Sunday, July 22, 2007

The REIfication of America

On this idyllic summer afternoon, my daughter and I went to REI to buy a water bottle. There was quite a selection, next to an even larger selection of camping dishes and camping flatware that would have done perfectly well for semi-formal indoor occasions, and acrylic margharita glasses.

I've never gone camping, though I did once sleep rough in South Dakota while hitch-hiking to visit a friend in Wisconsin--and woke up to see a bobcat staring me in the face. I do like biking thought and checked out a hybrid bike on the clearance rack--price slashed to $999. I said knowingly to Elizabeth, "this is made of one of these alloys and it's probably really light." Lifting it, it weighed like lead. A grand for this?

The store was full of 20-somethings examining leaden mountain bikes and 30-somethings, trailing toddlers, checking out jogging strollers. Where did they get the money for this stuff? When we were their age we shopped at thrift stores, garage sales and, when we were flush, Target. I mashed up leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast with mayonnaise to make egg salad sandwiches for lunch and crocheted together dish cloths to make shirts for the then baby.

REI irritated me. Can one describe a classification of commercial establishments as a "genre"? Nothing else will quite do. There seems to be a genre of overpriced stores and eateries that make their living by presenting a stylized version of hippie businesses c. 1975. In grad school we went to eat at Our Father's Place run by a community of Jesus Freaks who did a good spinach salad and sold chewy home-baked cookies, muffins of every description and little herbal teas. Now there is Starbucks--and endless knock-offs, including the coffee shop at school. The selection of beverages has been expanded and elaborated, but the teas are still there and the muffins are endless.

I have nothing against crass materialism or firms that charge exorbitant prices for fancy stuff. It's this commercialized faux-bohemia, that rubs me up the wrong way: these 2nd generation yuppies hauling mountain bikes, bottled water, gourmet trail mix and high tech camping equipment to the trailhead in their SUVs to spend a weekend roughing it, like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess in her royal cowshed.

I don't know why it bugs me--maybe it's the fakery and the self-righteous double-bluff elitism that generally goes along with it. "We aren't crass materialists like those people, who take their kids to theme parks and eat fatty processed food: we hike, bike, eat healthy natural foods and live the simple life at three times the price." If I had the bucks these hikers spend on roughing it I'd go to Old Europe, gape at great architecture, walk the streets of cities centuries or millennia old and consume High Culture. I'd head for the historical heartland, the Mediterranean--to the south of France, Province and Langdoc where they spoke the vulgar Latin Language of Hoc, to Rome, Venice and Ravenna where the Empire made its last stand, and fell, to Athens where Our Founder walked, and to Constantinople to see Hagia Sophia. I've been reading A Short History of Byzantium by I forget who and the very names of the waters between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea make me shiver with pleasure: the Bosphorus, the Hellespont, the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn.

I suppose the thinking is that this sort of conventional taste is too, too naive. Everyone knows you're supposed to like this stuff: hoi polloi learn what Culture is in school. The truly astute appreciate the stylishly off-beat. Wine snobbery is too, too obvious and even micro-brew snobbery is getting old: exotic vegetables and fancy chocolate are the new frontier. Anyone can learn off the list of Great Classical Music, Great Literature and Great Art you're supposed to like: it's the selective appreciation of pop culture that shows you really have good taste--haven't just learnt the list--and that you are so confident of your social standing that you can brag about liking science fiction and classic rock. I'm still not buying it. I like Bach, Mozart and Haydn (oh, yes, I'm fantasizing side trips to Vienna and Salzburg on the pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia). There's a reason why stuff makes it onto the Great Art list: it's what people naturally like. You can't walk around Bath or listen to Mozart and not like it. Interest in pop culture is an affectation.

I can understand appreciating natural beauty spots and enjoying physical activity. I enjoy biking and I'd rather like to try camping sometime--but not with $3000 worth of equipment. This faux-bohemianism of REI and Starbucks, organic veg, bran muffins and micro-brews, and the self-congratulatory elitism that dare not speak its name, gets up my nose. We got a water bottle for $20 and got out.


Dennis said...

There's a reason why stuff makes it onto the Great Art list: it's what people naturally like. You can't walk around Bath or listen to Mozart and not like it. Interest in pop culture is an affectation.

Can you expand on this? My experience with music - and culture more broadly - completely contradicts this. Are you perhaps talking about a certain subset of people? Or are you claiming that people really like "Great Art" even when they tell you they like Pantera?

When you say "naturally like," my spider-sense goes off. That's a very broad claim to make, one that ultimately rests on people liking such music on a biological level. Is that what you are suggesting?

H. E. said...

I do mean all people, not some elite subset of aesthetes--and that's an article of faith so no compelling argument.

"Great Art" is ruined for people when "appreciation" is set up as an achievement or moral obligation, and when the assumption is that of course they won't really like it. I remember a story in a woman's mag: a woman writes that she had tried very hard to teach her daughter to "appreciate classical music" with no success by sitting her down on the couch and making her listen to it, until she got the bright idea of having the kid dress up in her ballet outfit and dance to it. I suppose this little trick was an improvement, but the very idea that "classical music," "great literature" and Art generally are "educational" has killed people's natural enjoyment.

I blame the 19th century program of collecting and segregating Art in concert halls and museums where the masses could go for edification and improvement. At the time this was the only way most people could get access to what otherwise would be the private property of the very rich, who could afford to decorate their homes with paintings and hire musicians to entertain. But at the same time segregating High Culture from ordinary consumer products killed the pleasure of it--most art wasn't intended to be consumed in this way. The Esterhazys listened to Haydn live while stuffing their faces with sausage: just more of life's good stuff--as it should be.

Now we have the money and technology to enjoy art as it was meant to be enjoyed--in our homes, as part of our lives, at parties, as decoration, as background to other things, as part of what we do. I'm listening to Schubert's Trout right now--that's music so utterly accessible, so naturally sweet and pleasant, that you'd have to be a stone not to like it. But I wouldn't buy a ticket, dress up, go to a concert hall, and sit in an audience with nothing else to do but concentrate on it in order to "appreciate" it. I bet that if Pantera was represented as "educational" and people felt morally obliged to go to concert halls, sit in audiences without coughing or fidgeting in order to appreciate it, they wouldn't like it one bit.

Add to that the fact that high art has become completely professionalized and very few people try their hands at producing it. Most people don't even have pianos. Kids don't take music lessons as a matter of course. Most people don't sketch or paint, or sing "classical" music. Some do, but the tradition of amateurism is dying out. That further reinforces the dichotomy between popular entertainment we enjoy and high art which we consume passively--elitist, professionalized, "educational"--stuff we're supposed to appreciate as part of some pious obligation to acquire "culture." Ugh. Jesus Christ, I just flashed back to listening to the Trout while tripping on acid as an undergraduate, visualizing those fish leaping out of the water, leaving arches of colored droplets like jewels behind them!

The "good gray guardians of art" have killed our enjoyment: It is an article of faith and "one of those counterfactuals"--and I do think it's a biological proclivity though I have no evidence whatsoever for the conjecture: this is what we're wired up to like, in the way that we're wired up to like sex and sweets.