Dead Dutchman teaches ‘consumerism’ not always a bad thing

Van Utrecht, Banquet Still Life, 1644

We’re deeply suspicious of the word ‘consumerism’; it’s become a stick with which to beat the modern world. Yet consumerism doesn’t have to be stupid. At its best, what the word refers to is a love of the fruits of the earth, a delight in human ingenuity and an appreciation of the vast achievements of organised labour and trade.

This picture by a Dutch artist called Van Utrecht, painted in 1644, takes us to an instructive time long ago when abundance was new and not to be taken for granted. The picture knows it was hard to get that lobster. They were still amazed – as we should be – that the world can be controlled enough to have lobster in a lemon-butter dressing and pigeon pie; and that you can get many varieties of cheese all through the year. They knew that marshes had to be drained and cattle fed for that to happen; and they were impressed that lemons could reach a northern table at all. Perhaps those fruits were carried by donkey from the Neapolitan hills down to the harbour and then onto leaky wooden ships that had to brave storms and struggle with unreliable winds – just so we could squeeze a little juice on our seafood. They knew how hard this all was, and how astonishing that human beings could do this. They felt the beauty of trade and understood how easily it could be disrupted by blockades or war. They knew that the pleasures of the table were peaceful, they sent money around Europe – and acted as a force for peace and prosperity. The picture remembers all this effort, and celebrates it.

We are so afraid of greed that we forget how honourable the love of material things can be. In 1644 homage was still paid to the nobility of commerce; a concept that boredom and guilt make less accessible to us. Perhaps we can learn from this picture. A good response to consumerism isn’t to sacrifice material pleasures and live without lobster and lemons, but to appreciate what really needs to go into providing them. Our desire to have luxury cheaply (and therefore to exploit the earth and its workers) is the real problem. If their route to your table were dignified and ethical at every stage, lemons would of course cost a lot more. But maybe then we’d stop taking these fruits for granted and our appreciation of their zest would be all the keener.