At breakfast the morning I visited Shopping (Frankfurt's Schirnhalle to 1/12/02, then to the Liverpool Tate), the headline for a free advertising weekly read DIE KIDS IM KAUFRAUSCH! The subhead explained that this new passion for shopping began with six year-olds insisting on only the highest priced brands! Ah yes. First it's college students filing for bankruptcy because of over indebted credit cards. Then it's high school teachers complaining that their students Handys are subverting the learning process. And now parents have to contend with moppets wanting only the best, like their similarly under-aged peers! How did we ever get onto this ever escalating running machine?
It's a question, alas, the polysyllabic, postmodern curators never get around to in their catalog, cutely priced at 29.99 Euros. (Entrance tickets are also bargain priced at 6.99!) Ha.Ha. But its no joke when parents on the firing line have to deal with over-entitled moppets. On the train back to Weimar, I read in Euro am Sonntag that New York retailers are in a tizzy because in their frantic attempts to get the Christmas gift sales rush cooking early, they'll fallen flat on their fiscal faces this year. (When I was in college fifty years ago in Detroit we used to mock the stores for starting their Christmas season before Thanksgiving; we teased that eventually it would be a Labor Day kickoff! They're there this year already.) Deepening their gloom, there is this year no MUST BUY toy to wangle before sated buyers. Christmas tree ornaments are already on sale.
But it's question every serious citizen in the advanced nations should be asking. We do not resent American CEOs getting up to 500 times the pay of their lowest paid workers out of envy, but out of fear. Fear that the house of cards were building will collapse into utter ruin. Similarly, we want the workers in developing nations to paid more for the goods they are making for us because they must earn enough eventually to also buy the goods they are making. That is the sharply contested axiom (by his competing automakers) that Henry Ford tested in 1915 when he inaugurated his $5 a day wage.) If you don't spread the wealth you go boom and bust.
The golden chains we forge to keep consumers consuming is a form of slavery. God knows it beats the Gulag and KZ Lager by a long shot.. But its Emerson's Things are in the Saddle/And ride mankind all over again. And advertising blather blocks citizens from acquiring the sophistication that is a necessary if not sufficient condition for surviving and thriving in a technological civilization. Right now, stock brokers watch the monthly Consumer Confidence index from the University of Michigan with as much attention as they do the Dow Jones. Remember President Bush's injunction to Americans after 9/11: Lead normal lives, i.e. keep buying. We beleaguered consumers are up to our eye teeth in credit card debt, but to be truly patriotic we have to keep buying! Our increasing indebtedness has been the engine dragging the world economy for several decades. If we tank, European and Japanese investors take back their dollars. And then? Simply on Benthamite grounds, we have to aggressively spread the income, just to keep our factories humming.
Blue collars have known the pain of such busts for over a century. Only with the dotcom collapse are white collars beginning to feel the pinch. The old mantra, SHOP TIL YOU DROP; becomes the much more ominous SHOP TIL YOU'RE DROPPED: Plummeting income and retirement accounts will put unpaid to this joyride. One of the more clever artifacts in the Schirn show is an overlarge shopping cart . One wag suggested it was for the corpses of the shoppers who dropped. The animus behind the show is that the era of the killjoys who despise shopping is over. Puritans, get lost. Alas, where we used to look to museums for clarity and insight, we have here only glib, thoughtless capitulation. What began with the Guggenheim hyping Harley Davidson's ends with the whimper of Andy Warhol's glib formula that the museum is becoming a department store, and vice versa. (It all began with the cheap joke of Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes.)
And yet there are estimable sidebars at this Sell Out. I didn't know, for example, that Hannes Mayer, the second director of the Dessau Bauhaus, forced out because of his Marxist values and ending up in Moscow as head of their City Planning, worked with Swiss coops to tutor the new consumer in what wed now term Green politics. Or that the Dadaists like Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray led a movement to make the new department store show windows artful methods for presenting their stylistic shticks to a wider public. Or that the great visionary, Friedrich Kiesler, actually wrote a book on show window design. (I did know that my favorite artist of the twentieth century, Sonia Delaunay, gave the first lecture on fashion at the Sorbonne in 1927. She kept her manic depressive husband during the first World War doing fashion herself. But the displays are curiously patriarchal. You'll find no Marianne Brandt classics here, even though she was the first woman to run a workshop at the Weimar Bauhaus.)
And there is a suite of instructive sites recapping Consumerist Parodies from Claes Oldenburg's The Store to the Fluxus visual riot of hilarious contempt for Art with a capital A. These reconstructions are well worth the 6.99 euro bargain price ticket. But we pay museums to think for us, not to pander to the companies that fund the exhibits. The only signs of ATTAC mentalities is an opening photo of armored supercops protecting a Nike supershop. You enter the show through a well-stocked supermarket. I wondered about the marvelously fresh fruits and vegetables. They are replaced every three days with the old stuff being gifted to homeless services. Its about the only gesture of social responsibility in this Paean to Purchasing. And don't miss Groucho Marx's superb satire, You Gotta Sing to Sell in a collection of selling scenes from a score of movies.
Meanwhile, across the Main, at M.A.K., is an even more uncritical take on consumption by one Murray Moss, a New York shopkeeper who has escalated to an eminence as freelance adviser on the significance of Design. Its called I Think, There I Shop. Hoo Ha. Not much thinking a whole lot of sloganizing. This exhibit is supported by the Ambience and Tendence shows at the Frankfurt Messe, which show the retailers what the hottest new items are for madcap consuming. Vitrines display Good Taste from all eras and price the ones still in production. I value my Alessi catalog more than this freebie. Out of it I found how to buy Marianne Brandt egg holders and fruit dishes.
And M.A.K.s director, James M. Bradburne, hits a new nadir in the corrupt interpretation of an artists famous aphorism with this gloss:And, in a world in which identity is increasingly defined by what one buysI shop therefore I am declares the artist Barbara Kluger the choices one makes as a consumer increasingly define who we are and the shape of the world around usat home, at work, at play. Kluger's mocking of the Cartesian dictum thus blurs into the kind of hustling that would turn a museum into a market place. What a low blowhard.
I SCHLEPP THEREFORE I CRAM could become the motto for the philosophy in which the tail of the museum store wags the dog of its programs. How sad. How self-defeating. Crazed consumers don't add a whit to a soundly growing economy. Thoughtful social criticism, bereft of Prada piffle, could however.