It shouldn’t surprise us that orchestras are distancing themselves from the idea of luxury. We generally and perhaps rightly sense that there is something wrong with it. The most obvious reason is the uncomfortable fact that luxury represents a category that might necessarily exclude us – or indeed anybody. That, of course, does not describe classical music, and the notion that it might solicits serious objections. But the problem of luxury goes even deeper than our egalitarian convictions and has serious ramifications for the symphony orchestra. For this reason, and because classical music’s association with luxury persists nonetheless both in the domain of luxury brands themselves and in the realms of popular culture, the subject deserves careful examination.
We may not, perhaps, recognize many of our efforts to eschew the lap of luxury as simply or overtly so. Instead, we might more immediately understand them as our response to shifting cultural realities and modern sensibilities. But those realities and sensibilities to which we are adjusting can also be understood as a reaction against luxury. For example, long ago luxury boxes gave way to un-luxurious boxes. Away went the sumptuous curtains and furnishings and the affectations that divided the audience with sharp distinctions suggesting class. Boxes began to resemble terraced seating, marked only by their proximity to the stage and the limits of their size. And now we see concert halls being designed without any box seating at all. Our immediate justification may be the predicted trend in ticket sales or innovation in the disciplines of concert hall design. But at the heart of it, what has really changed is our experience of the concert – more specifically, our social experience of it. What has changed is the way that we relate to each other as audience members and more broadly as neighbors who are also equals. Were someone to suggest the re-introduction of luxury boxes and their distinctions of exclusivity, I think we would learn quickly what our real objection to them is.
Or consider the increasingly controversial tradition of musicians’ tailcoats. Decried for being old-fashioned and irrelevant to our modern life, they will likely go the same way as luxury boxes in the end. But what’s important to note is that when they are replaced, it will be with something not simply more “modern” but, crucially, more informal. “Modern” alone will not satisfy the demand for change in this case because the tailcoat is, in fact, still modern. As it happens, white-tie events did not disappear with the dinosaurs. People do still attend formal affairs and they do still prefer to wear tailcoats that look very much like they did hundreds of years ago. The issue isn’t a matter of style, but rather a matter of luxury as a reminder of class-distinction. What we really want is something less evocative of the luxury of white-tie evening dress. If anything, for many of us it is luxury that has become old-fashioned.
But if the egalitarian objection to luxury is the most obvious, it is also – at least so far as the symphony orchestra is concerned – the least important argument against it. In fact, it grows out of the more pervasive and pernicious problem, which is the fact that luxury has come to suggest to us gross and conspicuous materialism. It suggests the pursuit of excess for its own sake, the glorification of gluttony. And the more obvious the display of luxury is, the more we sense that it is empty, ostentation being its sole substance.
Interestingly, the leeching of luxury into the mundane – of Louis Vuitton knock-offs, for instance, hawked on city street corners – and the popular cliché of “affordable luxury” attest to two important truths. The first is that most of us, regardless of our means, aspire to some level of luxury. I’ll come back to this point later. Secondly, for many of us luxury reduces to mere appearances. What matters is the appearance of the Louis Vuitton bag as such, and not any of the less obvious but arguably more important qualities that would distinguish the authentic article from its imitation. And for those of us who take home the fake, it doesn’t even matter that we know it really isn’t what it pretends to be. Our pursuit of luxury becomes largely a game of pretense, display, and excess – and one in which we must first deceive ourselves. That act of delusion chips away the gold veneer from the face of luxury, and we find staring back at us only the contorted visage of wanton avarice. So if we turn away from the idea of luxury in disgust, it’s most rightly because it has come to represent a vulgar and vain material world, littered with things we know to be inauthentic and trivial.
We are right to protest that classical music does not belong in this category. And yet it does represent something surplus to our material needs. Against this fact, of course, music educators are forever forced to battle. But if it is surplus, it is also essentially immaterial. Music does not appear as a physical object in our material world like, say, a handbag or a sports car. That it does not is the great challenge facing its advocates, who cannot therefore simply and empirically measure and sum its value, even for the sake of its defense. At the same time, that it does not appear as a thing in the physical world is the reason we can never conflate its value with its physical appearance. Instead, we value in classical music qualities that are also essentially immaterial – metaphysical qualities, which endure partly because they cannot be corroded like the physical qualities of material things, either by moth and rust or by the mockery of gross ostentation and cheap imitation. Perhaps it is for this reason that music belongs to the special category of immaterial and surplus things for which we will often sacrifice even our material needs. Indeed, many of the things that we value most highly in life are like this. Education, for instance, is like this, and so is friendship. For these things we are usually willing to sacrifice a great deal.
But while some things in this category, like friendship, might be free, other things like education and symphony concerts are generally not. And as is true for any category of things for which we can name a price or for which we are willing to make a sacrifice, we find that some such things are worth a great deal more to us than others. The question is, what makes one thing worth more to us than the next? Why, for instance, do we value this education so decidedly over that one? What distinguishes our best friend from all our other friends? We make these judgments all the time. And rather than it being simply a matter of taste, we often find our reasons in the fact that certain metaphysical qualities mean more to us than others – perhaps even more to us than a thing’s physical qualities. As difficult as these invisible qualities are to measure or quantify, most of us would have no trouble naming them.
This is also true of the immaterial qualities that belong to material things. While it seems that almost all of us aspire to some level of luxury, surely far fewer of us are motivated by abject materialism. In fact, for most of us it is likely the metaphysical and not the physical qualities of a thing that lead us to meet its higher cost in excess of our basic needs. Consider, for example, that you are presented with two apples. One is the conventional kind of apple you’d find in any supermarket: large, red, smooth, and waxed to an attractive shine. The second is not at all like that. It is a smaller apple, not nearly as physically attractive; but it comes from a small farm in central Pennsylvania where a third-generation farmer is taking great pains to conserve both the land by practicing sustainability and the old heritage varieties of apple that our supermarkets have forgotten all about. He doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, and he loses a good deal of his crop every year because of that choice. For him, though, it is something like a labor of love. Most of us would not hesitate to recognize that the second apple is worth more than the first. And either will satisfy our basic need of hunger. In fact, perhaps the first apple, by virtue of being a little larger, would do so better. Nevertheless, many of us who have the means will select the second apple and duly pay more for it. The extra investment we make is an example of a kind of luxury – one based not on pretense and excess but rather on the value attached to metaphysical qualities.
This kind of luxury we could call “meta-luxury.” And it is the kind of luxury to which the avid skier aspires, for example, when he finally buys an expensive pair of expertly handcrafted skis. It is the kind of luxury that the very wealthy music patron aspires to when she invests in a rare violin that she’ll never even play. It’s the kind of luxury that moves the lover of books to bid on an illuminated, medieval manuscript when it appears at auction. And it describes the aspiration of the new professional who invests more than he can afford in a fine suit of cottage-spun and hand-loomed tweed from the Outer Hebrides islands. This is the kind of luxury that moves those of us who have rejected “luxury.” It is defined by values that transcend shallow materialism.
And it is those values that have already linked classical music with the idea of luxury. As much as we try to escape the connection, it is always and already there. Many of the world’s oldest and most respected luxury brands continue to associate themselves with classical music even while we try desperately to distance ourselves from their world. We see their advertisements printed in our concert programs. They sponsor our festivals. We hear our music in their marketing videos and in their showrooms. And we know it cannot be because classical music, which is entirely immaterial, lends them material grandeur. It’s quite the opposite. They are, in fact, the ones who supply the material grandeur themselves. No, it lends them metaphysical – or spiritual if you will – grandeur. What we sense in classical music is a set of transcendent, immaterial values, and these brands want us to know that these values are what they, too, embody.
What probably should surprise us is that these luxury brands – representing some of the longest-lived and most successful businesses in the world – firmly grounded in all of their worldly and material concerns, know what we pretend not to. And that is not merely that human nature aspires to something far more than the ordinary and to something surplus to our material needs, but even more importantly that our highest aspiration, whatever our means, is the one that seeks something essentially immaterial. This common impulse is neatly summed up in Oprah’s famous words, “Live your best life.” While to some that may conjure pink Lamborghinis, I hardly have to mention here that that’s not her point. And her point has not been lost on her many millions of subscribers.
Classical music, by its very nature, already represents some of our most treasured transcendent values – it is already like that second apple. Those of us who have experienced it and know it also know that it is already part of our “best life.” And as it is with so many of life’s most meaningful luxuries, the orchestra is also, by its nature, a costly proposition. So we must ask not how it can become cheaper or more common, but rather what are those values that make it worth its cost? The values that people are willing to sacrifice for are precisely what the orchestra should never sacrifice. Those, instead, are the values that should define it.
In the essays that will follow in this series, we’ll examine the principles of meta-luxury as outlined in the thoughtful book Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, written by Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins. We think this work is vitally important for orchestras and other institutions of classical music, and we encourage you to buy or borrow a copy and read it for yourselves.