The Trough Makes Pigs of Us All

Posted in Business by Arasmus on May 8, 2009

This morning I read a report of the BMW Design Talk at Concorso d`Eleganza, an annual vintage car-show in Italy. Set in the context of the current deep global recession, the participants talked about a redefinition of the concept of luxury and luxury goods. Photographer Thomas Demand described his view that luxury must now be more inwardly focused rather than outwardly expressed. I was heartened to see this self-reflection by the luxury goods community because for several years I have had a difficult relationship with the industry. I now want to take this opportunity to note my current thinking.
Why is the luxury goods industry relevant? The luxury goods industry is relevant because luxury goods are tools and they can be used as such to improve society. There are two currencies in society; money and status. The two do not always co-exist. You can make a lot of money in the pornography business but most people don’t want to do it, and for some the reason is that they perceive a consequent loss of status in the eyes of their society. Accordingly, they willingly fore-go/exchange money for status. On the other hand high political office often carries a great deal of status but a relatively low amount of money. For example, Vice-President Joe Biden could make more money as a mid-level law firm associate than he did as a U.S. Senator. As a state, we manipulate money to create what we feel is a better outcome for society as a whole. We place a tax on earnings and convert those taxes towards a legal-system, infrastructure or better schools. But whereas, we intentionally decide how much money to spend on bridges etc. we don’t employ the same degree of consciousness to how we assign status. I think we should.

There are precedents for the use of luxury goods to transform society. Throughout the 1970s and 80s PETA fought to make the wearing of animal fur socially unacceptable. They succeeded. Luxury goods companies themselves have used their products to effect social change. One of my heroes, Anita Roddick used her company’s marketing to raise awareness and reverse a proposed European Union Directive that initially required animal testing of all cosmetics into a final Directive that banned animal testing throughout the Union. I remember during the height of what the diamond industry privately called “the blood diamond crisis,” numerous commentators within the industry pointed to the PETA fur campaign and said that unless the industry responded by developing a diamond origin-tracing system, there was a danger that diamonds could be stigmatized out of the market. Today we are in the middle of another example. BMW Design Director Adrian van Hooydonk argued at Concorso d’Eleganza that the next major design movement, ”Sustaethics,” will grow out of a foundation of sustainable thinking. Time will tell whether this is fad or fulcrum. But these examples do support the thesis that status is a creature of social consensus and an intentional, directed and well-executed campaign can change that social-consensus, leverage consumption, and change society.

So what’s my beef? The problem I have with the luxury goods industry is that the traditional “Madison Avenue luxury goods industry” uses its power to divide people, from each other (rich versus poor, cool versus non-cool) and from themselves (by encouraging greed, vanity, vapidity and superficiality). I feel the world has changed and this traditional approach is outrageously out-of-touch with the way we live now. A thought-experiment. Imagine if you will a small group of very rich people, say 3 or 4 households. They are a very tightly-knit group and they often have wonderful dinners together. They have been life-long friends through ups and downs. They live very well in a very wealthy neighborhood. Imagine that one of the couples is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they commemorate it with a beautiful ruby set elegantly in a pendulum setting. Aesthetically, that’s a beautiful picture. Now let’s pull back the camera. Instead of this tight-little group of 3-4 houses, let us imagine these diamond-dames clinking their glasses at a restaurant overlooking the favelas of Rio or the slums of New Delhi. Set aside the security issue for a moment and imagine if they went for a walk through those impoverished neighborhoods. What would that be like – to see such abject poverty and then feel that ruby around your neck? Is it still a thing of beauty in that context? The effect of modern media and the internet is equivalent to that pulling-back of the camera-frame. In a world where we are increasingly intimately connected to the rest of the human family, favelas and slums no longer surround foreign cities – they circle our collective consciousness.  Of course we can reject that new reality but we do so at the cost of dying as humans, both to others and to ourselves. At the deepest level, there is an unavoidable truth; it is impossible to love yourself and not others.

