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Category: Culture

Retail Retold
I am not a member of the merchant class, so I am no expert on the intricate mysteries of the retail marketplace. It doesn’t take a genius, however, to see that this whole elaborate system cannot possibly work.

When I walk into a Macy’s, for instance, I can’t for the life of me see how they keep such an expensive operation afloat. I see all the clothes and appliances and home décor, and all I can think of is what a huge pile of money it represents. And then there’s the payroll: salespeople, maintenance personnel, rent-a-cops, bosses, and mid-level management, whatever that is. When you add to that the rent (or mortgage payments, or however they handle that stuff), the light bill, the advertising, and the shipping, the numbers must be astronomical. To me, the whole mess just doesn’t add up.

Admittedly, I haven’t gone to the trouble of actually adding it up, but I don’t have to. Selling the occasional sleeveless cardigan or Proctor Silex Waffle Baker cannot possibly be paying for all this. I go into these stores, take a quick look to see if the boxers are on sale, then I walk out empty-handed. I assume that the handful of other people in the store with me do pretty much the same thing. So who is buying this stuff? Something is definitely fishy here. There has to be some inexhaustible fund of support for this complex, yet utterly transparent fraud.

I am not prepared, however, to say that all efforts at free enterprise are a complete hoax. When I see some dude selling oranges out of a paper bag by the side of the road, I have no trouble grasping the economics of his situation. He could have picked them, or grown them, or stolen them, and now he is trying to turn his labor into a profit. That makes sense. Restaurants and bars make sense, too, since everyone has to eat and everyone needs to get hammered. But old-fashioned retail? I don’t think so. In fact, the booming success of internet sales has now clearly exposed these sham “businesses.” Everything is cheaper now, and it’s delivered directly to your home, and you don’t even have to get dressed.

And yet the fiction is maintained. You would think that retail operations, now that the absurdity of their existence has been stripped naked by the very free markets they pretend to thrive in, would have the grace and good sense to fold up and quietly disappear. But no; they persist and even expand!

I do not know what forces are behind this, but it is clear that they have very deep pockets indeed. For them to have continued funding these losing ventures down through the centuries only proves that the process of losing money is somehow immensely profitable to them. As I have said, I am not an expert. I don’t know what economic advantage there might be to erecting huge buildings and employing millions while not taking in enough to pay the Muzak bill. What I do know is that it smells like a global conspiracy of some kind. The fact that I can’t put my finger on the exact nature of this monstrous scheme only makes it that much more frightening.

Normally, I would suspect the Bilderburg Group or the Free Masons or the Illuminati, but there is only one major conspiracy that matches up with the size and scope of this massive charade: the Lizard People. I figure they will let it go on until we reach a tipping point, then pull the plug on the whole thing and watch human civilization go down the drain like a giant dead spider in a sink of its own making. If you follow me.

If that doesn’t frighten you, then we are truly lost. The only way to battle this implacable foe and turn back their plan to take over Earth is to attack their plan at its heart — the bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. If you want to save the human race, go there now and shop until the money runs out, then keep shopping. With any luck, our efforts will send their finances into the black … and undermine the Lizard Peoples’ plan to destroy us all. And remember, no sale items. Only paying full price will do the job.
Walk On By
I see this total stranger walking directly toward me. He’s looking me straight in the eye and all the while he’s talking in this creepily calm voice. I feel unnerved and threatened. Who wouldn’t be?

I suppose the fact that the stranger is on TV and is not actually singling me out of a crowd should make a difference, but it doesn’t. When I am in the sanctum of my own living room, I want to be free from such affronts. I don’t care that the person is my favorite politician or a friendly salesman or a journalist trying to fill in the blanks of my massive ignorance. They do not need to be walking toward me, and they should stop it immediately.

I don’t know how this style of message delivery came to be. I imagine some producer someplace got the bright idea that walking straight at your audience is visually interesting or is a way of commanding attention. Well, it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and it’s pissing me off.

You might suggest that I simply turn off my television, and that idea does appeal to the libertarian in me. But you’re forgetting one very simple fact: we can’t live without television. And since I have to watch it, I don’t want to spend my precious time bobbing and weaving among my 600+ channels just to dodge these overly aggressive talkers. I want to be left in peace and free to absorb my usual assortment of non-threatening pap.

Or am I being too inflexible? I guess if that old dude from eHarmony kind of sidled toward me, sideways-like, I wouldn’t mind it so much. If Michelle Kosinski wants to give me the latest poop from the streets of Zagreb while hopping forward on one foot, I could live with that, too. And if Elizabeth Warren wants to talk to me while walking on her hands, well, that would be perfectly okay.

You see? I can be reasonable. I’m willing to meet people halfway… as long as they’re on all fours.
Why Art?
It’s too bad we can’t talk to the ancient Cro-Magnons. I have some questions for them about those first cave paintings they made over 40,000 years ago. Specifically, I’d like to ask them “Why?”

Those renderings obviously took some time to complete. Didn’t you have some more pressing duties to attend to? Like surviving and seeing to the survival of your tribe? They also required artistic skill; where did you find the time to develop and practice such skill in your short, brutal existence? And, most of all, I want to know what it was that impelled you to make that art?

