It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling
The boom changed what art, architecture, television, theatre and society looked like. Unfortunately, it also changed our interior lives
Are you tired of hearing that we lost the run of ourselves during the boom? It’s a remark that makes it sound as if everyone in Ireland was drowning in bling, beluga and buy-to-let homes. On the other hand, if you listen to all the people who claim they never got caught in the madness, you wonder exactly who could have been buying all that stuff, so few of us are prepared to own up to it.
Something about the boom made it seem perfectly reasonable for otherwise ordinary people to spend €1,000 on a handbag or €250,000 on a house the size of a shed.
Now the madness is receding, and as we continue to count the cost, it’s worth looking at the less obvious legacies of the years of prosperity, because they changed not only the way we spent our credit but also the aesthetics of our lives.
The boom had a look: SUVs that never saw country roads; statement handbags too heavy with padlocks (Chloé) or chains (Chanel), or too ugly with logos (Louis Vuitton), for sense; vulgar jewellery, permatans and glossy manes of highlighted hair extensions; enclaves of mock-Tudor, -Georgian and -Gothic luxury homes in gated communities; and housing estates and apartment blocks vomited up in previously scenic spots.
More deeply, beneath the glittery veneer that covered Ireland, smothering our sense and hiding the ugliness of what was really going on in boardrooms and planning offices, subtler aesthetic shifts changed what we think of as normal.
This is because the idea of aesthetics goes deeper than appearance; it also covers what things feel like, meaning that taste and sentiment come into play too. Historically, this has manifested itself in different ways. Hemlines have got longer in recessions, for example, and silver cars sell better when times are tough. For anyone who discounts the effects of aesthetics, look at the way fashions change our sense of taste, from flares to wide ties to shoulder pads. This might appear to trivialise what has happened in this country. After all, the cost of our collective indebtedness is counted also in human misery, suicide rates, job losses and foreclosures. Nevertheless, the boom changed what art, architecture, television, theatre and society looked like, as it also changed our interior lives.
In visual art, you can see the aesthetics of the boom in the prominence of glossy and ultimately vacuous work by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, among others, with little to challenge or offend the people who are rich enough to buy it.
The boom also led to the rise of big-brand museums, with branches of the Louvre and Hermitage appearing from Abu Dhabi to Las Vegas, and mega-brand galleries, such as Gagosian, opening outlets around the world, stifling the eclecticism and independence that have always been hallmarks of the art world.