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Work • Consumption & Need
Why We Hate Cheap Things
We don’t think we hate cheap things – but we frequently behave as if we rather do. Consider the pineapple. Columbus was the first European to be delighted by the physical grandeur and vibrant sweetness of the pineapple – which is a native of South America but had reached the Caribbean by the time he arrived there. The first meeting between Europeans and pineapples took place in November 1493, in a Carib village on the island of Guadaloupe. Columbus’s crew spotted the fruit next to a pot of stewing human limbs. The outside reminded them of a pine cone, the interior pulp of an apple.
But pineapples proved extremely difficult to transport and very costly to cultivate. For a long time only royalty could actually afford to eat them: Russia’s Catherine the Great was a huge fan as was Charles II of England. A single fruit in the 17th century sold for today’s equivalent of GBP 5000. The pineapple was such a status symbol that, if they could get hold of one, people would keep it for display until it fell apart. In the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the pineapple craze, whole aristocratic evenings were structured around the ritual display of these fruits. Poems were written in their honour. Savouring a tiny sliver could be the high point of a year.
Charles II being offered the first pineapple ever successfully grown in England, by the royal gardener, John Rose (1675)
The pineapple was so exciting and so loved that in 1761, the 4th earl of Dunmore built a temple on his Scottish estate in its honour:
And Christopher Wren had no hesitation in topping the South Tower of St Paul’s with this evidently divine fruit.
South Tower of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren, 1711
Then at the very end of the 19th century, two things changed. Large commercial plantations of pineapples were established in Hawaii and there were huge advances in steam-ship technology; production and transport costs plummeted and, unwittingly, transformed the psychology of pineapple-eating. Today, you can get a pineapple for around GBP 1.50.
It still tastes exactly the same. But now, the pineapple is one of the world’s least glamorous fruits. It is never served at smart dinner parties and it would never be carved on the top of a major civic building.
The pineapple itself has not changed; only our attitude to it has. Contemplation of the history of the pineapple suggests a curious overlap between love and economics: when we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away. Naturally, if the object has no merit to begin with, a high price won’t be able to do anything for it; but if it has real virtue and yet a low price, then it is in severe danger of falling into grievous neglect.
It’s a pattern that we see recurring in a range of areas. For example, with the sight of clouds from above. In 1927, a hitherto unknown air mail pilot called Charles Lindbergh became the first man to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic in his fragile plane, The Spirit of St Louis.
For hours, he flew in the most arduous conditions, braving wind, rain and storms. He saw clouds passing below him and distant thunder claps on the horizon. It was one of the profoundest moments of his life. He was awestruck and felt he was becoming, for a time, almost God-like. For most of the twentieth century, his experience remained rare and extremely costly. There was therefore never any danger that the human value of crossing an ocean by air would be overlooked.
This lasted until the arrival of the Boeing 747 and the cheap plane ticket in the summer of 1970. The jumbo fundamentally changed the economics of flying. The experiences of gazing down at clouds and seeing the world spread out stopped being (as it had been for Lindbergh) a life-changing encounter; it started to feel commonplace and even a little boring. It became peculiar to wax lyrical about the red-eye to JFK or a mention of a spectacular column of clouds that one had spotted shortly after the arrival of the chicken lunch. A trip that would have mesmerised Leonardo da Vinci or John Constable was now passed over in silence.
The view from the plane window underwent an economic miracle that led to a psychological catastrophe: its cost dropped and it ceased to matter, though its real value hadn’t changed.
Or think of the bath. For centuries, having a hot bath all to yourself at home was a remarkable, highly prized experience out of reach to all except a very few at the pinnacle of society. It ideally required the assistance of several assistants to heat the water and fill the tub, fend of draughts, hold the towels and proffer the soap. It was a special occasion – like a coronation or a victory in battle – worthy of being recorded in a grand work of art.
It would be an experience to ponder and remember, to reflect upon and discuss with your friends. One would dwell for days on the wonder of immersing the body in a warm, buoyant liquid.
But improvements in plumbing and water supply, in energy supply, expansion in the size of the average dwelling space per inhabitant and the introduction of less expensive tubs have made the bath an ordinary experience. It doesn’t feel as if there is anything at all special about it. In fact, it’s maybe all just a bit too slow: one has a shower instead.
The pattern is the same: the reduction in the way we esteem the experience follows on the heels of a reduction on the cost of obtaining it. There’s a similar parallel history for light in the evening (highly prized in the age of candles, boring in the age of the halogen bulb) or for freshly laundered clothes – an astonishing, unusual phenomenon for long ages; but now the clean cotton T-shirt (which would have so deeply impressed Charlemagne or Louis XVI) isn’t worth noticing.
