romantic consumerism



The myth of the autonomy of art seems to be a necessary fiction for the survival of modern art as an institution and furthermore, there is still the widespread belief today that the romantic ethic of the artist stands somehow outside of the spirit of modern consumerism and is many ways in rebellious opposition to it.

However, it is perhaps due to modernism’s failure to sustain its claim to the high moral ground essential to the myth of autonomy, as much as it is due to the realisation that capitalist economies are characterised not only by utilitarian productivism but also by excessive consumption which has given rise to a concern with the complicity of the culture industries with consumer society.

The theoretical concentration on production, due in part to its Marxist privileging as an a priori category; a necessary foundation of human behaviour which relegates consumption to a secondary status as an effect (rather than a cause) of production; combined with a judgmental attitude which considers consumption as essentially trivial (and rather immoral) and therefore unworthy of serious theorisation; together allow the continuation of the convenient fallacy of regarding the excessive consumption characteristic of capitalist countries as due mainly to advertising (and its appropriation of romantic cultural material) to create new and false desires.

In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism Colin Campbell sets out to challenge these assumptions and argues the reverse relationship between production and consumption where the romantic ingredient in culture can be regarded as having had a crucial part to play in the development of modern society. “Romanticism itself played a critical role in facilitating the Industrial Revolution and therefore the character of the modern economy.”

Weber’s influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism focused attention, as the title suggests, on the productivist aspects of the Industrial Revolution and linked the rationality of emerging modern capitalism with a Protestant ethic. Although there seems to be considerable investigation and general agreement over what constitutes modern productivist capitalism, Campbell soon discovered that there was no adequate theory as to what might be the nature of modern consumption. The productionist economic bias, which pervades most of social science, in conjunction with a tendency to moralise about consumption practices, preferring condemnation to investigation and explanation, which Campbell suggests is evident in the work of Galbraith, Marcuse and Daniel Bell, has meant that modern consumer behaviour has been left to be inadequately theorized by notoriously apolitical and ahistorical economists (and advertisers).

In an attempt to emulate Weber’s wide ranging and multidisciplinary exploration of relationships between spheres, such as religion and economics which are normally considered unrelated, Campbell’s deliberate transgressing of conventional academic boundaries has produced a provocative work of cultural history which mixes social theory with economic history, psychology, the history of religious thought and literary criticism; and covers the developments of phenomena such as taste, fashion, the gothic novel, romantic love, bohemianism, dandyism, Calvinism and advertising; to investigate the idea that whilst the Puritan ideal of reason validates the work ethic, the romantic notion of emotion validates consumption. As Campbell says “It is on the tension generated between these twin cultures that the dynamism of the Industrial West depends.”


David Hammons, Bag Lady (1990) Casinò Municipale di Venezia


Written as a result of Campbell’s attempt to come to terms with the counter-cultural events of the late sixties and early seventies, when most academics in Western Europe and North America found themselves in intellectual and cultural turmoil with regard to the generally accepted sociological wisdom of the post-war years “which had been founded on the assumption that modern societies would continue to progress down the road of rationality, materialism and secularity.”

This belief in the fundamental rationality of modern capitalist society was shattered, according to Campbell, when “significant sections of the educated middle-class young turned to magic, mystery and exotic religion with a determined anti-Puritanism.”

In pursuing the idea that the counter-culture of the sixties was a “continuing working out of the principles of romanticism which had rooted themselves in modern culture from the outset,” Campbell noted that although there exists a vast amount of material concerning the Romantic movement, consideration of romanticism as a socio-cultural movement functionally interconnected with an emerging industrial society was virtually non-existent. A case of sociology being committed to a progressive view of history regarding romanticism as a reactionary element in modern society, doomed to gradual extinction.

Campbell establishes the need for a theory of modern hedonistic conduct, fundamentally different from those utilitarian based perspectives currently embodied in economics, where the endless pursuit of wants characteristic of the insatiability of modern consumerism are taken as the expression of a natural tendency arising out of the “revolution in rising expectations” which supposedly occurs when traditional societies undergo a series of changes associated with modernisation.

Instead of contemporary practices being regarded as exceptional and excessive, Campbell argues, pre-modern peoples are typically considered to be merely prevented from behaving like us because of the lack of an industrial economy.

