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.
Auctions promoted the name of the artist and the provenance of the work – the “Rockefeller Rothko”, for example, which sold at Sotheby’s for almost €73 million in 2007 – rather than the nature and qualities of the work itself.
Will Gompertz, the Tate’s former multimedia director, who is now the BBC’s arts editor, summed it up when he said in October that “money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate”; earlier in the year the novelist Hari Kunzru referred to “the corruption of art museums by investors”.
In architecture the boom has homogenised cities, so that instead of finding a Body Shop on every high street you now expect a starchitect, be it Daniel Libeskind, Santiago Calatrava or Zaha Hadid, to have designed a building in every capital, with a big Antony Gormley sculpture thrown in for good measure. (We only just escaped our own, in Dublin’s Docklands.) The addition of a famous name arguably allowed for a suspension of critical thinking about their creations – and mirrored the idea of celebrity as a value judgment rather than as a media and marketing creation.
These, and other “signature” buildings by less stellar architects, provide counterpoints to the endless apartment blocks that, in being built for the buy-to-let market, seem never to have taken into account the requirements of people who might want to own them as homes.
Context, ultimately, is meaningless to the aesthetics of the boom. Johnny Ronan’s “pink palace”, on Burlington Road in Dublin, has more in common with Hearst Castle, the 1920s California folly of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, than it does with its neighbours.
The design of the four-star Carlton Kinsale ignores the bar, the heart of the best Irish hotels, to focus on a huge atrium and an imposing staircase that leads to a balcony under a large light feature. The small bar is tucked off to the side, so there is no sense of a nice place to sit, just a foyer that shouts “Look at me!”
Similarly, the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, in Co Wicklow, appears to pay no attention to the scale of the site it sits in; it is, instead, all about itself.
The boom also affected place names. Connection was superseded by aspiration, as Ard Rí, the Gallops, the Paddocks and more meaningless names, such as Belmayne, designated how we wanted to be seen to live.
On television, property porn became a staple, and programmes such as Grand Designs, Property Ladder, Escape to the Country and Location, Location, Location mirrored the idea that homes were statements, and advertisements of personal worth; price came to stand for value.
Clearly, then, what things look like sheds light on the ideas behind them. The boom was all about personal importance, personal investment and personal demands, and never about our collective responsibility to be involved with a solution, even if we weren’t initially at fault. We are now dealing with the aftermath, as “why should I?” becomes a mantra for everyone who believes it’s up to everybody else to get us out of the mess we’re in.
Inside our homes, using the inexplicably popular Farrow Ball paint – difficult to apply, more expensive than most and, at the end of the day, just paint – was like putting a designer label on your walls. And, hanging on the Farrow Ball, those unsettling black-and-white studio portraits of spouses and children proliferated, as we were encouraged to turn our loved ones into images, advertisements, showcases of ourselves.
Spectacle replaced soul, and sometimes also substituted itself for meaning. Riverdance morphed from an expression of something uniquely and thrillingly Irish, brimming with heart, to a global money-making juggernaut, glittering yet rootless.
Meanwhile, the bigger-must-be-better mentality transferred itself to other areas of arts and culture that might have been considered immune, as Druid Theatre Company staged all six of JM Synge’s plays in one marathon session in 2005. This year it did the same with Tom Murphy’s plays. Critics and audiences seemed to love both, so what’s the problem? It’s less of a problem than an issue, as the experience becomes about scale and endurance, and about saying “I was there”, instead of the rather more humble act of seeing a play in the context it was written for.
Look anywhere and examples abound. In 2007, Cork School of Music announced it had taken delivery of the world’s largest order of Steinway baby grand pianos, as 54 arrived on the banks of the Lee. The extravaganza of scale replaced the value of variety: different makes sound different, and pianists tend to have a preference. Socially, we celebritised the trappings of success, making heroes of car dealers and anyone willing to spin former farmland into gold.
It all happened so recently that it can be difficult to remember that we didn’t always think this way and that there are alternatives. Boom aesthetics gave rise to the lie that you have to pay huge salaries to get people to work in certain industries, that those salaries reflect their worth as individuals and that money is the only way to give people the respect of their peers. As the worlds of art and literature demonstrate, people will find a way to do what they love to do. They also show how an influx of money can skew things and how making the rewards solely fiscal impoverishes everything.
It would be interesting to construct an alternative model based on the economics of arts organisations, small festivals, arts collectives, community projects and creative co-operatives. It might not save the world, but it might remind us that what has come to stand for normal is, like flares, only a fashion.