From The Archive
Karen Olsson
No. 14  April 2001

The Banality of Leisure

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The leisure class is dead: According to a 1999 article in the New York Times, even the wealthiest of Manhattan trust fund twenty-somethings are seeking gainful employment (“The Rich Find It’s Uncool Not to Have a Job,” announced the bold type.) We are all doing our part for the economy now, helping to run up those productivity numbers. Newspapers have yet to herald a “new frugality” among those with trust funds, however; as luck would have it, our renewed spirit of work is soaring unencumbered by outdated Protestant inclinations toward saving or modest living. By happy coincidence, society’s nod of approval these days is going to the well-heeled workaholic, the sort who works hard and spends massively, leading exactly that lifestyle which best serves the interest of capital. It is now fashionable to brag about how much you work and to drive a very large car. Leisure itself is declared at risk of extinction, and for many of us the weekend, time which might be dedicated to leisure, is now dedicated to either work or shopping.

It is evidently this recent use of the word “weekend” to mean “time during which you buy things” that the Wall Street Journal intended in giving the name “Weekend Journal” to a relatively new section published every Friday. When it comes to coverage of shopping, the Weekend Journal is without rival. Since its inception in the spring of 1998, it has chronicled high-end consumption in astonishing detail, retaining a corps of reporters—real reporters—to cover bathroom sinks, new trends in swimming pool design, new trends in swimming pool raft design, throw pillows, art collecting, mansion prices, online sales of wedding gowns, parasailing, monogrammed furniture, luxury box seats at the theater, $200-a-bottle pink champagne—the list could go on and on. Consider the following sentences, excerpted from different Weekend Journal articles:

Generously proportioned above-the-counter bowls, called “vessels,” are taking sinks from ordinary to attention getter.

Why he had purchased a grand cru Bordeaux is a mystery. Such was not his normal fare.

We couldn’t even go to the best beaches; for two days, hundreds of protesters with loudspeakers blocked access to them.

The W Hotel’s Heartbeat restaurant in New York has a “tea sommelier” to help guests pick the right brew.

The section’s wealth of data on conspicuous consumption, its front-lines reporting on the bizarre and complex sport of turn-of-the-millennium acquisition, can be overwhelming at times. The leisure class may be on its last legs, but the term Thorstein Veblen once used to describe the spending practices of that class, “conspicuous consumption,” has not lost its relevance. In fact consumption seems to be getting more conspicuous all the time.

You may not be able to go mano a mano with your neighbor, but you can have better topiary.

There’s a whole lot of shopping going on, and trailing along in its wake is an unprecedented amount of analysis of shopping. The sort of inspection of material culture that Veblen pioneered has become increasingly common. While the spending binge of the early to mid-Eighties was, at least in the popular mind, largely about upper class extravagance (mythologized in fictions like Bonfire of the Vanities and Dynasty), more recent consumption is about the broader “upper-middle class’s” expanding list of must-buys, available for sale at the Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma and Stuff.com, and a growing fascination with the entire cycle of marketing and buying. Instead of nighttime soaps about the superrich we now have New Yorker articles about Restoration Hardware and “No-brow Culture.” And every Friday, the Weekend Joumal, which is so much more than just Consumer Reports for the people who fly business class. In addition to movie and book reviews and feature articles on lifestyle topics (such as finding doctors, masseuses, and music teachers who do house visits in order to save on drive time), the Journal publishes a full page of opinion pieces on cultural matters. By this I do not mean that the Weekend Journal weighs in on, say, controversies over history textbooks or theories of conceptual art. No, in the world of the Weekend Journal, consumer culture is the culture. This central fact is coyly presented: The ironic style prevails in the articles, verging at times on self-parody—which is of course a means of tacitly acknowledging the shallowness of the subject and the silliness of writing about it, while proceeding to do so anyway. As such, it presents not just the fancy pillow but a glimpse into the psychology of fancy-pillow buying, and a general endorsement of the idea that one might devote considerable thought and energy to the pillow hunt.

It was Veblen who pointed out, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, his 1899 treatise on the psychology of consuming, that consumption occupies a central place not just in the economy, but in the heads of status-minded people, wealthy people in particular. What those people bought depended on what other people bought, for humans are given to comparing and competing with one another. (He called this “invidious comparison.”) For Veblen, consumption was all about demonstrating your rank, a “symbolic display of mastery” in a society that no longer afforded its status-seeking members very many opportunities for literal shows of prowess—which had been more plentiful in the days of soldiering and estate-holding. Status-minded consumption reflected the anonymity of urban life: In village society, Veblen argued, thrift was honored over wasteful display, since everyone already more or less knew what everyone else had. The values placed on prowess and thrift didn’t disappear in capitalist society, but they did become secondary to the demands of invidious comparison—rating one’s fellow Americans based on what they own. You may not be able to go mano a mano with your neighbor, but you can have better topiary.