“The fact that modern consumers rarely seem to find their own behaviour bewildering is testimony to the powerful taken-for-granted nature of the values and attitudes upon which it rests … only in social anthropology does one sometimes encounter an awareness of the extent to which modern consumer behaviour remains a mystery …”

In regarding the Industrial Revolution as centering upon a revolution in consumption as well as production, Campbell is led to suggest the idea that a ‘consumption ethic’ must have existed in industrial societies from the very beginning and that perhaps the ‘puritan’ and ‘romantic’ might not be the stark cultural alternatives which sociologists and many others take them to be.

It would seem that contrary to popular opinion the manufacturing industries most associated with the early Industrial Revolution were those producing consumer goods. So we may ask: “Who bought the cottons, woolens, linens and silks of the burgeoning British textile industries? Who consumed the massive increases in beer production? Who bought the crockery which poured from the Staffordshire Potteries?” It was by the “home sale of articles of everyday life” to the middle class, on which the foundations of the Industrial Revolution were laid. Campbell presents surprising evidence for his argument that the consumer revolution was carried through by exactly those sections of English society, the middle classes, with the strongest Puritan traditions.

“To stress the crucial part played by Puritanism in the evolution of modern hedonism may seem, at first sight, to be somewhat strange, and yet as far as the emergence of sentimental hedonism is concerned, Protestant religion, and especially that harsh and rigorous form of it which is known as Puritanism, must be recognized as the primary source. This is precisely because as a movement it adopted a position of outright hostility to the ‘natural’ expression of emotion, and consequently helped to bring about just that split between feeling and action which hedonism requires. In addition to this, however, it also contributed greatly to the development of an individualistic ability to manipulate the meaning of objects and events, and hence toward the self-determination of emotional experience.”

Campbell is able to conclude that there were in fact two powerful traditions which developed out of English Puritanism of the eighteenth century. The first corresponds to that identified by Weber, and which stressed rationality, instrumentality, industry and achievement which, following Enlightenment scepticism, develops into utilitarianism. The second, incorporated an ’emotionalist’ version of the Calvinist doctrine of signs, and develops firstly into the cults of benevolence and melancholy, and then as the strong beliefs declined, the indulgence in emotions for pleasure developed into a fully-fledged Sentimentalism.

“This is best illustrated by reference to the fate of beliefs concerning hell, eternal damnation, the Devil and sin, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when they gradually faded in the face of the scepticism and optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment. As they did not disappear altogether, the powerful emotional resonances which such beliefs created remained in the minds of many, and their conventional symbols became employed as a means of gaining emotional pleasure. Thus out of a background of real religious terror there developed such artistic genres as graveyard poetry and the Gothic novel, both of which catered for the ‘thrill’ of being frightened … Once convictions become conventions, the possibility of emotional self indulgence is a real one.”


The objection that modern consumerism developed out of the emulation of the ways of the aristocracy is dismissed by revealing “emulation theory” as a tautological argument, which ignores both the difference between innovation and imitation; and conflict over the criteria of status: “Veblen’s mistake (is) in assuming an identity between competition and imitation, arguing as he does that where a contest between individuals or groups for higher status exists, then this will take the form of behaviour which imitates those who already hold the higher status. But this is to overlook two important points: firstly, that individuals may gain success over their competitors through innovation rather than imitation (as many entrepreneurs have shown) and, secondly, that social groups (especially social classes) may actually be in conflict over the very question of the criteria to be employed in defining status. This latter case is the more important as it denies Veblen’s assumption concerning a consensus of values in modern society and hence the existence of a single agreed status system.”

This is illustrated by tracing the collapse of classicism and the decline of commonly agreed upon definitions of aesthetic standards in the eighteenth century. Whilst the aristocracy was still drawn to the classical ideal, the possibility of associating these values with universal standards of beauty no longer existed. Since Enlightenment reason was sceptical, the aristocracy fell back upon social acceptability, where good taste meant that form of conduct which in “an elegantly refined style” gave most pleasure to one’s peers. This aristocratic attitude led not only to the Cavalier ethic, where honour and duty took precedence over pleasure, but also to the Dandy ethic where contrary to popular impression, not flamboyancy, but quality, refinement and attention to detail, were all important; both developing as reactions to the utilitarian strand, as much as to the emotional (pleasure-seeking) strand, of Puritanism.


