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Things You Didn’t Know You Need

August 6, 2022
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Well, my last post on Marx and art was met with deafening silence.  Lots of people clicked on it but no one commented.  The hint as to why may be in the off line comments I got.

“Too long.”

“Too boring.”

“Too weird.”

To be honest, I don’t care about long or boring and weird is kind of a compliment. 

Even so, I wasn’t planning on talking about Marx for a while because I thought that may be what made everyone go quiet.  But guess what?  Proof of his theories just keeps coming and this one is a little more simple and straightforward than the pickle on the ceiling example.

Marx thought that because one had to participate in an economy by both producing and consuming in order to survive, over time and with growth of populations and economies, human relationships and interactions would come to be “mediated” by commerce. 

It pretty well describes our reality.  Think about an airplane ride.  To the airline you are solely a commodity.  Your human needs and wants don’t enter into the equation, just the money they are getting out of you.  You have no personal relationship with the ticket agent, the cabin crew or the pilot.  You are purchasing their services from the airline.  And because they work for the airline, their loyalty is to that economic relationship, not to you.

It’s the same with the supermarkets that have driven the local butchers and bakers out of business.  You don’t know them, they don’t know you, it’s a commercial relationship and that’s why no one under 50 knows what a baker’s dozen is any more.

It’s also one of the reasons we are so shocked when doctors, teachers and firemen and people like that go on strike because they are supposed to be altruistic and doing their jobs out of love and service. 

But it’s really all about money at the end of the day.

With that in mind, it’s just a short hop, skip and jump to explain the two bizarre things I saw in the news the other day.  If you project out this concept of human relations being about commerce rather than human interaction, it makes sense that people who create  things for consumption will adopt an attitude of what will they buy rather than what do they need?  That’s why we keep getting Spider Man and Marvel Hero movies over and over.  The business model is “It worked once, let’s try it again!”

That’s why it’s called a consumer economy—it’s an engine to drive consumption.  Why do you think we have things like National Donut Day and National Hot Dog Day?  Not because people who like donuts and hot dogs banded together to celebrate.  Rather, the industry invented them to encourage us to consume.  An extreme example is National Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.  A great idea to make us consume even more ice cream! 

There are now so many national product days that, inevitably, sometimes one day may celebrate more than one product.  That happened last month when National Lipstick Day and National [chicken] Wing Day fell on the same day.  This did not create any  new human needs or wants, but it created new opportunities to consume.

The restaurant chain Applebee’s joined up with a lipstick company called Winky Lux to create Saucy Gloss—“a limited-edition (of course) collection of four lip glosses inspired by Applebee’s chicken wing sauces.”

Yes.  Lipstick flavoured like chicken wing sauce. Why not?  Put a price tag on it, hype it and someone will buy it.

The article I saw quoted Applebee’s “chief marketing officer.”  (Think about that and Marx’s idea that we participate in the economy in order to survive.  Now, food, a survival item needs a marketing officer.)

Anyway the CMO advises that the idea is to “spice up your date night” with one of four “flavours”—“Get Me Hot Buffalo,” “Sweet Chile Kiss” (includes chilli specks), “Be My Honey Pepper,” and “Honey BBQ-T.”

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, the CEO of Winky Lux weighs in and asks “What could be more genuine and fun than spicing up a kiss with our delicious Saucy Gloss!”  Genuine? Fun?  Delicious?

The glosses cost $18 individually or you can get them all for $65.  And I don’t want to think about the packaging and microplastics. 

I decided to have a look at the Winkylux website.  And lost my appetite.  It shows tubes of lipstick laying on a pile of chicken wings.  It turns out that for National Watermelon Day they also had watermelon flavoured gloss.  And their tagline?  “Taste My Face.”

You think that’s bad?  That’s as far as you can take marketing and commoditization? 

Well then you haven’t heard of Gatto Bianco.  In Italian that means White Cat and it’s a pop up restaurant in New York started by the cat food company Fancy Feast.

Surprisingly, given how well our consumer market driven economy has worked out, it’s not a place where people who can’t afford food can buy cat food for sustenance.   Rather, it’s a promotion for a new line of cat food and the in house chef of Fancy Feast has teamed up with an Italian restauranteur to create dishes based on the new cat food line.

It’s bad enough that a cat food company has an in house chef.  But that same person said this:  “Food has the power to connect us to others in meaningful ways and take us to places we have never been. The same is true for our cats. The dishes at Gatto Bianco are prepared in ways that help cat owners understand how their cats experience food — from flavor, to texture, to form — in a way that only Fancy Feast can.”

Maybe I’m in the minority, but when I think of a cat experiencing food, I’m thinking of birds and mice.

