What is Luxury and How Can it Change in the Context of Art?

By Julia Rasmussen.

Luxury and its definition has shifted along with the world’s understanding of what exactly luxury can entail. But at its core, as Armitage and Roberts write: ‘Luxury is parasitic. In its action it is carcinogenic, colonising the host’s body, replicating its vital organs, making itself indispensable, often undetectable, debilitating and frequently terminal.’ (2016, p. 178) They define luxury as some sort of cancer, that grows and imitates, and contaminates an environment that would be better off without it. Luxury is in its essence unnecessary, but its existence is fueled by desire. Armitage and Robert are focusing on the philosophical and mental implications of luxury, but luxury can also be tied more concretely together with the concept of scarcity, and desire. As Wänke and Hansen write, ‘although highly desirable, luxury is affordable only by few people’ (2011, p.790). Therefore, our contemporary understanding of luxury is dictated by goods that are hard to obtain, only affordable for the few, and marketed as indispensable to the many. At the heart of this understanding of luxury, it is seen as a concept constantly in motion, and is susceptible to change. The mercurial nature of luxury has been tapped into by the artist Gangjian Cui with his piece from 2014 titled The Rise of the Plasticsmith, where he explores the possibility of plastic, a commodity of today, becoming a luxury good, as the overproduction of it will eventually lead to its scarcity.

The piece itself features different pieces of furniture, painstakingly made from individual pieces of plastic, manufactured by the artist himself. The furniture is fragile, and the luxuriousness of it is explored both through the material used, but also in how the pieces are ‘disguised’ as items usually associated with utility, but because of the way they are constructed and their delicate nature, they are unable to be utilized. The piece is also luxurious in the understanding that the process behind making this furniture was time consuming, and a seemingly arduous process, something that is alluded to in the name of the piece, where the word plasticsmith reminds us of professions of craft such as a goldsmith. The juxtaposition between the lack of utility and the amount of labor put into it, hits a nerve on the essence of luxury.

Gangjian Cui made this piece as a commentary on his own hometown, Daqing in Northern China, and its current status as a ‘large center of plastic production.’ He ‘suggests how new skills will have to be developed for working with this now rare material’ (Crafts Council website). Cui’s art highlights themes of mass production, and indirectly through his choice in material, also the bleak global future, where plastic, the symbol of modernity, will become a fossil from a time of plenty. Parallels can be drawn between the fragility of his pieces and the fragility of the environment, and how even a synthetic material like plastic is reliant on the environment to exist, through the use of petroleum in its production. Luxury can only exist if there is commodity, and commodity comes from a world of excess. If in the future, commodities become luxuries, what happens to the majority that cannot afford them? And will desire be replaced by need?


Armitage, J., & Roberts, J. (2016). Critical Luxury Studies: Defining a Field. In Critical Luxury Studies (p. Critical Luxury Studies, Chapter 1). Edinburgh University Press.

Hansen, J., & Wänke, M. (2011). The abstractness of luxury. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32(5), 789-796.

The rise of the Plasticsmith. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/articles/the-rise-of-the-plasticsmith/

Pictures from: