The most central issue in all questions of politics is a paradoxical one, and it never receives much attention. It’s because bringing it up is basically a conversation stopper. I’d imagine it would be like going to an alcohol-drenched frat party and striking up a philosophical debate; there is never a good context in which to ask the smoldering, deeply cutting question: If it’s wrong to force people to work, then how can we force people to work?
The answer is simple: we can’t. And yet the way we deal with the eternal paradox tends to determine much about our future identity.
This morning began with me reading an editorial column in the newspaper, by a writer with a gift of presenting bourgeois problems in an lighthearted fashion. For example, he writes about how his high-school age kids think he is “making their lives hell” and about the frequency of text messages they receive, as opposed to him (100 to 1). It’s aimed squarely at the upper-middle-class, those that have no real life-and-death concerns and can therefore turn their attentions at the mundane problems that go along with family life. In this particular article, consisting of a mishmash of unconnected bullet-points, he mentions that he took a few minutes to look at Thomas Kinkade’s artwork and thought it was “actually really good”.
Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” “most controversial artist in the world,” and “America’s most collected living artist,” had met his demise in the last month. Every journalistic piece about Kinkade’s body of work seemed to carry an asterisk, that the art establishment generally thought his work was the epitome of commercialist kitsch, the polar opposite of fine art – worse than worthless. He would amass a lucrative business juggernaut to distribute his paintings in various forms, and it was reported that 1 in 10 American households had at least one original Kinkade painting.
I had been meaning to wikipedia Kinkade ever since he died, but now had all the reason to. It led me to several connected articles – “kitsch”, “schlock”, and “hipster” – all culminating in a sense of clear distaste that usually inspires me to write.
Back to the original question, though – how can society function if we can’t force people to work? The answer is boring, but the question is not. It becomes much more interesting in light of Thomas Kinkade, kitsch, upper-middle-class liberalism, and the hipster subculture (all inextricably connected in my mind). They all point towards a large, wholly un-creative social strata, still middle class, but still happy to be there. It’s been said that kitsch is the type of art that people put up on their walls as a sign of advancing upward in society, rather than for the quality of the art itself. I can clearly imagine a couple just starting to earn enough money to put the struggles of the past behind them, and in the process, buying a Thomas Kinkade original because they can.
It’s a social sickness, really, this obsession with class and materialism that signify leapfrogging the blue-collar drudge and becoming rich. How does hipsterdom relate to all this? It’s a culture of anticulture. It’s people who dislike other people and yet hang out together. It incorporates the positive elements of countercultures of the past – punk, grunge, hippie, beatnik – and turns them into a pretentious aesthetic. For a lot of people, it was a way of being cool while being able to go to parties and hang out with lots of people. You just had to wear the right clothing, and a disaffected look. It was complex enough to fool some people, but too ironic to survive very long (some say it peaked in the mid 2000s and has been in decline ever since).
As they say, birds of a feather flock together. The herds of society exist in many different forms, and as they get more educated, they come up with even more devious ways to disguise the fact that they are too afraid to think for themselves. It’s a lot of effort for something that, in the end, is meaningless. Unfortunately it will continue, and people will still lead hypocritical lives that hinge on material wealth. And when they reach the point of no return, they coat themselves with memories of the past, and will never be able to realize that the painting on their wall is not beautiful – not beautiful at all.