A couple of weeks ago I attended a reception in the Banqueting House on Whitehall to mark the opening of an exhibition by the American painter Cy Twombly at the Serpentine Gallery. A vast and lavish buffet was laid on tables down the length of Inigo Jones’s grandest room. Wealthy collectors drank champagne with Turner Prize-winning artists beneath Rubens’s only surviving ceiling. Lord Palumbo gave an exquisitely embarrassing speech in which — as has been widely reported — he repeatedly muddled the name of the principal guest, Cy Twombly, with that of the owner of Condé Nast, Si Newhouse (who was not there). Altogether, it was a highly satisfactory evening, and a neat demonstration of the power and prestige of art. There we all were, gathered in the room where Charles I once greeted ambassadors, in order to honour an artist whose finest work was derived from graffiti on walls and scribbles on blackboards. I hasten to add that the paintings Twombly created from those sources were magnificent. But nonetheless his work is a graphic demonstration of the ability of artists to make something out of what is apparently nothing. That is what makes art — among other things — the ultimate example of luxury goods.
All luxuries, as we were taught by the economist Thorstein Veblen, are designed for conspicuous consumption. That is, they are bought and displayed partly just because they are expensive and useless, just as certain male birds develop hugely elaborate tail feathers in order to demonstrate to lady birds that they are fit and strong enough to sustain all that useless weight. Some luxuries still have their uses. A mansion may be unnecessarily big, but you can still live in it. A couturier dress might cost as much as a car, but it is still wearable.