Gilles Lipovetsky, philosopher: ‘Luxury used to be the rarest, most beautiful, and the most expensive. Today it is also bad taste, ugly, vulgar, and even obscene’

For four decades, Gilles Lipovetsky has been the great philosopher of aesthetics. We visited him at his home in Grenoble to talk about Spinoza, the democratization of luxury, and the new rich

Gilles Lipovetsky
“I believe that the task of a philosopher is cartography and radiography. Fix the anatomy of our world,” says Gilles Lipovetsky.Ed Alcock
Marc Bassets

Gilles Lipovetsky has little interest in luxury. He says it right away, in the spacious living room of his apartment in Grenoble, with views of the city and the Alps. But, at the same time, he is passionate about it. “In all my youth I did not have a bedroom or a bathroom,” says the French thinker. “That’s probably why the absence of luxury doesn’t bother me. I can live without it.” He can live without it, yes. But not without thinking about it. Not without doing what he has done all his life. Applying his fine-tuned radar not to the past, but to the world in which he has lived. Observing. Capturing the zeitgeist. And luxury does not explain our times, as we will discover during the conversation. It also explains humanity.

At first glance, the writer lives a physically and intellectually in an unlikely place. His eccentric neighborhood and city are far from the cream of Paris’s intellectuals. At the same time, it is a suitable environment for a man — he is presented as a sociologist and philosopher, but in reality, he is a humanist, or a cartographer of his time — who thinks at his own pace and against his own pace. In his work he has dissected the profound transformations in our societies. He has defined an entire period from The Ephemeral Era to his last essay, Le nouvel âge du kitsch (The new age of kitsch), co-written with Jean Serroy and published last spring in France.

Lipovetsky, author of The Empire of Fashion, grew up in a modest family of immigrants. His father’s side were Eastern European Jews, and his mother’s side were Italians. But he is the son, and a perfect incarnation, of a secular, republican and integrationist France — the enlightened France that did not even consider whether it belonged to a community, nor did it lose sleep over its identity, nor did it care too much. It was a different time. He was never interested in researching his origins or claiming them. And he is blunt: “I am interested in the present and the future. The past, no. Absolutely not.”

You wrote a few years ago: “I have no particular taste for luxury.” Should we believe you?

Yes, really. None.


My view of luxury is external.

Surely you have luxuries.

No, no. I am a humble intellectual. What interests me most is writing books and thinking. The Greeks — Aristotle in particular — considered that thought was the peak of happiness, and that contemplative life allowed man to be complete because he is a thinking being. In modern and materialistic societies, we look at material wealth as the way to access well-being. But I, for one, find infinitely more happiness and personal satisfaction in understanding the oddities, the contradictions, the excesses of the world. It still fascinates me. It’s infinite. Thought has no limits, while the relationship with material things does. I could buy suits from Armani, but after a few suits, what? I’m not going to have a hundred either. Understanding is difficult, sometimes depressing, because we cannot find the key, but at the same time it provides many satisfactions and fills our life. It provides a rich life, not in the sense of luxury, but richness inside. It’s not that I have an ascetic streak, but luxury doesn’t interest me, I don’t care.

And yet, you have been passionate about it as a subject of study.

It’s almost a paradox. But I think it’s good not to adhere totally to what we study. In this case, I look at it from the outside, rather than with sympathy, because, as you know, and I have been criticized for this, I am not an apocalyptic thinker. I am a Spinozist and Hegelian. I want to understand. For me, intellectual life does not consist of judging or criticizing, but, above all, of understanding. Intellectuals criticize neoliberalism, capitalism, consumption, globalization, and artificial intelligence. It seems that criticism is the sign of good thinking. I have my doubts about that. I believe that the task of a philosopher is cartography and radiography, to fix the anatomy of our world, and how it works. Criticisms can be made, and they must be made, but on the condition that things were said well beforehand. What happens is that, when it [a concept] is described well, there is usually no Manichaeism.

With luxury, for example?

Yes. There are times when it is difficult to accept, because there is an immorality in it. But if we distance ourselves, should we throw everything away? Shouldn’t it exist?

It is not your position.

No. But not for moral reasons. For moral reasons, luxury is not justified. But morality is not everything in life.

Why is luxury not morally justified?

You go to a luxury hotel and pay $4,000 per night. Meanwhile, there are homeless people. Some have too much and others not enough. Some don’t know what to do with their money and others don’t have the basics. If I were a wise man who observed the planet, I would say that it is curious how it works. Some have private planes, they pollute the planet, they live in incredible residences, they have 20,000-dollar purses. And others go to the supermarket and see if they can spare 20 cents to buy cheese or an apple. There is something wasteful about luxury, something that, from the point of view of ethics and social justice, poses a problem.

Is all luxury like this?

It’s an old debate. The Greeks and Romans had an interesting position. They said that private luxury is bad, because it demonstrates hubris: excess and vanity. At that time, the private luxury was cosmetics. [They thought] women used creams and colors to deceive: she is old and wants to look young. [Therefore,] luxury is vanity and a lie. In the Christian tradition, the fathers of the Church took up this criticism. At the same time, the Greeks and Romans celebrated public luxury. The rich made donations to the city, to build stadiums and monuments. This is a legitimate luxury, and I am not far from thinking the same. Because, if we were to erase all manifestations of luxury, would the planet be more beautiful, more desirable? I think not. What would tourists see? The wonders of the world? The Pyramids, the temple of Angkor Wat, the Alhambra in Granada? In their time the palaces of kings were great luxuries. And our museums? They are incredible luxuries. Should we do without them? Does the Prado serve the homeless in Madrid? Should it be destroyed? No. There is also a legitimate human aspiration for beauty and greatness, for the love of things. We are not just ethical beings.

Gilles Lipovetsky, pictured at his home in Grenoble.
Gilles Lipovetsky, pictured at his home in Grenoble.Ed Alcock

Not all luxury is amoral.

It's paradoxical. There is an acceptable, desirable, even necessary part.

“Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s,” you write, quoting Shakespeare. Is luxury what makes us human?

Yes. Do you know many people who get married and go eat at McDonald’s? No. On the day of the wedding, even the most modest people have a party. And the party, as Georges Bataille said, is the primitive form of luxury. Ever since man has existed, since the Paleolithic, there have been displays of luxury. No civilization has ignored it. We’re not talking about brands, of course. But why is the party a luxury? Because it goes beyond our needs. We don’t care about the cost. It is prodigality, which we will find in the ethics of the lords, in the Middle Ages. The nobleman does not count money; counting is for the bourgeois. It is despicable. Men have always built life models that were not limited to survival: eating, drinking, defending themselves. There has always been another dimension and luxury is part of it. You can have a moral point of view, but, from an anthropological point of view, there is no humanity without luxury.

Is there no humanity without luxury?

No. You can judge that it is obscene, but that is how the Homo sapiens is. Spinoza said that we must accept men as they are. We could make the world again and say: “They should be different.” Meanwhile… There has never been so much luxury! And it has been democratized. The passion for luxury is not just a matter of the rich. It’s everywhere.

An oxymoron, democratic luxury.

But it is a contemporary oxymoron. It was not like this in the past. For a long time, luxury was for the social elite, and only for them: the aristocracy and the court, and later the middle classes who copied the model of the upper classes. But the people did not even have the taste or desire for luxury. I’ll let you in on a secret. I am from the generation of the sixties. At the time, I barely knew what luxury was. It would have been difficult for me to name a single luxury brand. I wasn’t interested and considered that luxury was for older ladies.

What has changed in our societies since then?

Today young people love luxury. Even in the favelas, they know the brands. What has changed is that luxury is also for the poor. There has been a cultural revolution. In the past it was: “Luxury is not for us.” Now it’s: “Why not?” The great emblems of luxury were leisure, travel, tourism, and beautiful brands. Today everyone aspires to it. Who doesn’t want to go on a trip to a hotel, spend a weekend at a spa, or buy a Hermès or Loewe bag? Before, in a modest social environment, they looked at [people who spent on luxuries] negatively because it was considered that whoever did this wanted to show off. Today it is no longer unworthy. It has been democratized — not so much luxury as the taste for luxury.