But there is a place for luxury goods. Their role and mission should be to preserve, protect and advance human culture and encourage humanism through aesthetics. Now that was phrased in such lofty terms that everyone can agree on it but none of us may share the same understanding. Let me illustrate by an example of something I recently observed. Three generations ago, there was a strong local tradition in Ireland of making a type of sausage known as “black-pudding” from pig-blood and pearl rice (my apologies to vegetarians but it is delicious). This example could just as well be about handmade pasta in Italy, an almond liqueur in Romania or Pu-erh tea (some of which is more expensive per gram than solid gold) in China. Two generations ago the tradition of blood-sausage began to die out in Ireland. It was considered crude and not at all as fashionable as continental gnocchi or espresso etc. It seemed that the local traditions had to die; a necessary sacrifice to progress in a globalized world economy. But then a movement began to bubble to the surface. It began in 1986 when McDonalds tried to open a restaurant at the Spanish steps in Rome. An Italian, Carlo Petrini, established the organization, Agricola to oppose the opening of the fast-food restaurant. Agricola quickly grew into the Slow Food movement. Today the Slow Food organization has 83,000 members and 450 regional chapters in over 122 countries, all aimed at preserving local food traditions. The consequence of this social movement in Ireland is an increased respect for local Irish food traditions. I witnessed the third-generation interviewing grand-parents, documenting their recipes and contributing these efforts to a national online database. There are now several brands of black-pudding for sale in Ireland and throughout the world, eg Clonakilty Black Pudding. And for all the hand-wringing and fashionable despair in previous decades, it was the conscious decision by the Irish to assign a higher status to their local cuisine, that lead to the change in social behavior, the emergence of companies and brands, and the preservation of this cultural artifact.

There is so much beauty in the world that its hard to sit still. The luxury goods industry should aim to provide viable business models to protect that authenticity. The French have been the masters at this process for centuries and much can be learned from observing how they achieved their success. From the development of the Appellation d’origine contrôlée in the 15th century to the successful legal defence of that system in the courts and in the legislature of the European Union in the 21st, they have successfully defended their culture through the deliberate cultivation of status. It is a lesson for all peoples everywhere.

So what is my definition of luxury? For me, now, luxury is an homage. It is a conversation I have with the creator of the product. It seems impossible to me, to progress as a human being or as a society and maintain the definition of luxury as something I have and you do not, as something that makes me in some way better than you, or as something that affirms either heaven or society’s approval of my position in society and their indifference to yours. That concept of luxury disgusts and depresses me. It preserves people at a school-yard level of maturity, nobility and enlightenment. But rejecting that ugliness does not mean that we must reject luxury.  I believe, paradoxically, that the appreciation of luxury should be bathed in humility. Humility on behalf of the recipient at their good fortune in being the object of such generosity. Humility on behalf of the producer that their hard work is being appreciated, their ideals understood and rewarded. We don’t always walk around with this humility, because it requires concentration (at least for me) and life is busy and full of stress and distraction. But luxury goods should take us to that mindset as might say a Japanese tea-ceremony. Beauty should excite our higher self, not our greed. A Ferrari should not be marketed as a bauble of the idle rich but as the child of an artisan, a shared love of beauty brought to an uncommon fruition. If this then becomes our new definition of luxury, we will sow seeds of humility, egalitarianism and humanity in the mind of the global consumer. We will turn the torrent of global consumption in a more noble direction. We will lift our eyes towards heaven. The trough makes pigs of us all.


Playgrounds of The Imagination – A Graphic Novels Short List

Posted in Art by Arasmus on May 6, 2009

My relationship to “animated story-telling” can be divided into two distinct periods, one separated from the other by about 20 years. The first spanned my childhood from about the age of 6 to 14 years and focused on what are generally known as “comics.” The second period was much less intense and came to the fore during a trip to Japan in 2005. It has continued sporadically thereafter in a kind of semi-frustrated state.
I grew up in Europe and the comics of my childhood were over-whelmingly of British origin with of course the obligatory inclusion of the continental Asterix and Obelix and to a lesser extent Tintin. This period can be divided into two phases. There were the “kid’s comics” and the “war comics” and I graduated from one to the other as any red-blooded young man would. The kid’s comics included the classic Beano (first published on 26 July 1938 and continues today) and the Dandy (first issue published on 4 December 1937 and continues in name to the present). These two comics are the central-core of British comics. As you can see from the publication dates they represent an intimate nostalgic cornerstone of several generations and are often thought of in a particularly loving way for their constancy and protection of innocence through the Second World War though both switched to a fortnightly publication schedule due to ink and paper rationing. I was a member of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club and when the comic sent me my membership certificate and two badges, it was the first letter I received from someone who was not family. Around this core were three or four other kid’s comics such as The Beezer (21 January 1956 to 21 August 1993, when it unofficially “merged” with The Beano) and one of my favorites The Topper (7 February 1953 to 15 September 1990, when it merged with The Beezer). There was also The Buster (28 May 1960 – 4 January 2000) and the awesome Whizzer and Chips (18 October 1969 to 27 October 1990, when it merged with Buster). These comics were timeless in the sense that they did not comment on the outside world. These were just pure silly fun and contained no references to adult themes or issues. They were quintessentially – pure childhood and I remember curling up in bed reading through hundreds of them. Interestingly, I rarely ever bought comics as a child, there was always someone somewhere departing childhood as one might leave on a train for London and suddenly a large bundle of comics would appear with a thud.