Whatever it was, it has continued to drive your descendants to make art right on through prehistory and into current times. Art, in fact, is as consistent as any other trait in the story of homo sapiens. It is not hard to find a reason for why our other cultural characteristics exist. There is a clear need for our communal attitudes, for instance. We are social animals, and banding closely together serves both our need for sociality and our self-defense against predators and other tribes. Our propensity for war, though not our prettiest trait, can at least be explained in terms of individual and group survival. We build shelter and clothe ourselves for similar purposes.

But why do we make art? Why does it seem to be such a persistent drive within us? What function does it serve? I’ve asked some modern Cro-Magnons that question and gotten a variety of answers.

Some have said that it is silly to ask what purpose art serves. For them, it merely is — a part of who we are as a species. I wish this answer satisfied me. It does seem appropriate to say that art needs no justification, but that only helps me in my approach to individual examples of art; it does not explain the part it plays in our history.

Others have suggested that there was a religious component to those old cave paintings, and that may be true in some cases. But not in all cases, I think, and this explanation doesn’t address all the art that’s been created since. Aborigines, for instance, made some art that operated like a prehistoric Mapquest. It used symbols to guide its users to remote and distant places. I see that use as a very practical one, though it may have had some kind of spiritual underpinning as well.

Perhaps if we look at religion as just another art form —a kind of storytelling — then we might get closer to the truth. Those depictions of mammoths and other beasts might have been an effort to understand and explain the world that those early humans lived in. That act of creation could have given them a sense of control and mastery of their surroundings. Religion certainly has that function, since it helps us, as most art does, to cope with the universe we are confronted with. As humans, we want to make sense of the world; making sense of things is part of our larger nature, and our ability to do that has also helped us to survive.

Not everything, however, either in our world or the world of the Cro-Magnon, is so easily understood. Even with our considerable intelligence, we cannot explain very much at all about our environment. Perhaps that is where art comes in. It is the product of an inquisitive, reasoning, inventive mind when reason and simple observation are not enough. It seeks to explain the inexplicable.

That early art seems to have served as an early form of written language as well. The art of writing has since evolved into its own category of expression, but it is still being used to explain the universe and the human experience. All of this writing and painting and creative storytelling seems to be about communication, then. We are very communicative animals, and that skill has surely contributed to our survival.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at with my “why art?” question: how does it help us survive? If art is communication, with whom are we communicating? Other people, yes, but in some cases the artistic effort is not so clearly directed. It simply goes out into the void, and there is no answer to the expression or even the expectation of an answer. What good does that do?

My guess is that those ancient Cro-Magnons wouldn’t have understood the question “Why art?” As some have suggested, they do it because that is what humans do — because it feels good, or there is some demon inside them that must be expelled, or they find meaning in making something beautiful. They communicate with the universe with their creations, it seems, including the small part of it that is their own consciousness. No response is really needed, but they must do it in order to cope — and to survive.
Going, Going
Manson H. Whitlock died last summer at the age of 96. I don’t imagine there will be a national moment of silence or much attention paid to his passing at all beyond the few isolated news articles. I hope, though, that someone will commission a statue of him and offer it as a donation to my pet project. His looming presence would be a prized addition to the Museum of Lost Arts.

Mr. Whitlock repaired typewriters for a living, and despite the small resurgence in the popularity of these desktop curiosities, his noble profession will soon cease to exist. It will join a growing list of antiquated skill sets that have no place in our modern, computer-driven society. The Museum aims to keep these virtuosities from vanishing without the recognition they deserve.

Other displays at the Museum of Lost Arts (or MOLA) might include, for example, a tribute to practitioners of shorthand. This skill was wondrous enough when it was a common one, condensing language, as it did, into a form that could be written as quickly as even the gabbiest speaker could talk. Amazing, but I’ll bet there aren’t more than a handful of people who can still do it.

Driving a car with a manual transmission will soon suffer a similar fate. The coming of electric vehicles has all but guaranteed the demise of this once-handy aptitude. Cursive writing is also on the way out, following good penmanship, which has been extinct for years. Adjusting rabbit ears on a television never got the respect it deserves as a field of expertise, and now I fear that it never will — except in the Museum. Also on the short list:

Reading a broadsheet newspaper. Dexterity, large muscle motor skills, and a keen sense of spatial awareness all play a part in this challenging (and now passé) ritual. I see an interactive exhibit with large squares of newsprint available for kids and parents alike.

Talking face to face. You still see this method of communication in use today, but mostly it involves elders for whom those tiny keypads are just too demanding. Watch while you can, boys and girls; these old geezers’ use of odd facial tics, such as eyebrow-cocking and smiling, will soon be obsolete.

Sitting quietly with your own thoughts. This deceptively simple pastime began to disappear with the advent of television. Soon, all of us will be plugged in (literally, I predict) all the time, and the fate of the meditative state will be sealed. I imagine a diorama at the Museum with a featureless, horizon-less vista and no sensory input at all. Medical staff will have to be on site at all times to treat nervous breakdowns.

Modesty. We hope to have workshops for those who want to experience what it used to be like not to share every little detail of one’s life with the whole world.

We can’t bring Manson L. Whitlock back. Not without asking his permission, anyway, and that’s not possible without bringing him back. Besides, I’ve read too many Edgar Allan Poe stories where that kind of thing turns out to be a really bad idea. We can honor him and his craft, though. Even if this MOLA thing doesn’t fly, I’m hanging on to my old Remington Noiseless as a tribute to a bygone age when cars and keyboards were strictly manual.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon