Thursday, July 18, 2013

New York summer museum scene resembles an amusement park

By Marc Jampole
That thousands of people would wait in line five hours or more for a 10-minute artificial experience of rain falling befuddles me. But that’s what they’re doing.

For days, the New York news media has been reporting that people are waiting five or more hours to walk through the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) “Rain Room.”

Rain Room is a dark alley way in which a heavy rain is coming down except where sensors detect people. People thus get the sensation of walking between rain drops. Whether or not it’s an aesthetic experience is open to discussion, as is the parallel question of whether Rain Room is a work of art. I haven’t been there and I won’t go, but my sense is that the installation would fit more easily in an amusement park or Universal Studios.  I had a similar feeling about the Punk fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I did see, but that was because of the exhibit itself. In the case of  MOMA, it is not the curator who has decided to present artifacts of culture in an amusement park environment, but the artists who have decided to conjure an amusement park experience and present it as art.

That “Rain Room” makes an interesting juxtaposition with a summer exhibit at another New York cultural mainstay—the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim museum, which is also generating enormous lines of paying customers. Turrell is a light artist, which means he makes boxes and other shapes in which all the color is provided by light.  The show includes a retrospective of light boxes meant to look like Joseph Alber’s paintings, but the center is a new piece called ”Aten Reign” that turns the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda into an enormous volume filled with light that gradually changes color. 

Like “Rain Room,” the Turrell pieces depend more on technology than the individual hand craft of the artist. Mental skills such as manipulating light, small engines, gears and arrays of photovoltaic sensors replace the hand skills of applying paint, cutting shapes or molding clay. The raw materials tend to be pre-fabricated parts. 

Of greater relevance is the similarity in the aesthetic experience between “Rain Room” and the Turrells: Both are primarily physical experiences, such as you get from a light show or an amusement park ride. The Turrell may make a much greater claim to being art because of the allusions to Albers and other artists, unless you consider his light versions to be similar to stuffed toy versions of the Mona Lisa or neckties with “Starry Night” printed on them.

The issue of what is or isn’t art has plagued critics and scholars since recorded history began. Dresses, scepters, bowls, jewelry boxes and advertisements have all laid claim to art, as have blank canvases, lumps of material and even jars of the so-called artist’s stool. At the end of the day, the question, “What is art?,’ can have as many legitimate answers as the number of people who ask it.

The more interesting question is not whether Turrell or “Rain Room” is art, but why at the same point of time, two of the most important museums in the United States have decided to have exhibits of art based on the amusement park values of physical titillation and the manipulation of engineering concepts at the same time as a third major museum in the same city is presenting an exhibit which is itself an amusement park experience.

When James Ensor and Emil Nolde used amusement park imagery in their paintings and Fellini and Bergman did so in their movies, they were reanimating the tradition of their respective art forms, but the aesthetic pleasure of the painting or movie remained the same.  This current crop of exhibits takes not the imagery, but the techniques of the amusement park to produce the aesthetic experience of the amusement park. Entertaining, but probably not art.

But the very fact that one can find the amusement park experience at a museum probably is contributing to the popularity of all three shows. People may not want to stand in line to see a Titian or a Picasso, but they are used to long lines at Disney World. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How does McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflect consumer ideology?

By Marc Jampole
McDonald’s created a sample budget for its employees to help them do better financial planning.  The budget is so absurd in its assumptions and serves as such ready proof that Mickey Dee’s doesn’t pay its workers enough that you would almost swear it was satire—something Jonathan Swift might conjure.

Other articles have pointed out the almost mocking lack of reality in a budget that starts off by depending on a second job that pays 85% of what you’re getting for flipping burgers for 40 hours a week—that is, if you’re lucky enough to have a full-time job at Mickey Dee’s.

What I find interesting is the degree to which the McDonald’s sample budget for employees reflects the ideology of consumerism.

We start with the fact that the second most expensive line item is the car payment. Note that McDonald’s is not talking about what one of its full-time employees might spend on operating the car each month—insurance, gas, maintenance. No, this line item of $150 is for paying the loan you took to buy your car. Not only does McDonald’s assumes that everyone has a car, but it also assumes that you borrow money to buy it, as opposed to running your car into the ground. These are two of the major tenets of American consumerism: 1) drive a car and 2) borrow to get what you want before you can afford it. 