Why, then, do we associate cheap prices with a lack of value? Our response is a hang-over from our long pre-industrial past. For most of human history, there truly was a strong correlation between cost and value: the higher the price, the better things tended to be – because there was simply no way both for prices to be low and quality to be high. Everything had to be made by hand, by expensively trained artisans, with raw materials that were immensely difficult to transport. The expensive sword, jacket, window or wheelbarrow were simply always the better ones. This relationship between price and value held true in an uninterrupted way until the end of the 18th century, when – thanks to the Industrial Revolution – something extremely unusual happened: human beings worked out how to make high quality goods at cheap prices, because of technology and new methods of organising the labour force.
© Flickr/Raymond M.
If you live in a craft-based society, the quality of any object invariably depends upon how much skilled labour went into producing it. In the 15th century, swords and helmets made by the Missaglias family in Milan were especially pricey. But that was because they were especially skilled, and produced armour that was stronger, lighter, better balanced and more cleverly designed than anyone else. It was a general principle: a more expensive cloak would be more durable, warmer and more elegantly decorated than a cheaper version. A more expensive window would let in more light, keep out more draughts, open more easily, and last in good condition much longer than its less expensive rivals: it would be a more skilfully made product constructed from more durable materials.
On the back of this long experience, an entrenched cultural association has formed between the rare, the expensive and the good: each has come to rapidly suggest the other, and the natural-seeming converse is that things which are widely available and inexpensive come to be seen as unimpressive or unexciting.
Sallet and armor by Antonio Missaglia, 1450
In principle, industrialisation was supposed to undo these connections. The price would fall and widespread happiness would follow. High quality objects would enter the mass market, excellence would be democratised.
This promised to be an exciting moment and evangelists regularly proclaimed a new age, where universal political suffrage would be accompanied by material dignity and honour for every social class.
In 1911, Henry Ford started developing the car assembly line, which replaced the slower individual skilled worker. The price of cars came down quickly so that it became possible for ordinary workers to afford cars themselves.
© Henry Ford Collections
The designers of the Bauhaus movement in 1920s Germany were similarly fired up in their work by the idea of creating household items that would be both highly attractive and very cheap, available to anyone on even the most modest of salaries.
The promise of modernity: Nice chairs, desks, lamps and rugs for everyone
However, despite the greatness of these efforts, instead of making wonderful experiences universally available, industrialisation has inadvertently produced a different effect: it has seemed to rob certain experiences of their loveliness, interest and worth.
It’s not – of course – that we refuse to buy inexpensive or cheap things. It’s just that getting excited over cheap things has come to seem a little bizarre. One is allowed to get very worked up over the eggs of the sturgeon (£100 for a small pot); but have to be very circumscribed about one’s enthusiasm for the eggs of a chicken (12 for £2). There is an intimidating hierarchy operating in the background, shaping what we are grateful for and feel that we lack and must have.
The price tells us: something very special is going on here. But it may be going on in the cheaper thing too…
The tragedy for our relationship to money is that the hierarchy operates in favour of the expensive things, which means that very often we end up feeling that we can’t afford good things and that our lives are therefore sad and fatefully incomplete. The money hierarchy is constantly making us feel impoverished, while the hidden truth is that there are in fact more good things within our grasp than we believe (and tend to notice only when we are dying or recovering from a bad illness). We are rich enough to purchase the superlative egg of the chicken; but we don’t experience our wealth here; we are left lamenting our inability to buy the hugely expensive (but not actually much nicer) egg of the almost infertile and evasive Iranian sturgeon.
How do we reverse this? The answer lies in a slightly unexpected area: the mind of a four-year-old. Here he is with a puddle. It started raining an hour ago, now the street is full of puddles, and there could be nothing better in the world; the riches of the Indies would be nothing next to the pleasures of being able to see the rippling of the water created by a jump in one’s Wellingtons, the eddies and whirlpools, the minute waves, the oceans beneath one…
Children have two advantages: they don’t know what they’re supposed to like – and they don’t understand money – so price is never a guide of value for them. They have to rely instead on their own delight (or lack of it) in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with, and this can take them in astonishing (and sometimes maddening) directions. They’ll spend an hour with one button. One buys them the £49 wooden toy made by Swedish artisans who hope to teach lessons in symmetry and finds that they prefer the cardboard box that it came in. They become mesmerised by the wonders of turning on the light and therefore think it sensible to try it 100 times. They’d prefer the nail and screw section of a DIY shop to the fanciest toy department (or the national museum).
This attitude allows them to be entranced by objects which have long ago ceased to hold our wonder. If asked to put a price on things, children tend to answer by the utility and charm of an object, not its manufacturing costs. This leads to unusual but – we recognise – more rightful results. A child might guess that a stapler costs a hundred pounds and would be deeply surprised, even shocked, to learn that the USB stick can be had for just over one pound. Children would be right, if prices were determined by human worth and value, but they’re not; they just reflect what things cost to make. The pity is, therefore, that we treat them as a guide to what matters, when this isn’t what a financial price should ever be used for.
