Can We Change Culture But Keep Shopping?

February 1, 2009

When I put together my earlier post on the Mall of America, I had not yet read Benjamin Barber’s “A Revolution In Spirit” from last week’s The Nation.  It reads like a comparison piece, repeating the debate over the obvious dichotomy:

Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won’t shop and consumers who don’t consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism’s soul needs to be waged.


The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit–fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there’s to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it’s $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they’ve got the cash?

Barber’s main point is that Obama and his team has inherited the opportunity to change the culture of live today and pay tomorrow (or better, let someone else pay tomorrow).  Will they have the courage to move ahead, or will they merely try to fix what we have today?


A Death Triggers Memories

February 1, 2009

My Dad loved boxing, and he passed that delight along to me.  We listened to the fights on the radio when I was small, and later watched tham on a tiny black-and-white TV.   During my away at school years, I took a transistor radio to bed with me and listened to fights on American Forces Radio.  The static and the in-and-out quality added to the pleasure of the experience.

One of my proudest memories is of taking my Dad and grandfather in 1985 to third-row seats at the Barry McGuigan-Eusebio Pedroza fight when the Clones Cyclone took the World Featherweight Championship by knockout in the 7th round.

200px-ingemarjohansson_2My Dad and I watched and listened to a lot of British boxing in the 50s and early 6os:  Jack London, Henry Cooper, Freddie Mills, Randy Turpin were familiar names in my youth.  But we also managed to follow the American scene.  World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson was one of Dad’s favourites and we eagerly looked forward to listening as Swedish champion Igemar Johanssen challenged him.  We were as amazed as everyone else when Patterson went down seven times in the third round and the referee stopped the fight.  Europe had the title for the first time in decades!

For each of the next two years, Patterson and Johanssen fought a re-match.  In 1960, Patterson became the first man to regain the title when he knocked out the Swede in the fifth.  The following spring, Patterson once again knocked out Johanssen.   These were the Swede’s only two losses in his entire professional career.

Outside the ring, Ingemar Johanssen was known as a charming bon vivant.  His death yesterday at age 76 triggered these memories of sitting around the radio with my Dad, imaging what these grand fights looked like.  Tempus fugit.

The Fading Affair: America and The Mall

February 1, 2009

Regular readers will know that I have a continuing fascination with shopping malls, their rise and recent fall.  So I was interested to read this New York Times piece and its accompanying video about America’s Love Affair With Malls.


A fine synopsis of a basic problem:

We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street — or on mortgage-related financial insanity — can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.  So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.

The article focuses on the Mall of America:

Eleven thousand people work at the mall in this suburb of Minneapolis, a five-minute ride from the airport. Forty million visitors arrive here each year, which, according to the mall’s promotional material, is more than visit Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined.  The mall has a seven-acre theme park with 24 rides, an aquarium with hundreds of sharks, an 18-hole miniature golf course, 20,000 parking spaces and 520 retail stores.

The mall has its own security force and a holding cell, which is run by the Bloomington police. There are 250 video cameras spread around the mall, which Darcy Kwyla, a security systems controller, monitors in a hushed room. “You see everything,” says Ms. Kwyla, as she flips from camera to camera with a control panel on her desk. “Sex in the parking lot, a naked guy on drugs walking through the mall, thefts, fights. You name it.”

There are 71 Mall of America package tours from 32 countries. And there are special events, like the “Spirit of America” cheerleading competition, which unleashes a couple of thousand cheerleaders in the mall.

It’s an altogether fascianting read for those who appreciate the cultural value of shopping.

The Art Market: The Next Act

February 1, 2009

Next week we will have the first chance since the November Sales to see what further effect the the deepening economic crisis is having on the high-end fine art market.  Both Sotheby’s and Christies have important Impressionist and Modern Art auctions in London.

vandongenSotheby’s goes first on Tuesday 3rd, but to my mind their show is less attractive than the Christie’s show the next day.  The minimum estimates at Sotheby’s are £41m and the high estimates total £60m, with a Degas sculpture and a Modigliani painting at the top end.

At Christies, the show’s minimum estimate is £46m, maximum £66m, not including the top-rated Monet for which the estimate is private.  Another Monet is also in the top five, along with a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Modigliani, and a Vuillard.

I believe my favourite piece in the two shows is this “La cuirasse d’or” by Kees Van Dongen.  Estimate range is $2.1 million to $3.5 million.