And is there a democratization in the ways to access to luxury, too?

Yes, the ways to access a certain luxury because it has become plural. This was not the case before. There were the carriages, the lackeys, the castles. These things were only for the very privileged. Now anyone can buy a Louis Vuitton keychain, a Dior lipstick, or a Chanel perfume from time to time. At the same time, an inaccessible luxury, an ultra-luxury, a hyper-luxury, has been reconstituted for billionaires. There are more and more of them in the world, and luxury has gone global. Before, the big brands were European and the market was Europe and North America. Now there are also China and India. The real criticism is not so much of luxury, but of the distribution of wealth. If there were no rich people, there would be no luxury. It is easy to criticize luxury, but if it exists it is because there are fortunes.

In France, you have just published a book about kitsch, where you analyze bad taste in luxury. But luxury was historically associated with elegance, exclusivity, and good taste. Is that no longer the case?

Luxury was the rarest, the most beautiful, the most expensive, and, therefore, the most desirable. And here today a certain number of prestigious brands flirt with kitsch, bad taste, the ugly, even the vulgar and the obscene. I think it began in the nineties with porn chic in the communication of luxury brands. They had advertisements with pornographic allusions and zoophilia. That was a start. Then it continued. Look what John Galliano did. He did shows with beggars and top models at the same time to sell haute couture dresses that cost tens of thousands of dollars. There is something vulgar there. It is a spectacle that wants to be artistic but that can be linked to bad taste. It is not a moral failure; it does not harm anyone. Now Balenciaga and others present Crocs shoes, which were the opposite of chic, and sell them for hundreds of dollars. It’s a turnaround: kitsch becomes chic. We also see it in art. Works by the artists accused of being kitsch are the most expensive.

Are you thinking of Jeff Koons?

Yes. Or Damien Hirst. Since the 19th century, kitsch was what was inexpensive, meaning cheap. Now the works by artists associated with kitsch are the most expensive in the world.

A part of luxury has become democratic. And popular taste has conquered luxury in the form of kitsch. Is it the revenge of popular taste?

A little, yes. The revenge of democracy. For a long time people were despised because they loved what shines. But look at Trump. He likes showy things. Paradoxically, the rich have joined in with the popular taste.

How do you explain it?

The rise of consumer capitalism and individualization have broken class cultures. For centuries and millennia, the behaviors of the elites displayed nothing individual. They were obligations. When they had castles or golden dresses, it was not that they liked them, they were a caste obligation.

Were they codes?

Yes. If not, they were rejected. Later, in modern times, the world of luxury was small, confidential. Mothers advised their daughters to use this or that perfume. With mass society, all this has shattered into a thousand pieces. The ultra-rich are no longer, as Veblen said, the leisure class. They are now self-made men. They work in banking, finance, real estate, trade, raw materials such as oil and gas: the nouveau riche Russians, drug traffickers, football players, or showbusiness stars. Can you tell me what they have in common?

It is no longer a class.

It is not. They are all very rich, but there is no class culture.

“The ultra-rich are no longer, as Veblen said, the leisure class. They are now self-made men. They work,” says Lipovetsky.
“The ultra-rich are no longer, as Veblen said, the leisure class. They are now self-made men. They work,” says Lipovetsky.Ed Alcock

Isn’t true luxury being able to give up luxury? Being the person who doesn’t need objects or phones, or can go walking in the mountains for two weeks.

I doubt there is a true luxury, because there are several. What you say would be mine. For some, there is a new luxury that is time, space, and distance from things. Depending less on things gives us autonomy: that was the wisdom of the ancients. But others love the visible, beautiful things, beautiful materials. Which is the real luxury? There isn’t one.

Could a world without luxury exist?

I don’t believe it. First, because there are more and more rich people on the planet. Second, for the democratization of luxury: people like it. And third, because luxury is partly a dream.

And humans need dreams.

Today, you know, there are not so many dreams anymore. It is human to have them.

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