An object worthy of immense wonder: now ignored
But at a certain age, something very debilitating happens to children (normally around the age of eight). They start to learn about ‘expensive’ and ‘cheap’ and absorb the view that the more expensive something is, the better it may be. They are encouraged to think well of saving up pocket money and to see the ‘big’ toy they are given as much better than the ‘cheaper’ one.
We can’t directly go backwards, we can’t forget what we know of prices. However, we can pay less attention to what things cost and more to our own responses. The people who have most to teach us here are artists. They are the experts at recording and communicating their enthusiasms which, like children, can take them in slightly unexpected directions. The French artist Paul Cézanne spent a good deal of the late nineteenth century painting groups of apples in his studio in Provence. He was thrilled by their texture, shapes and colours. He loved the transitions between the yellowy golds and the deep reds across their skins. He was an expert at noticing how the generic word ‘apple’ in fact covers an infinity of highly individual examples. Under his gaze, each one becomes its own planet, a veritable universe of distinctive colour and aura – and hence a source of real delight and solace.
The apple that has only a limited life, that will make a slow transition from sweetness to sour, that grew patiently on a particular tree, that survived the curiosity of birds and spiders, that weathered the mistral and a particularly blustery May is honoured and properly given its due by the artist (who was himself extremely wealthy, the heir of an enormous banking fortune: it seems important to state this, just to make sure that Cézanne wasn’t just making a virtue of necessity and would have worshipped gold bullion if he’d had the chance. He did; and he didn’t). Cézanne had all the awe, love and excitement before the apple that Catherine the Great and Charles II had before the pineapple: but Cézanne’s wonderful discovery was that these elevated and powerful emotions are just as valid in relation to things which can be purchased for the small change in our pockets. Cézanne in his studio was generating his own revolution, not an industrial revolution that would make once costly objects available to everyone, but a Revolution in Appreciation, a far deeper process, that would get us to notice what we already have to hand. Instead of reducing prices, he is raising levels of appreciation; which is a move that is perhaps more precious to us economically – because it means that we can suddenly get a lot more great things for very little money.
Some of what we find ‘moving’ in an encounter with the apples is that we’re restored to a familiar but forgotten attitude of appreciation, that we surely once knew in childhood when we loved the toggles on our rain jackets and found a paperclip a source of fascination and didn’t know what anything cost. Since then, life has pushed us into the world of money where prices loom too large, we now acknowledge, in our relation to things. While we enjoy Cézanne’s work, it might also unexpectedly make us feel a little sad: the sadness is a recognition of how many of our genuine enthusiasms and loves we’ve had to surrender in the name of the adult world. We’ve perhaps given up on too many of our native loves. The apple is one instance of a whole continent we’ve ceased to marvel at.
There is a commercial version of Cézanne’s work and we call it advertising. Like Cézanne’s work, advertising throws the best things about objects into relief and tells us in insistent and urgently enthusiastic and sensitive ways what is loveable about bits of the world. Advertising is skilled, for example, at pointing out the loveable things in the new top of the range BMW, the cylinders, the leather seat surrounds, the moulding around the wheel arches (lithe and muscular) and of course the army of lights, skilfully massing their beams ready to attack the darkness on the road ahead.
The only problem with advertising is that it isn’t done for enough things, or indeed the things that would be most helpful and convenient for us to appreciate. People who attack advertising get it slightly wrong: the problem is not that we love BMWs, but that so much of our love and awe has been syphoned in that direction and hasn’t been properly excited in other, more realistic areas.
We need an advertising pursued with the same sense of drama and intensity and ambition but directed towards biros, puddles and olives. The reason this doesn’t happen isn’t sinister or profound. It’s just we haven’t yet found a way to pay the enormous sums required to glamorise objects through advertising in the case of lower priced items.
He needs a campaign for himself
Our reluctance to be excited by inexpensive things isn’t a fixed debility of human nature. It’s just a current cultural misfortune. We all naturally used to know the solution as children. The ingredients of the solution are intrinsically familiar. We get hints of what should happen in the art gallery and in front of adverts. We need to rethink our relationship to prices. The price of something is principally determined by what it cost to make, not how much human value is potentially to be derived from it. We have been looking at prices in the wrong way: we have fetishised them as tokens of intrinsic value, we have allowed them to set how much excitement we are allowed to have in given areas, how much joy is to be mined in particular places. But prices were never meant to be like this: we are breathing too much life into them, and therefore dulling too many of our responses to the inexpensive world.
There are two ways to get richer: one is to make more money; and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already to hand (thanks to the miracles of the Industrial Revolution). We are, astonishingly, already a good deal richer than we are encouraged to think we are.