Musings

Materialism

August 2, 2009

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about a store that I’d been looking in, and some things I’d seen there that I might want to purchase, if I had the money to do so. This led to our talking about the best things on which to spend one’s money. The objects that I’d seen in the store were the sort of things that I might like to own because they appealed to me, but they didn’t really serve any practical application. In other words, they were the sorts of things that I would purchase, and then all they would do is sit in the apartment collecting dust. This led us to talk about art, and what, if anything, it is accomplishing for the purchaser or the collector once it’s in their possession. We were talking about a scenario in which a person who has the money to do so might see a piece of art that elicits a certain reaction or emotion from them. Whether positive or negative, they feel that they might want this emotion to be duplicated, so they buy the piece, and take it home to decorate their living quarters. So now they have this thing, and it sits there. What if they’re unable to get it to make them feel the way they did when they first saw it? Now it becomes one of those scenarios where instead of owning the piece, since it’s there in the house and the buyer might not have the motivation to get rid of it, even if it’s not performing the function they initially hoped it would, it’s more like it’s owning them. And instead of one piece, imagine if this person had many pieces, all of which they felt happy about at the time that they bought them, but they were now not so enthusiastic about. So I put it to you, if you are reading this; are you satisfied with the things that you surround yourself with? They need not be pieces of art, necessarily. Let’s just include whatever might be in your home that doesn’t serve any immediate purpose. We can exclude things like cooking implements, or bath towels, or laptop computers, because all of these are actually good for something. I’m thinking more about the Monet print on the wall, or the basket of seashells in the bathroom, or the decorative soaps that no one is ever supposed to use, not even company. Are they doing what they’re supposed to be doing? And what was it they were supposed to be doing in the first place?

Of course, in my particular case, this conversation began all in the abstract, since I don’t actually have the money to buy the things I was looking at that I might have the desire to own. The question was put to me that if I did have an unlimited supply of money, or at least a little more to spare, might I buy some more of these nonessential items? Here’s what it breaks down to, for me. It’s almost completely useless to buy art as an investment. Art is something that is significant to the artist as they are making it. The finished product is more of a byproduct, the empty cocoon from which the butterfly has already flown. It doesn’t mean as much to the artist as the creative energy that went into it does. In that sense, even if you own it, it does not follow that you possess it. That’s why I’m always extremely hesitant to buy art. Also, even if I had the money, and I wanted to buy artwork that society deemed valuable, I would be terrified that something was going to happen to it. I would spend all my time running back into the other room to make sure that one of my cats hadn’t clawed it to bits, or that someone hadn’t thrown grape juice on it. My concerns extend beyond what is normally considered “art,” too. I would include in this category of things that are unwise to buy, anything that doesn’t really serve an immediately identifiable purpose. What, then, would I spend my money on, if I had any to spare? Well, books, movies, comic books, magazines, or other forms of diversion, to name a few. Hell, even video games. At least you’re doing something with those. A book, or the other things I mentioned, are not useless. They have a very specific purpose. In the case of a book, you’re meant to read it (or watch it, in the case of a movie, or play it, with a video game, etc.), and they are supposed to entertain and distract you. These are things that you might say a piece of art is also meant to do, but at least a book forces you to use your imagination, which is somewhat of a lost art in modern times, and a movie actually comes to life right in front of you on screen. A painting or a piece of art just sits there. And don’t even talk to me about things like jewelery. The desire for those sorts of things are the kind of materialism that bothers me more than any other. If I owned something like that, I’d be worried the whole time that someone was going to break into the house and steal it, and I’d be even more worried to take it outside and show it off, for fear that if it was visible, I’d be even more in danger of that happening. It’s like walking around with a moderately priced car around your neck. Why take that risk? Because it’s shiny?  

But more than any of these things, if I had the money, what I’d spend it on is travel. There are so many places that I want to see in the world that I haven’t had the opportunity to yet. That would be the best way to spend my money, I think. To go to activities that I enjoy, sporting events, concerts, movies, cultural events, museums…all of this would be satisfactory. Except for one small detail. I must confess that on the rare occasions where I actually do have the money to do these things, when I get finished with them, I sometimes feel buyer’s remorse. The money is gone, and there isn’t anything tangible that I spent it on, nothing that I can hold in my hand. There is only the memory of it. And so it is that I seem to be materialistic too. I remember when I was younger I was fond of telling anyone who would listen that it’s not about who dies as a good person, having given to charities, having helped old ladies cross the street. Admittance to heaven is dependent on who has the most toys, I would say. So maybe the people who are spending their money on useless trinkets are onto something. Who knows?

One thing I’ll say is this. A couple of years ago, I started collecting ticket stubs from anywhere that I traveled, or any event that I went to. When I got back home I would take them and paste them in my photo album. I didn’t really think about why I might be doing this, until the conversation yesterday about the different things people spend their money on, and why they might be compelled to so do. I think the reason I started doing that is because I wanted to have the best of both worlds. I wanted to go out and “do things,” thereby not spending my money on physical possessions, but I still wanted some material evidence of what it was I had done! It’s typical of me, I think, to want to have my cake and eat it too. The fact remains, I don’t really have the money right now for any of this to be a problem. If I had more money, then maybe I would be faced with the issue of what I should be doing with it, saving it, or spending it on things that would make me feel it was being put to the best use, maximized for me to get the most possible enjoyment out of it. I would hope that if that time ever comes, I have the wisdom to find some sort of happy medium, using it both on things that make me happy, and that have some sort of actual use. Because if I ever get rich, and you come over to visit, reader, and find me with a bunch of display cases full of matchbox cars or antique dollhouses or the hundred-and-one other expensive pieces of crap that people collect that don’t and will never have any practical application, then you have my permission to shoot me and put me out of my misery. It would be the only humane thing to do.

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