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How many of us have been to a function hosted by friends, and found ourselves looking through French doors to a landscaped garden where people relax over delicious wine and food. Meandering conversation, almost inevitably, at some stage turns to rising real estate prices, trips that guests have returned from or are planning, investments, renovations and even children’s successes. And how many of us at that moment suffer the uncomfortable sting of envy?
It’s a feeling that connects us to centuries of thought and emotion. Aristotle described it as “pain at the good fortune of others”, while 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant saw it as “a propensity to view the wellbeing of others with distress”.
Covetousness, the yearning to possess something belonging to another, often follows, and if people can afford it, they will spend to try and match or outdo others.
This is the beginning of the “disease” of “luxury fever” that Clive Hamilton identifies and explores in his 2005 book Affluenza. It is, he says, “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more”. Sound familiar?
‘Affluenza’ appears in many guises: constant phone upgrades, ever-larger televisions, home theatres, fresh holiday destinations, visits to expensive restaurants and even absurdist novelty dishes to tempt the jaded palate. Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, anyone? And then there’s housing. New homes in Australia are the largest in the world, averaging 214m2 compared to 195m2 in the US.
Building to impress is a phenomenon that recurs throughout history. Medieval and Renaissance Italy provides striking parallels. The medieval towers of the hilltop town of San Gimignano, impossibly tall and slender, are the remnant displays of power from two competing families who for generations were sworn enemies (like the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet).
Indeed the town is in many ways the architectural expression of a schoolyard fight.
A different form of competition swept Italy in the 1400s as the region emerged from a period when ostentatious displays of affluence were frowned upon. At first, personal wealth was used mainly for public good. The Medici, the great bankers and merchants of Renaissance Florence, maintained their image of egalitarianism through funding restoration of monasteries and churches, while building vast private wealth.
As their status and influence grew through successive generations, their egalitarian spirit dwindled. The massive Palazzo Medici (begun in 1446) in Florence is a statement of colossal power, every bit as imposing today as it was in the 15th century. At street level the stone is very heavy and ‘rusticated’ to remind passers-by of a nearby royal palace and a building dating to Classical Rome. The building suggests a noble history that the family did not possess.
Inside the palazzo, the décor was breathtaking, filled with tapestries, paintings, frescoes and lavish furnishings. The Medicis’ aim was to promote themselves and the prestige of the city, and to impress foreign dignitaries (including the German emperor Frederick III) as well as visitors from the other Italian Renaissance city-states and princely courts, Milan, Ferrara and Mantua among them.
Something very like ‘affluenza’ quickly spread. The city-states vied with each other to attract the greatest artists and architects of the era (Tintoretto, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci among them) and the religious subject matter of their paintings gave way to ever more magnificent depictions of the patrons and their impressive lives as the wealthy tried to outdo each other.
A fresco by Andrea Mantegna in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, The Court of the Gonzaga Family (1465-1475) shows the marquis, Ludovico Gonzaga, considering a diplomatic dispatch. Included in the bustling scene are his family and even his favourite dog, Rubino. In the Palazzo Schifanoia’s Hall of the Months in Ferrara, 15th century frescoes by Francesca del Cossa depict the daily lives of the sumptuously dressed ruler, Borso d’Este, and his fabulous retinue.
The wealthy of today – including Russian oligarchs, ‘celebrities’ and public figures – still use patronage of the arts to enhance image. Others defuse public resentment through gestures of civic responsibility such as support of humanitarian, political and environmental causes. This is not to say that their interest in these causes is not also felt, only that it is layered. Such acts are as important today as they were in the Renaissance.
In some ways today’s media profiles do the work that frescoes and paintings once performed. They allow the rich or famous to nuance or create image, and also to advertise or assert their wealth, influence, and generosity to others. People without a public profile – most of us – must advertise their social standing through possessions, actions and housing.
But there’s no harm in a little competition, right? It seems there is. In Renaissance Florence, as the gulf between the Medici and their fellow citizens grew, architectural alterations to their palace mimicked this. The loggias on the ground floor, which had originally opened to the street as shop fronts, were filled, leaving the archways as nothing more than decorative elements. Wariness, and a desire to protect personal property and possession had set in. Eventually, public resentment of the Medicis’ wealth and power grew until a popular uprising overthrew them. Revolutions are generally the results of accrued resentments.
Five centuries later, things have changed less than people might imagine. The signs of people withdrawing from community life are present in modern-day Australia, as wealth distribution becomes more uneven. (Australia’s Gini coefficient, a mathematical measure of income distribution, has been trending upwards, indicating declining equality, since 1981-82.) It was once common for people to sit on their front porches and greet passers by. Security doors are the norm now, and entertaining occurs in private, secure areas at the rear of houses.
British psychologist Oliver James believes that placing a “high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame” leads directly to higher rates of mental disorders, including ‘status anxiety’, in which people compare themselves to others and find themselves and their lives wanting.
Surveys across countries, including one recently conducted by the Australian Psychological Society, have found that wellbeing declines “when people perceive there to be an uneven spread of wealth in society”. People help others less, and become more ‘individualistic’ and less community-minded. Young people feel more stressed about their futures, rates of depression and anxiety rise, trust between people breaks down, while violence, including bullying, increases. The state becomes more punitive. Even the rich suffer; seeing others ahead of them doing better makes them feel poor.
Sadly for us all, with the dream of home ownership moving further from the average person’s reach, there is no sign that status anxiety will fade anytime soon, unless, as philosopher Alain de Botton suggests in his book Status Anxiety, we begin to focus on ‘new hierarchies’ in the fields of philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia, as they provide “persuasive and consoling reminders that there is more than one way of succeeding in life”.
But society, a massive and slow-moving ship sailing through time, does not change direction easily. Unless things change, anxiety will remain with us. It is, as de Botton says, “the handmaiden of contemporary ambition”.