Oversite 1988
Talbot Rice Art Centre Edinburgh


The middle-classes however, embarked on a campaign to promote an aesthetic which served their interests, and which made the appreciation of beauty a matter of genuine emotional sensitivity. This gave rise to a ‘middle-classicism’, the marriage of neo-classical ideas with Protestant attitudes, ironically formulated by an aristocrat, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, who wrote in 1711: “Will it not be found, that what is beautiful is harmonious and proportionable, what is harmonious and proportionable is true, and what is at once both beautiful and true is of consequence agreeable and good?”

This essentially novel proposition used the authority of the classical tradition, not to support reason but feelings and thus the way was opened for emotional indulgence as an indicator of virtue – a natural conclusion being that whatever aroused feelings of pleasure was both beautiful and good.

Once the excessive sentimentalism of the Protestant ethic of benevolence gave way to ‘creativity’ the “move was made into Romanticism, where pleasure becomes the crucial means of recognizing that ideal truth and beauty, which imagination reveals, becomes the means by which enlightenment and moral renewal can be achieved through art……. It is now possible to perceive how the Romantic theodicy, as it became translated into a theory of art and the artist, led to the creation of a distinctive ideal of character, one which, although most obviously applied to the artist, was also meant to serve for the consumer or ‘re-creator’ of their products.

“Since the key characteristic of the divine was taken to be creativity, both in the sense of productivity and of originality, imagination becomes the most significant and prized of personal qualities, with the capacity to manifest this in works of art and through an ability to enter fully into those created by others, both acting as unambiguous signs of presence. Since, in addition, the true and perfect world which imagination revealed was necessarily the realm of beauty, any exercise of this faculty was accompanied by pleasure, such that use of the imagination and the experiencing of pleasure became largely commensurate.”

Thus the Romantic was someone who had an ideal sensitivity to pleasure, and indicated this fact by the spontaneity and intensity of emotions. By the same token the artist was an individual who could give pleasure to others, not so much directly through their person or actions, but indirectly, through embodied imaginings, a pleasure which served to spiritually renew and enlighten them, as it had the artist.

In the argument between ‘self’ and a society based on materialistic utilitarianism, the person of true sensibility was someone who was bound to be an ‘outsider’; and so, just as the Dandies represented the triumph of propriety over sincerity, so the Romantics (and especially the Bohemians) came to represent the reverse: “Action in defiance of convention could thus now serve at one and the same time to demonstrate one’s profound sensibility and membership of the true aristocracy.”

Campbell concludes that “the romantic ideal of character, together with its associated theory of moral renewal through art, functioned to stimulate and legitimate that form of autonomous, self-illusory hedonism which underlies modern consumer behaviour. At the same time, romantic ideas concerning the role and function of the artist served to ensure that a continuous supply of novel and stimulating cultural products would be forthcoming, and that via Bohemia, the limits to prevailing taste would repeatedly be tested and overthrown. The romantic world-view provided the highest possible motives with which to justify day-dreaming, longing and the rejection of reality, together with the pursuit of originality in life and art; and by so doing, enabled pleasure to be ranked above comfort, counteracting both traditionalist and utilitarian restraints on desire.”


The conclusion is that “there is no cultural contradiction in capitalism in that the Protestant-productivist, Romantic-consumerist characteristics are complementary in Industrial society; even though these twin cultures generate ideals which individuals may occasionally feel the need to choose between, and which intellectuals continually seek to champion against each other …

Just as ‘puritan’ and ‘romantic’ stand for contrasting character ideals which can, nonetheless, be successfully incorporated into one personality system, so too do they stand for apparently opposed cultural traditions which comprise the single cultural system of modernity; a system of which their symbiotic relationship is the central feature.”

Consequently, any future ‘idealistic’ demands for social change in consumer societies should perhaps start by both refusing to be placed within these ‘oppositions’ and by contesting their independence … in specific contexts; if they are not to fall victim to the opportunistic and exploitative logic of their dynamic and continuous exchange.


The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism by Colin Campbell. Basil Blackwell 1987
Review by Art in Ruins published Building Design No 962 Nov 17 1989


Romantic Consumerism
Building Design No 962 November 17 1989
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