Do Wealthy People Consume High Culture to Signal Their Wealth?

I am a student of social interactions in groups. I love observing how people’s behavior change when they are in the presence of certain types of people.

Covert signaling is a main part of our social interactions. In Silicon Valley, for example, people love to signal how busy they are (“I’ll find the time”). In a potentially romantic situation, people signal their plans for the evening, their marital status, and the like all through carefully chosen vocabulary.

A rich adult friend in the Bay Area told me awhile ago, “Collecting art is also important. It’s not all about business.” It got me thinking: Is collecting art — and consuming other forms of high culture — mostly signaling? Do wealthy people consume high culture because they now can, or is it signaling?

High culture, for me, includes:

  • Opera, symphony, ballet
  • Museums
  • Fine cuisine
  • Wine or watch collecting
  • Fine art

If signaling is a main reason why people do certain social / cultural activities, it’s no wonder the wealthy have had to resort to purchasing mega “experiences” (like hiring Elton John at your daughter’s wedding). After all, many cultural products which used to be available only to wealthy are now available to common folk. While being seen at the opera used to be a sign of high status, I would bet that the income levels of opera patrons is more diverse than it used to be.

4 Responses to Do Wealthy People Consume High Culture to Signal Their Wealth?

  1. PRoaels says:

    Do businesses buy box seats on the 50 yard line at football games to signal to the client they are entertaining they have power and resources?

  2. Jill says:

    Yep, you’re exactly right about the opera. Most “high art” organizations are run as not-for-profits. Part of their mandate is to make art accessible to the broad population, to the benefit of society, and for the continued life of the art itself. Therefore, most offer a range of ticketing packages at incentivized prices.

    That said, purchasing fine art remains a hobby for those with disposable income, and every opera, symphony or ballet company has circles of sponsorship and patronage which allow people to express their support and signal their affluence by contributing more significal financial donations .

    Pop stars, though, are the new royalty, and unlike an actual royal family, they can be rented out for an evening if the price is right. In the past, perhaps growing up upper class included learning to appreciate high art. That may no longer be the case. Hence the shift, I suspecct. This, of course, makes the accessibility of high culture to people of all income levels all the more important to the survival and success of the art itself.

  3. Tim Taylor says:

    What I think is quite humorous is to study the higher income folks at these so called privliges of the wealthy as they fall asleep.

    They are paying to be seen there not to see the event.

  4. Peter says:

    I think consuming, or sponsoring high culture and art serves a dual purpose for those with money. Certainly there’s a component of signaling involved. After all, many rich people like status symbols or feel they need to demonstrate their success for business or social reasons.

    However, I think we’re forgetting another longstanding reason why high culture is consumed, and that is for pure enjoyment’s sake. As long as there has been nobility and wealth, there has been patronage of the arts. Some people are just genuinely interested in or captivated by certain art forms, and so when they come into money, they want to support the artists who create it.

    Also, art serves important historical, political and cultural purposes. Art is often a snapshot of the era in which it was created. And sometimes it acts as an agent for change. So in a sense, supporting the arts helps to highlight issues or to expose people to new ideas.

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