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Culture Is Not a Store!

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But it isn't just bigness, you begin to understand, that's objectionable. It's rapaciousness, arrogance, slickness, media savviness, brandedness -- all of which the fashion designers on Passeig de Gràcia reasonably stand for.

It's an aesthetic as well as an economic view. It's about look and feel. American hegemony with Bill Clinton as president is qualitatively different from American hegemony with George Bush as president (Clinton's globalization had a certain roguish charm). There's a snobbishness to it (the Euros really think Bush is a major idiot).

Americans have come to think of Europeans as largely Eurotrash (a hyperavaricious subset of the hyperavaricious). But that's vastly wrong. The Euros, even with their incredible economic growth, are uncomfortable capitalists and reluctant entrepreneurs (even though they've been rather good at it -- as it happens, sales of luxury goods are falling in the U.S. but rising in Europe). They are still ambivalent about wealth (they never quite developed the American appreciation of wealth-based personal transformation). There's even a stigma to being rich -- a secret hatred that's recently been under wraps (the end of socialism, and then the rise of venture capital and dot-comism has been psychically hard on the Euros).

They're throwing off the shackles of affluence.

"These kids are right," said the fashion designer and social philosopher Giorgio Armani, whose store was smashed in Barcelona, in an interview after presenting his new line inspired by Slavic culture ("poor people but with an exemplary interior elegance"). Elitist politicians, he said, "only think of themselves and little of ordinary people. It's time for a little equilibrium." Does even Armani believe that culture is not a store?

It's the hubris of the new economy that, I'd argue, was bound to provoke a historical reaction -- or it's the inevitable fall that provokes it. For the better part of a decade, technology and capital have together made the argument that we had achieved some sort of nearly infallible economic model, which only had to be propagated and exported. Now, suddenly, there seems to be a crack in the wall (the shatterproof-glass wall) of economic determinism.

I don't think I'm ready to argue yet that the fall of dot-comism in on the level of the fall of Communism, but you get my drift. You get hammered when you sell certitudes that fuck up. Indeed, if the force of the reaction is in proportion to the force of the certitude, a lot more glass will be broken. At the very least, everything becomes open to reinterpretation.

The issue of Newsweek I picked up on my vacation had just such a revisionist story. It was the reverse of the story that would have been written as recently as a half a year ago. It was the anti-achievement story. The anti-rat-race piece. The smell-the-flowers take. No longer was the New Economy what you wanted to be a part of. It was a story about our economic future that did not once use the word entrepreneur. It was about the European antidote to ambition and to workaholism. The go-slow, relax, drop-out alternative to the "accelerating pace of life in the global economy." Along with this, I read in the International Herald Tribune that an American recession has probably begun. But then, the next day, this news, which was no news to most people, seemed to be downgraded or even dismissed because Microsoft was resurgent, and because a new quarter, which could not be worse than the past quarter (which was therefore good news), had begun.

This is what happens. There are the signs, and then there is the process of denying the signs.

The glaziers worked overtime, and shortly, the Passeig de Gràcia was restored. Barcelona was filled with shoppers; the restaurants were jammed; construction was going on everywhere. Nothing has changed, or everything is changing.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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