Veblen’s star, never terribly high to begin with, fell as the idea of a “leisure class” dominated by Captains of Industry faded—and as the political and literary movements that informed his work, Midwestern Populism and naturalism, disappeared. By midcentury, those sharp-edged prairie philosophies had given way to moderate social science: In 1953 David Riesman would write, in a book on Veblen, that “save in Texas. . .the crazy millionaire is dead, and a subdued nonconspicuousness seems to be spreading over our leisure and consumption practices.” Veblen’s analysis of spending was declared irrelevant because the spenders had changed, and even Riesman’s well-to-do Harvard students were wearing blue jeans. But the disappearance of the old leisure class doesn’t diminish Veblen’s primary insight that spending money is intimately linked to being visible as a spender and to watching others spend—and that this is especially evident among people who have a lot of money to begin with.

Since Veblen’s day, the great surge of mass consumerism has naturally altered the spending landscape; by the time Nixon showed our kitchens to the Russians, conspicuous consumption had become a national pastime. “Symbolic mastery” was supplanted by “keeping up with the Joneses,” and then, as Juliet Schor has noted, by “keeping up with the cast of Friends.” While the tendency toward invidious comparison lives on, we’re increasingly uncertain who to compare ourselves to, and increasingly likely to look to the richer-than-average sorts portrayed in magazines and movies and TV shows. Add to that the presumptive predicament of many Wall Street Journal readers: They’ve recently made small killings in the stock market. They feel a little weird about having all this money all of a sudden, and they don’t know what to spend it on. Vacations? Cars? Jennifer Aniston’s pants?

Soothing the anxieties of the shopper-reader is a curious and subtle art. For one thing, the shopper-reader should be made to feel well off, but not too rich—a principle evidenced by the use of democratic phrases like “the rest of us” and humble-sounding assertions about what “average” means. “Forget the Malibu beach house, the Aspen condo, and the Martha’s Vineyard bungalow,” advised an article on “Second Homes for the Rest of Us.” “With prices in the traditional second-home communities soaring through the roof, savvy house hunters are finding great deals in up-and-coming get-away spots from Belize to West Virginia.” (Other “up-and-coming” spots where “the rest of us” might find bargain second homes, according to the article, include Nevada, Crete, and Thailand—a 2-1 condo on the island of Phuket can be had for a measly $174,000.)

Not all the Journal’s normative invocations are so blatantly silly; more typical is the average-shopper allusion made in a piece on the “The New Narcissism” in furniture design. According to the article, although most people won’t be buying the baronial dining table (seats twenty-four) exhibited at last year’s International Fine Art & Antique Show, that table and everything else at the show are indicators of “current trends in the high-end market—trends that, knocked-off and reinterpreted cheaply, end up in the average American home a year or two later, sold by chains like ABC Carpet & Home, Pier One Imports, and Pottery Barn.” From Joe Six-Pack to Joe Pottery Barn: By defining average up, the Journal lets its readers know that they’re normal. In addition to being reassured that luxury goods are no longer emblems of snobbery, Weekend Journal shopper-readers are also told over and over again that they won’t be laughed at by the salespeople: Just because you don’t know too much about wine and art doesn’t mean you can’t be a savvy consumer of either. In accomplishing this crucial task of journalism, no part of the section has been more reliable than “Tastings,” the weekly wine column by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (Wall Street Journal editors who are married to one another). In a series of vinous adventures, intrepid tasters Gaiter and Brecher find good wines, and bargain good wines, at every turn. While each week’s dispatch is usually accompanied by a list of the wines discussed, a good many of the columns end by reminding the reader that, while these particular wines may not be available in your area, the important thing is to try, say, an Australian chardonnay, or an $80-per-person winemaker’s dinner.

The flushed proselytizing sentiment of “Tastings” is of course seconded by the ads that surround it. Go ahead, pronounce it ‘peanut nor.’ We’ll still love you, reads an ad for the “Virtual Vineyards” website, expertly flattering “you” (that is, assuming that “you” know what pinot noir is, and how to pronounce it) while disavowing snobbishness at the same time. This doesn’t just happen on the wine page: indeed, the apparent similarities, in subject and spirit, between the advertising and the articles throughout the entire section might well lead one to mistake the Weekend Journal for one big advertising vehicle. But it’s not quite that, since the articles work far better than the ads, in terms of persuasion and selling. Once you’ve read over a whole list of wines along with their ratings and prices, you’re already shopping. The accompanying article tells you it’s okay to be shopping, and then you’re really ready for Virtual Vineyards.

