, and so on. He hadn’t accounted for the way aesthetic tastes could change, usually set off by high society and rippling downwards, as fashions are wont to do.

In particular he hadn’t noticed that modern ‘serious’ art was taking off. Yes, there was already a high-priced high-status fashion for Picassos, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock but since the ’60s and ’70s we’ve also had a thousand more — nay ten thousand more — artists in recent years who’ve been passing off their products as great art and obtaining risible prices in galleries and auction. But because the very rich have been buying them they’ve not only become high status goods but they have also altered the whole cultural appreciation of art above the educated upper-middle class and above who care about status a great deal more than most of the population.

But what if the whole world became sceptical about the pretence status goods, and art became valued more for its breakthrough at the time of execution and the skill used? What would the very rich do for top status signs? We already know because they are even rarer. When a rich person walks another round his home and gardens and proudly shows one prize item after another, what is the one he arrives at finally — the acme of them all? It will be a photo — or, these days, a video — of when he met the Pope, or the American President, or the Dalai Lama or (at least for the next few years) Xi Jinping.

If economic growth ever ceases to grow — at least in the way we presently measure it in GDP (money) terms — and which I happen to believe that we are close to already for entirely different reasons — then it will not be because of a lack of status goods.

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