Although, “don’t try this at home” seems to apply in this case, if you can’t make it to New York and be one of the 16 people who will be allowed to eat at Gatto Bianco, you can download a cookbook from the Fancy Feast website.  It’s called “Petite Feast—Recipes for Humans Inspired by the Exquisite, Single-service Entrée Cats Love.”

So much for consuming in order to survive.

Yes, But Is It Art?

August 6, 2022
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It’s not every day that the world validates your underlying perception of how things work, but an art gallery in Auckland has handed us an example on a platter, so to speak.

But first, some background. Please don’t be bored.

According to Karl Marx, anything that can be bought, sold or bartered is a commodity, and all commodities have two kinds of value.  One is use value, which is how much we value something based on its usefulness to us and the other is exchange value, which is basically what we are willing to pay for something.  Marx spent a lot of time and ink trying to reconcile the two and his supporters and critics since then haven’t been much more successful, because, after all, the two should be the same, shouldn’t they?

Marx felt that the exchange value of goods was driven by the value of the labour (human capital) involved in their creation and that as a result, the exchange value and use value of goods may not be the same. Although you can know the use value of something, you can never know all of the people and processes involved in creating the commodities.  So, recognition of the human capital involved gets lost and human relations are reduced to a relationship between commodities and their exchangeability.  And Marx coined the wonderful term commodity fetishism to describe this relationship.

When it comes to cultural commodities (e.g., works of art, music) Marx felt that human determinations of use and exchange value didn’t apply and that such commodities would be valued in comparison to each other.  (The Russians are notorious for misinterpreting Marx.  That could be why Tolstoy wrote such fat books—he thought they’d be more highly valued).

On that note, in case you are freaking out because I’m talking about Marx, this might be a good place to point out that Lenin and Co. took Marx’s ideas and ran with them and created their own ideology around them.  So we’re not talking Gulag stuff. 

Marx himself defined ideology as belief in an artificial or false world view.  This world view is used and manipulated by the dominant class in order to maintain hegemony over the rest of us.  Hegemony is not just the exercise of power by control.  We accept the hegemony of the dominant class because we are fed an ideology that tells us that this arrangement is common sense, is in our best interests and just the way the world works.  If you think Marx was crazy, you might ask yourself why we tolerate CEOs earning on average 670 times what the average earner makes (up from 604 times in 2020). Or tolerate targeted ads on our phones.

In one view of Marxist theory, works of art inevitably reflect the ideology prevailing during their creation, either as a means to reinforce the ideology or to subvert it.

Which brings us to the Auckland art gallery I mentioned earlier.  An Australian artist is currently displaying this:

In case you can’t tell what it is, have a closer look:

In case you’re still wondering, it is a pickle slice from a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  Stuck to the ceiling.

Let’s explore whether it reinforces or subverts the prevailing ideology!

The title of the oeuvre is “Pickle” and the explanation includes the entire ingredient list of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  According to the articles I saw, the work is valued at $10,000.  You also have to pay for the cheeseburger separately but you get “instructions on how to recreate the art in your own space.”  Apparently, that involves finding an unused portion of ceiling in your house or somewhere, and flicking the pickle up there.  Sort of a modern day version of a paint by number Mona Lisa!   Not sure why you can’t just buy yourself a cheeseburger and biff the pickle on the ceiling and save $10,000, but what do I know about art?

I can’t begin to tell you how hilariously funny I think this is.  Especially the social media extravaganza in which, among other things, people are complaining that they used to get kicked out McDonalds restaurants for exercising the same artistic urge. 

At the same time, I like it because it is a total validation of Marxist theory.  The artist has created a commodity (work of art) from a commodity (a McDonald’s cheeseburger).  Our relationship to both of these things is solely mediated via our commodity fetishism. 

Technically, therefore, this pickle art should be valued in comparison to other comparable works of art. 

But are there any?  Of course not, so the artist or someone just made up a number designed to reflect commodity fetishism—how much a person may value their relationship with this particular commodity. And to me, that is a reinforcement of the prevailing ideology.

How, you ask?  The current hegemonic power behind western democracies is staunchly neoliberal capitalist.  That power has driven an ideology that we are both coerced into supporting and consent to—namely, everything can be bought and sold and given a market price and the market is the best mechanism for determining price and value.

So, although we may personally freak over the thought of paying $10,000 for a stale pickle stuck to the ceiling, our consent to free market capitalism means we totally accept the fact that a pickle stuck to the ceiling can be given a value and that someone, somewhere will pay big bucks for it. 

Because most of us aren’t billionaires or oligarchs, we wouldn’t dream of forking out that kind of money for something so, for lack of a better word, decadent.  But we know there are people who will and we’ve been taught to believe that that is common sense and the way the world works. 

Don’t believe me?  Have you heard of Non Fungible Tokens? 

Whether it’s right or makes sense is another question altogether.

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