The most obvious tension in the Weekend Journal’s buy! buy! buy! approach comes through its stark contrast with the traditional conservatism of its parent, the Wall Street Journal. As members of that newspaper’s editorial board have amply demonstrated, it’s not hard to be a free-marketeer and a moralizer at the same time, but the Weekend Journal’s open-wallet ethos is not quite compatible with the righteous-‘n’-godly variety of conservativism. It’s hard to maintain that simple hedonism is what John Calvin, John Locke, and the Framers had in mind. And bridging this divide is where the Weekend Journal has done its most valuable service. On the most superficial level, the Weekend Journal reconciles shopping and tory values by distinguishing (and celebrating) acceptable, savvy consuming from the sea of crass, low-rent consuming that is said to surround us. A column from October 1999, for instance, denounced the T-shirts being sold at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with an exhibit of Ingres portraits, and then went on to denounce the rise of museum merchandise in general, which, writer Eric Gibson complained, commercializes and trivializes art. Even though the Weekend Journal publishes pieces about buying and selling art every week—even though it’s just fine for art itself, not to mention other auctioned items written about in the Journal, like Hindu religious objects and Allen Ginsberg’s medic-alert bracelet, to be put on the block—the selling of Ingres T-shirts is an indication of how tainted by consuming our culture has become. “With two sets of values in close proximity—those of the marketplace and those of high culture—there needs to be some sort of standard in place to harmonize them,” sniffs Gibson.

Lots of luck, “high culture.” That such a contention comes in a publication whose coverage of art is coverage of the art marketplace seems to have disturbed no one. Perhaps this is because the Weekend Journal does make an effort to do some of this harmonizing—to insist that good taste and the market can reign peacefully side by side. The last page of every edition features opinions, signed and unsigned—as well as a big advertisement, of ten for Armani—under the heading “Taste.” Here the shopper-reader is treated to a variety of meditations, on such questions as: Is the auctioning of Marilyn Monroe’s personal effects a “good idea”? (Not particularly.) Can creative writing be taught? (No.) Is family-friendly television programming on the rise? (Maybe.) Should a church in Minneapolis have defended a parishioner who was once a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army? (No way, and the fact that it did proves that most churches today are nothing but redoubts of therapeutic feel-goodism.)

“Taste” is a useful device for the Weekend Journal’s uneasy balancing act. When confronted by any objection to consuming other than one rooted in the shifting sands of fashion, the Weekend Journal sees red. Reviewing an anthology of essays critical of current consumer patterns, writer Daniel Akst referred to its authors as “the indulgence police,” and pointed out (zap!) that a lot of them are themselves quite well off. For Akst, the crucial matter was the right of prosperous people—now cruelly under attack—to buy whatever they want. In the last paragraph he acknowledged that the current consuming culture is not entirely without fault, “yet even our most ardent scolds aren’t moving into mud huts in search of answers, and who can blame them? Personally, I plan to think about it in the Jacuzzi.”

Short of moving into a mud hut, there’s no escape from the consumer culture, and unless you’re willing to do that, the Weekend Journal argues, critical examination is nothing but hypocrisy. Naturally the section does not bother to consider the origins of all those consumer goods contained within its pages, or the consequences of development on the island of Phuket, much less the necessity of actually acquiring monogrammed furniture or Hindu statuary or what have you. Of course not: Leave that sort of thing to the indulgence police. We’re just having some fun here.

At times the fun can get to be too much. To view the world as first and foremost a consumer is to cheerfully strap on an enormous pair of intellectual blinders, such as writer Nancy Keates must have worn while penning an article on “The Five Worst Vacations.” In it, Keates traveled to places which, because of political or environmental problems, make for lousy vacation spots—like the Falkland Islands, Asbestos, Quebec, and Vieques, Puerto Rico, an island where U.S. Navy pilots practice dropping bombs. In April of 1999, an errant U.S. bomb (off target by nearly two miles) killed a Puerto Rican guard and, what a bummer, the locals were upset about this at the time Keates and an unnamed companion visited. She ended her article by describing an encounter with a tourist from Memphis, “desperately trying to navigate her way through the placard-wielding protesters. Finally, she gave up with a frustrated cry: ‘This is terrible!’” Continues the writer, “We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.”

And this perhaps suggests why the “Taste” page’s attempts to navigate the culture for the benefit of rich turn-of-the-millennium consumers seem so weirdly flatfooted—because all that consuming soon starts to propose a worldview of its own, a will to dumbness that sees the world as just an entertainment provider, a producer of luxury products, a more or less attractive vacation spot. We are all conspicuous consumers, now more than ever, navigating our way through annoying but incomprehensible obstacles like politics or traffic jams, trying to get to the beach. Not that I want to be too dour about this, and ruin all the fun. Did I mention the nifty canvas-and-bamboo, batik-pattern beach umbrella you can buy online? Folded up, it’s just about the size of a service baton. Works great for beating back protesters.

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