My parents were children of the Great Depression.. The era left its mark on them, and continues to leave its mark on me, especially in my attitude towards art.
Like most people, the times in which they grew up left them with a conviction of the correct price to pay for goods (I’m no different; unless I stop to think, a paperback should cost me $2.95, the average price when I was a young man). However, those hard times also left deeper impressions.
If I had to summarize their attitudes towards spending, I would choose the word “thrifty”. Not cheap or mean, and certainly not ungenerous, but thrifty. Although by the time I was I started high school, they were solidly middle class, their spending habits remained cautious. Generally, they thought twice about making a purchase. They delighted in finding a sale or a bargain, or, better yet, a freebie, even if it was not quite what they wanted. They used credit, but paid off the balance every month, except for major purposes like cars and houses. Spending money on themselves made them feel daring unless it was for essentials, and when they received an extravagant gift, their inevitable exclamation of, “You shouldn’t have” was meant in the most literal sense.
My father relaxed these attitudes as they prospered, but, to a large extent, my mother never has. She remains the product of the 1930s, budgeting and balancing her cheque book to this day.
Intellectually, I can see that some of these attitudes are no longer needed. But, despite growing up in moderate privilege, I can never ridicule their attitudes, because, with very few adjustments for the era of my childhood, I mirror many of them.
Like my parents, I tend to keep appliances until they break down (and then I’m shocked, because it was only five years ago that they were working perfectly). It took years after I moved out on my own for me to realize that I could buy furniture of my own, because the castoffs and remnants with which I started my first household hadn’t fallen apart yet. Except for food and clothes, I hesitate to spend money on myself, although I do spend more on books, music, and dining out than my parents would approve. Until a few years ago, I didn’t even own a credit card, and, if I could buy on the Internet or pay travel expenses some other way – preferably by debit card, so I couldn’t spend money I didn’t have – I would. A strong ascetic sense runs through me, all the stronger for the fact that status and goods matter far less to me than ideas and conversation.
However, at the same time, parts of my personality undermine these core attitudes. For instance, while I share my parents’ reluctance about buying things for myself, I thoroughly enjoy buying for others, especially Trish. Each Christmas and birthday, both of us would given the other one dozens of presents, enlivening each gift giving by adding cryptic clues to the tag and making a point of taking each special day as a holiday. So long as I wasn’t buying for myself, the primordial guilt wouldn’t erupt – and never mind that many of the gifts that Trish and I gave each other were enjoyed by the giver as much as the receiver.
Similarly, I enjoy giving money to charities. Admittedly, some of the money I donate can be declared on my income tax, but that’s not the point. Although I keep most of my donations quiet, giving money is an opportunity to be generous without triggering my instincts to hoard and save. The family thriftiness may show through in the care with which I choose where to donate, but the point is that giving is an excuse to go against my usual tendencies.
But the most significant way that I’ve circumvented my upbringing is in the buying of art. By the standards of my upbringing, buying art is an extravagance that can have no justification. Maybe art buying would be acceptable if I did it as an investment, but all I’m doing is displaying it in my townhouse.
Meanwhile, all my upbringing is telling me I should be saving my money instead. If I am going buy art at all, I should content myself with limited prints, and frequent the tourist shops rather than the art galleries. That way, I could have things that were almost as good, while spending far, far less.
However, to me, that’s part of the point: No piece of art that I buy is a substitute for any other. I don’t turn down bargains, but I don’t go looking for them, either. When I buy art, I’m looking for something that I respond to, regardless of price. I am bringing home exactly what I want, not settling for something else because it costs me less I can never be disappointed because a piece is second-best and almost as good, and although a part of me is clamoring about spending recklessly, the larger part finds immense satisfaction in realizing that I am not disappointing myself in the name of being thrifty.
I’m unlikely to ever be a careless spender. If I go to Las Vegas, anyone who wants to find me will have to visit the sights rather than the casinos. I’m more likely, too, to ask about time payments if I can’t afford artwork rather than go into debt. But more than anything else in the satisfaction of having arranged my life so that my eyes fall upon imagination and craft wherever they look, I feel certain – at least for the moment – that I have outgrown my thrifty conditioning.