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Materialism, not consumerism

29 December 2010


Christmas seems an appropriate time to discuss materialism.

It is fashionable to characterise any attachment to material possessions as shallow. Any man interested in clothes knows the feeling of being considered superficial or – perhaps more revealingly – the fear of being considered so.

But there is a difference between materialism and consumerism. A love of physical objects does not necessarily involve transient tastes, accumulation or waste.

A man that doesn’t care about his clothes may keep them until they wear out; but because he buys cheap clothes and doesn’t take care of them, he may still buy more than a devotee of permanent style. The latter will spend a lot more money, but that is his prerogative and his passion will bring him long-lasting pleasure. There is no waste. It is environmentally friendly and it preserves traditional craft. But most importantly, it is not shallow.

Even fashion isn’t necessarily shallow. Couture produces artistic marvels. The problem is changing it every six months and leaving a dump of suddenly unfashionable ripped jeans in the dumpster behind Primark.

A love of objects is often a deep one. This is particularly true today, when one’s music collection, photographic memories and literature are often stored digitally. In a few years’ time, if Microsoft is to be believed, it will all exist in ‘the cloud’. It doesn’t get much more immaterial than that.

The theme was illustrated by two popular books this Christmas: The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, and A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor. Both demonstrated the evocative power of objects: an inherited set of Japanese carvings and the best of the British Museum, respectively. Objects can have extraordinary aesthetic and emotional power, whether a seventeenth century Shi’a parade standard or inherited ivory animals. De Waal believes some objects emit an existential hum, and “retain the pulse of their making”.

I don’t think my Edward Green Oundles hum. But my knowledge of the craft involved in their construction, my long hours of polishing and brushing, and their faithful service, endow them with rich personal significance. I think the world could do with a bit more of this sort of materialism.