Then war arrived or rather (thankfully) war comics. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was that fortuitous pipeline from older boys or maybe young boys grow into war-related stuff, I can’t remember now. It started with comics that retold the adventures of World War 2, specifically The Victor (25 January 1961 until 21 November 1992), Warlord (1974 until 1986, at which point it was incorporated into The Victor) and Battle (8 March 1975 to 23 January 1988). I was a particular fan of Warlord which featured the spy character Peter Flynt. I joined the Warlord Club and in addition to a badge and wallet-ID, I got a code-book with which I, and other Warlord Club members could translate the secret messages that Flynt would tell us in the comic. It was the highest level of cool on earth at that time. It is noteworthy now, as I look back on it, that these World War 2 comics never mentioned the holocaust (which I guess is understandable given their target audience) and always depicted the Germans as honorable opponents. The Japanese were depicted as cruel and harsh. I don’t recall their characters being fleshed out in any way or episodes equivalent to the “good-German” occurring in the Asian theatre. Over time I moved onto the Battle comic, which had great stories within it such as Rat Pack, Johnny Red and Charley’s War. Charley’s War was so popular that it took 5 years to depict the final two years of World War 1. In July 1983, for four weeks, a new storyline, called Action Force, appeared in Battle. It was an instant success. On October 8, 1983, Action Force joined the pages of Battle full-time and the magazine was re-titled Battle Action Force. Battle Action Force consumed my life and my pocket-money. The story was set in 2011. A world government ensured peace and democracy around the world. Baron Ironblood was the last criminal on earth and his goal was to take over the world through his terrorist organization Cobra. Cobra had awesome uniforms and innovative weapons. And so at the age of 11, I was torn between aesthetics and morality. My response after some very deep reflection, under a tree, was to establish my own organization that was as cool as Cobra but not evil. Inspired by the modern Japanese military, I called it the SDF – the Self Defense Force. Now who could have a problem with that? I recruited my sister. We built a lookout tower in the trees and drove our bikes around the house keeping our eyes peeled for any suspicious activity. And then all of that faded away as I drifted into war-novels and then novels and all that. It seemed natural – comics were for children and I had new words to think about like semester, curriculum and “final exam.”

I think it was my life-long interest in Japan that brought me back to animation in my late 20s. During my trip to Japan in 2005 I read Frederik L. Schodt’s Dreamland Japan, Writings on Modern Manga, got to visit several manga stores in Tokyo and watched the prevalence of manga in people’s day-to-day lives. At the outset, I was incredulous at the idea that adults read comics of the type I saw. And yet the sheer scale of the industry in Japan is mind-blowing. Manga comprised 40 percent of all the magazines and books sold in Japan in 1995. In that year 2.3 billion Manga books were produced in Japan, and 1.9 billion of these were sold – that’s 15 ($50 US) for every man, woman and child in Japan. The value of all Manga produced in 1995 is estimated at somewhere between $7-9 billion US.  Nonetheless, I must admit, I am personally disinterested in most of the Anime and Manga I have seen thus far. The themes and presentation seem quite childish to me. I am however fascinated by how much the Japanese love it and I am interested to a point in learning more about the otaku (fanboy) culture around it. Although I am always up for a gripping story rendered with artistic skill, my interest in graphic-novels has been focused thus far on cyber-science-fiction graphic novels, specifically those that explore where our society may be in the next 300 years. I want to use these as seeds for thought-experiments that try to imagine the hyper-technological life and societies of the future.  I enjoy then looking at technology we have today and imagining how it will develop. Alas, my ulterior motive dismisses most of what is produced as too fanciful.

This weekend, after pho, and wired on Vietnamese coffee, I found myself trolling yet again for suitable graphic novels. I came across Gene Kannenberg’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels – The Ultimate Guide and decided to use this guide as part of great push to see where in this medium I might find the kind of stuff that I was interested in reading. At this point I have gone through all 500 and created two short lists, those that are gripping stories worth reading generally and then those that may be relevant to my narrow cyber-science-fiction focus. Alas, the latter is as short as it always is and I am already familiar with 2 of the 3 works on the list. I am reproducing both lists here so that others can benefit from my whittling and perhaps make suitable recommendations for my cyber-science-fiction list in the comment section. I have not included Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta because I have already read it. The story, which you will probably know from the movie, is good but the 1990 version of the graphic novel that I bought in Japan (ISBN 0930289528) is printed on less than adequate quality paper, resulting in a murky print that detracts from the overall experience.

