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Expert conversation: ‘The right to luxury could constitute a legitimate claim’

Luxury exists in most human societies throughout the world but in different forms. Gratisography/Pexels, CC BY-SA

Expert conversation: ‘The right to luxury could constitute a legitimate claim’

Anthropologist Marc Abélés latest research focused on luxury markets and arts across the globe, a topic he touched on at length with Léa Barreau Tran, from Sciences Po Bordeaux, during an interview published here as part of our ongoing series Globalisation Under Pressure.


Léa Barreaux: It’s rather unusual to associate luxury with globalisation because they seem so alien to one another. Luxury is often considered as an “illegitimate” subject in anthropology. You, Marc Abélés, have taken a different approach in establishing a global anthropology of luxury. Can you tell us more ?

Marc Abélés: Luxury is a universal phenomenon. It is just as present in our society as it is in societies far removed from ours, in both space and time. It appears in various forms, depending on the group’s specific history and culture. Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the pioneer scholars of anthropology focused on the circulation (kula-trading system) of precious goods (ceremonial necklaces and bracelets) in the Trobriand Islands, which he compared to the jewels of great European families in his ethnographic research.

A woman’s ceremonial tunic from the Nivkh people (Amur river basin), in bleached carp skin, fine as silk. Musée du quai Branly, Jacques Chirac, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre

Malinowski chiefly sought to uncover the significance of these objects and the symbolic and political connotations that determined the manner in which they were circulated. Well known to anthropologists, the potlatch, a gift-giving system among Native Americans, illustrates this phenomenon too. Its lavish spending, competition to impress and consumption of wealth has been extensively studied, namely by American anthropologist Franz Boas.

I also want to examine the political, symbolic and economic issues inherent in all forms of exchange, through the prism of the circulation of luxury goods. I am simply doing it in a very different context than that of traditional anthropology. These days, luxury commerce is carried out on a global scale and represents a significant portion of the world’s economy. At the end of the 20th century, the luxury industry, along with other sectors of the economy, underwent a dual process of concentration of ownership and financialisation.

It is one of France’s few growing sectors and it makes up the bulk of our exports, along with the arms and aeronautic industries. In light of this, I can’t see why luxury should be treated as an “illegitimate” subject.

Also, we should ask ourselves why there is such a need to ascribe legitimacy in the field of social sciences. Did you know that Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist best known for The Weight of the World kicked off his academic journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales with an extensive article on fashion?

Léa Barreaux: You’ve been studying the anthropology of globalisation for a long time. These days, your focus is on China, a country with a huge appetite for luxury goods and one of the world’s leaders in counterfeit products. Has China’s influence revolutionised the very nature and definition of luxury in the globalised world? What does it say about our own idea of authenticity?

Marc Abélés: Actually, rather than trying to eradicate the counterfeit market entirely, which would be quite simply impossible, China has made real efforts toward limiting the worst excesses of counterfeiting. For example, in 2006, the Chinese government closed one of its counterfeit industry’s major outlets, the Xiangyang Road market in Shanghai.

Imitation iPods in Shanghai’s Old Town in 2007. Cory Doctorow/Flickr, CC BY-SA

That being said, one of the characteristics of luxury is to give rise to imitation, as a kind of counterpoint. This dialogue between “fake” and authentic contributes to the value placed on luxury products.

Léa Barreaux: The globalisation of luxury goods is also felt in the field of contemporary art. On the one hand, it has given artists greater freedom of movement across national borders and a wider audience; on the other, it has increased speculation in the art market. As an anthropologist, how have you seen these trends manifest?

Marc Abélés: There is a great deal of overlap between luxury commerce and the contemporary art market. Most businesses in the luxury sector involve artists in their creation process – they create foundations to promote contemporary art, and in some cases, also run auction houses. Luxury has become a global industry. It is under constant threat of homogenisation and trivialisation. Companies essentially want to project an image of extraordinary refinement by associating what is currently most priced in contemporary art with their brand.

Damien Hirst’s diamond incrusted skull (Skull Star Diamond, 2007) is the pinnacle of ‘luxury art’ in the 21st century. Aaron Weber/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Looking at the Art Basel Miami Beach contemporary art fair, it was clear to me that this event is not solely designed for collectors; it also provides a platform for businesses in the luxury sector to promote their products. Looking at these kinds of events from within isn’t enough: we need to understand their impact on the city and the way they create connections between the rich and privileged, and a general public that is hungry for cultural symbols.

Léa Barreaux: Establishing a global anthropology of luxury brings up a range of political issues and reveals the transformations that modern-day capitalism has undergone. How do you hope to contribute to these discussions without making prescriptive judgements about the positive and negative aspects of globalisation?

Marc Abélés: We cannot distinguish the trends affecting the industry and commerce of luxury from broader changes within capitalism. Anthropology provides a multifaceted point of view by approaching luxury as a total social artefact.

As for prescriptive judgements, luxury is often associated with wealth, which can lead to it being condemned (as evidenced by the amount of moralising literature that has been published on the subject since ancient times). I think we should remember instead that, in 1871, members of the Paris Commune published a manifesto in which they celebrated luxury and made it their aim to bring it to the people.

After all, the right to luxury could constitute a legitimate claim. Luxury is neither an illegitimate subject for social science, nor one that is inherently off-limits to ordinary citizens.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood forFast for Word.

This article was originally published in French