Listen to this article
This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
In his persuasive new book Stuffocation, the trend-forecaster James Wallman contends that the age of hyper-materialism may be coming to an end. Stuffocation, he says, “is one of today’s most acute, till now unnamed, afflictions. It is about how you, me, and society in general, instead of feeling enriched by the things that we own, are feeling stifled by them.”
His timing is clever: this is a time of year when prosperous sections of the prosperous world can feel a little nauseated by the “stuff” that has suddenly nestled itself into our homes. We are buying too many things. And we are beginning to revolt, says Wallman. He gives concrete examples of people who are deciding to opt out of the stuff wars.
Rather than participate in the cyclical and ultimately depressing ritual of covet-acquire-discard, they are preferring to focus on richness of experience, rather than things. They are spending money on rock climbing, yoga retreats and TED lectures.
And, of course, the arts. There are few more powerful forms of revolt against stuffocation than to submit to an artistic experience. Not only does it get you out of the house, it also reminds you of the profound concerns that help elevate our thinking away from everyday clutter.
What has happened to the arts in the 21st century seems to support Wallman’s thesis. People want to participate more than ever. Whether it is the bombast of a Led Zeppelin reunion (“It reminded me of who I used to be,” a middle-aged man who was in the audience told me sadly the other day), or the mind-expanding theatrics of the latest performance at Tate Modern’s Tanks, or the rugged immersiveness of a Punchdrunk theatre production: art offers an alternative way of thinking about the world that can be both exhilarating and intellectually rewarding. That is a killer combination in a world where the pursuit of stuff has taken on a near-religious fervour. We are desperate, it seems, to be taken away from all that.
Technology is playing its role in the onset of stuffocation too. Thanks to some fiendishly clever digital distribution models, there is a clear and seemingly irreversible trend away from owning stuff, such as records, CDs and DVDs, and streaming music, films and television into our homes instead.
When I was at school, the record that you carried around with you all day was the most potent signifier of your identity, more than clothes, accent or table manners. When I was a young man I made it my ambition to acquire every Jean-Luc Godard film, major and minor, on DVD. I eventually achieved my ambition, and so what? In an age of unfettered information flow, my collection is meaningless. It just takes up space in the sitting room. It has no rarity value, no exclusivity. Possession is nothing, experience everything.
There are two consequences for the arts of what Wallman calls the experientialist move away from materialism. The first is that they become evermore ephemeral.
We are used to thinking of the greatest art as that which makes the most important statements. The “hammer blows of fate” that open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the audacious orchestral glissando that conclude The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”, are embedded in us. They are cultural behemoths, heard millions of times around the world, thanks to the scrupulous, and occasionally obsessive, regard with which we accumulated and disseminated our record collections.
Can we ever be so obsessive in the streamed world? Doesn’t the freedom to play anything at any time lead to a less intense relationship with the art form? And doesn’t that, in turn, cramp the ambitions of artists? Can you put out an important statement on the world on iTunes? And if it’s so important, shouldn’t it cost more than 99p?
The second consequence of stuffocation is that some stuff becomes more, rather than less, important. This can be clearly seen in the art market, where prices at the very highest level continue to rise to ever-more absurd heights. Of course there is snobbery at work here: there is so much stuff around, that to have the very best stuff is a clear indicator of impeccable judgment and sophistication.
But I also wonder if we are not already stepping into the age of stuff nostalgia. If we really are going to spend our days in the future climbing rocks while watching Netflix on our telewatches, then we are living in the final stages of the stuff era. We will never be attached to things again.
All of which means we should hang on to everything we have. Someone will pay a lot of money for it, one day, when our descendants are tired of swimming with the dolphins all day.
More columns at ft.com/aspden
To listen to culture columns, go to ft.com/culturecast