My Short List of Graphic Novels About Various Topics:

  1. Dead Memory – it appears this could be quite a cerebral exploration of some interesting ideas, which is supposedly the norm for author Marc Antoine Mathieu. In this work a civil servant is given the task of mapping an infinite city (hello Kafka) but soon learns that walls are being built through it. As the walls go up the vocabulary available to the citizens decreases. I am extremely interested in the role of cities in intellectual life, culture and what they may evolve into in the future. This is at the top of my list.
  2. The Salon – a fascinating story idea by Nick Bertozzi. The painter George Braque discovers that his illustrious contemporaries are using a blue liquor to enter and briefly live in their paintings. The cast includes Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Paul Gauguin. The latter apparently is hiding a big secret!
  3. Berlin: City of Stones – this is a story set in Weimer Germany, which has always appeared to me to be a tragic moment in history because it was one so full of life and creativity yet cut short by the darkness of the Nazi Reich.
  4. Transmetropolitan – I’m hooked by the combination of cyberpunk and gonzo journalism in this work. The traditional but extremely detailed illustration by Darick Robertson looks great and underscores this very American work.
  5. Blade of the Immortal – Kannenberg describes it as “the most beautiful Manga you will ever see.”
  6. Mister X – this appeals to me interest in the intellectual significance of cities. In this work Mister X is a city designer and his job was to design cities that produced better mental states in the inhabitants (well there is a useful idea!) but the developers cut corners and now his cities dehumanize and unsettle the inhabitants. Mister X returns from his own nervous breakdown to haunt the city he designed.
  7. Glacial Period – illustrated and written by Nicolas De Crecy this work explores a world thousands of years hence when a group of explorers unearth the Louvre beneath a snowy wasteland and make amusing conclusions about the works they find.
  8. Persopolis – I have seen this everywhere and I must turn to it because its surprising to see a graphic novel reach this far into popular culture. I was also interested to learn that this is not Marjane Satrapi’s only graphic novel. Indeed the talented Ms. Satrapi is also producing the film version.
  9. Pyongyang – I am very excited to explore the work of Guy Delisle who like Joe Sacco uses the graphic novel as a type of journalism. In this 2007 work Delisle describes his trip through North Korea.
  10. Shenzhen – another of Guy Delisle’s works, this is an examination of the effect of globalization on one of China’s free-trade zones as seen through his Western eyes.
  11. Palestine – illustrating his 1991 journey to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in which he interviewed over 100 Israeli and Palestinian residents, with this work Joe Sacco apparently invented comic-book journalism. A similar work by Sacco is Safe Area Gorazde describing the war in eastern Bosnia from 1992-1995.
  12. The Time of Botchan – this work depicts the life of the Mejii Era Japanese writer Natsume Soseki (1868-1912). It deals with the theme of Japanese identity in the face of creeping Westernization. In my opinion, Japan is one of the most successful non-Western countries that has modernized yet reinterpreted and preserved its own culture at the same time. It stands as an interesting repost to the cogent claim that globalization threatens cultures. So how did they do it? I am very interested in reading anything related to this topic.
  13. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art – this is a graphic novel about graphic novels. I am a big fan of the illustrated praxis, a la the Introducing series by Icon Books. I find them the most efficient medium to communicate information in terms of information communicated per second. Accordingly, although this is not an Icon Books publication, I think it could really teach me a lot about the medium in a short amount of time.
  14. Human Target, Final Cut – the story line itself is less interesting than the manner in which it is told. Kannenberg describes it as “a postmodern romp with critical theory and bullets.” Intriguing. Orient Gateway – this story by Vittorio Giardino seems to cover the same adventure themes as Indian Jones and should be fun.
  15. Fables: Legends in Exile – a wonderful concept here in which characters from fables and fairytales live out their lives after the “happily ever after”-line in a noir urban setting. For example, Snow White has divorced Prince Charming for sleeping with her sister, works long hours and wears a perpetual frown.” An interesting mash-up of two genres.
  16. American Born Chinese – I think this will be an irreverent exploration of what it is like to grow up in Chinese American culture, something in which I have a personal interest.
  17. Get A Life – I am anticipating some rather sassy observations in this tracing of a man’s life through bachelorhood into marriage and I think there will be a funny contrast between the story and the simple line-drawing of Phillipe Du Puy and Charles Berberian.