The budget offers the possibility that the monthly housing payment is a mortgage. Where can you get a house with a $600 mortgage (which must also include real estate taxes)?  McDonald’s knows that very few of its employees can afford a mortgage, but the possibility of being able to have a house sets a goal for the employee: home ownership, which is another tenant of American consumerism.

Note that the budget assumes that the employee will be completely middle class: have health insurance, cable TV service and a car. Of course the numbers they put down are phony: What health insurance plan is a mere $20 a month? How many people pay nothing for heating?  The $600 a month for rent or a mortgage payment must have seemed quaint to McDonald’s employees in San Francisco and New York.

But this low-balling of virtually every line item enables McDonald’s to give people the magnificent sum of $800 a month for the line item in bold: Monthly Spending Money. That’s $800, or $27 per day, that the employee can spend every month on him or herself. It’s called disposable income and it’s the lifeblood of consumer culture. Movies, clothes, vacations, gambling, jewelry, HBO, restaurants—all is possible with the $800 a month, at least on a small scale.

Except for three things:
  1. That $800 has to cover food.
  2. It also has to cover car maintenance and gasoline
  3. It also has to cover the difference between the low-ball estimates of the other line items and what they will really cost.
Nowhere does the budget let us know that Monthly Spending Money includes food, gas and car maintenance. Let’s hope that the employees who use this budget don’t buy season’s tickets to the Lakers before they figure out that they also have to pay for food with that $800 a month of spending money they get.

By constructing a budget that assumes a typical employee could live a consumer-driven life, McDonald’s not only asserts the consumer ideology, it also attempts to hide the fact that their jobs make it impossible for employees to live the American dream reflected in the budget.  McDonalds has fooled no one, though, as witnessed by the excoriation it has gotten from the mainstream news media. 

The McDonald’s sample budget for its employees is new evidence that we need to raise the minimum wage and not marginally, but by a lot. After the initial jolt to the economy, a minimum wage of $15 an hour would drive up all wages and lead to more consumer spending.  It would give the McDonald’s workers twice as much money each month, which means they might not have to work a second job, or if they did, they could have some real spending money. Of course that would mean that McDonald’s executives and shareholders would have less money to plow into the stock market or expensive art.

Monday, July 15, 2013

In the Zimmerman case, the judicial system worked, but the law was wrong.

By Marc Jampole
No one can see into the mind of George Zimmerman. A lot of the people disappointed in the not guilty verdict in his trial believe that he went out hunting someone, just like Bernard Goetz did in the New York subway system almost 30 years ago. But they’ll never be able to prove it.

In the same way, the district attorney was unable to prove that George Zimmerman committed either murder or manslaughter the night he shot Trayvon Martin. Six honest citizens weighed the evidence and found that there was reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed a crime. Some are saying the judicial system failed in the George Zimmerman case, but they’re wrong. It worked just fine.  Both sides presented their case and the jury deliberated a reasonable length of time. Both the prosecutor and the defense team employed a lot of resources—would that every defendant could have access to such topnotch legal services.  The judicial system worked just fine.

What didn’t work and doesn’t work is the law itself. The extension beyond one’s residence of the right to defend person and property that Florida and many other (mostly Southern) states have made is wrong. It’s wrong because it’s based on another bad law: the one that allows private citizens to carry loaded guns in public.

Racism is not directly the issue in the murder of Trayvon Martin either, although as with most issues in America, racism is part of the backdrop, one of the reasons the issue exists. Gun culture is strongest where racism is strongest—that’s just a simple fact. But I’m not going to state or imply that anyone on the jury was racist.  Unless shown otherwise in vivid detail, I’m going to believe that the jurors put aside their prejudices and rendered a decision to the best of their abilities.

George Zimmerman—now he’s a different story. I could believe that a hate or fear of African-American young men motivated him to pull the trigger.  It might have motivated his desire to become a citizen vigilante. It might have motivated his desire to assert his right to fire under the law, his right to kill another man while still following the law. And it might have motivated him to seek a young black man as his target.
None of it would have mattered if the law were different.

From the start, the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin has been about one thing and one thing only—the need of our society to finally stand up to the gun lobby and outlaw possession of loaded guns in public places.