  18. Corridor – I have never experienced a graphic novel from India so I am very interested in seeing Sarnath Banerjee’s description of modern urban life in Delhi.
  19. OldBoy – a guy is kept in a cell by himself for 10 years, then drugged and released onto the streets. What would that be like? Apparently this was made into a movie in 2003, of the same name by Chan-wook Park.
  20. Ring of Roses – this is an alternative history story by Das Petrou in which England stayed Catholic and neither of the World Wars ever happened. In the modern era a lawyer searching for his brother and missing clerics unearths a conspiracy. I wonder what such an alternate Europe would look like?
  21. Rex Mundi – apparently there is a rumor that Johnny Depp may be playing a role in a movie production of this work in which Doctor Sauniere is woken by his friend, a cleric (the Da Vinci Code character was called Jacques Saunière but this work is not by Dan Brown) who suspects that someone is stealing ancient documents from beneath his Church. This story line is getting well-worn but the art work looks good so I’ll check it out.
  22. Bookhunter – just a funny concept – its 1973 and books are the most precious commodity in the world which gives rise to the Library Police that try and chase books down. I think if nothing else this would be fun for a librarian friend of mine.
  23. Ballad of the Salt Sea – an adventure story set in the South Pacific just before World Ward 1. Apparently the storytelling and the illustration by Hugo Pratt are superb.
  24. Global Frequency – I want to read this work by Warren Ellis because unlike most other works involving the rescue of the planet by a group of people, this group has 1001 people around the world with unique skills – sounds like crowdsourcing to me!
  25. The Lone Wolf and Cub – one of 28 volumes, it is extremely popular in Japan where it has spawned 6 films. The story seems interesting in a Zaitoichi kind of way and I think it would be good insight into some of the better quality output from Japan.
  26. The Yellow M – story seem interesting and it is drawn in the ligne claire style that Edgar Jacobs developed while working with Herge on Tintin.
  27. Criminal Volume 1: Coward – basic story here is that an intelligent criminal is hired to organize a heist but his superior intelligence and organization becomes apparent when others try to double-cross him. I love that twist where the tables are turned and smarts wins out.
  28. Why are you doing this? – Jason has written several completely silent (i.e. no words) graphic novels and I want to see in this one how he executes what appears to be an interesting plot using minimal text.
  29. Three Fingers – a funny idea – a mockumentary in graphic novel format that explores the sinister reason why so many classic cartoon characters only have three fingers.
  30. The Yellow Jar – first in an occasional series from Patrick Atangan describing myths from different cultures. This volume describes two stories from Japan. The illustration technique is not extremely fine but sufficiently so to reference Japanese woodblock with an occasional nod to Hiroshige.
  31. Bardin the Superrealist – this work describes a man’s search for enlightenment across a series of surreal landscapes. I will either love this or hate it because the illustration style is very simple so the content is going to have to do the heavy-lifting. According to Kannenberg it does; “Max’s images and ideas will remain with you long after the laughter.”
  32. The Tower of Bois Maury –Hermann Huppen’s stories revolve around ethical choices but avoid heroes and try to present very realistic and complicated characters – should be a break from Hollywood.
  33. Lady Snowblood – apparently the inspiration fro the Quentin Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill. Apparently the artwork by Kazuo Kamimura does a good job of supporting the story by Kazuo Koike.
  34. Morbus Gravis I: Druuna – main reason I want to check this out is to see the signature artwork by the renown Georges Pichard.

My Short List of Graphic Novels About Cyber Science Fiction:

  1. Akira – probably one of the first Manga that someone in the West is likely to have heard of, this was a significant work because it was the first Manga to be taken seriously in the West. I have seen the film but was underwhelmed by the plot. Nonetheless, I should read the original work.
  2. Ghost in the Shell – this is pretty widely known in the West at this point because Shirow Masamune’s work has led to a very popular video game of the same name. This appeals to my interest in the future fusion of human and machine. One of the interesting themes here is how one, in an age when humans are intimately connected to a common network, can hack a human. If you think this is unlikely, last month a test-subject in Europe twittered by thinking about it. The signal was relayed to the internet by a probe connected to his brain. I have Ghost in the Shell and am currently reading it.
  3. Ronin – this work by Frank Miller appeals to both my interests in Japan as well as the fusion of man and technology, the ronin in this work being a fusion of flesh and circuitry.