Monday, August 23, 2010

American Regrets

Lately, I've been interested in antiquing. It sounds like something old ladies meet up to do, not something a thirty year old guy would be caught dead doing, but I enjoy it. I like seeing things from the past. I've developed a simple thesis that the average person seems to be a stranger too: Not everything that is current is best. In other words, people tend to think the present is always the peak of how far civilization has come and that we do everything better now than in the past. That is false. Exhibit A is pop bottles. That's one of my favorite old things to look at and collect. They used to be made for repeated uses, out of thick glass (much more environmentally friendly). The writing and imagery was another kind of glass applied as a paste to a bottle and then baked on. In addition to the materials being better and the bottles being built to last, old bottles are designed better, aesthetically. In fact they are brilliant in that regard. When did we loose our way so completely in regard to design in this country? Everything is overly complex and underly clever now. A simple field of color with text of another can be so evocative, and yet this simple fact seems to be ignored totally in current design. And that's just one concept that seems lost in design today.

Which brings me to a new 'reality' show on the history channel called American pickers. It is about two guys who run an antique shop and search the countryside looking for neat old stuff to sell. I should love it, right? I don't---in fact really rubs me the wrong way, but I still watch it sometimes because the actual stuff they find interests me. For one thing, both these guys, Mike and Frank, seem to be rather unlikeable, especially Mike. They are loud mouthed, yet rarely have anything to say, and seem to have a less than encyclopedic knowledge of antiques. They are not clever or fun. They also overlook many neat objects in favor of a very narrow scope of items, such as bikes, motorcycles and oil cans. Further, they lie about values to make every 'pick' on their show seem not only wise, but like a major money-maker. They both have a patronizing attitude towards the people they 'pick' and also rip off many of these people value-wise. They both seem to be trying to appear as cool as possible, and desperately project that they are no longer the looser nerds of their high school. As part of this they are very lingo-heavy. Picking and pikers is lingo for what they do and who they are, professionally. The term itself is crude sounding in general, but also implies that they are picking through mounds of useless crap looking for the 'diamond in the rough'. While this may be true from a money making point of view, the things that the people Mike and Frank visit collect are important to them.

Beyond the fact that Mike and Frank seem like less than TV ready personalities, or maybe part of it, is the 'reality' shown in the program. The show is about guys trying to buy stuff for an antique store. Yet, we don't see the store itself in operation ever. What is it like? Who comes in and buys things? And most importantly, how do they stay in business? None of these questions can be answered by watching the show. Clearly, the value they put on their 'picks' is on average quite high in relation to reality. Even if it was not, antiques move very slow, especially big ticket antiques, and we never get a feel for what they need to collect to stay open. From what is shown on TV, they tend to buy mostly mid range to big ticket items, rarely 'picking' any bread and butter lower price items such as, not to be biased, bottles. In the end, I walk away feeling that only two things keep the store afloat; Danielle the assistant and the History Channel.

Over the course of watching the show, I've come to actually hate Mike. Neither of the pair seem like bright enough people to pull off a brick and mortar store and they seem like poor candidates to build a show around. But Mike makes being unlikeable an art form, while Frank just merely struggles with being likable because of a lack of certain gifts. One must from time to time wonder what people in the antiques industry think of the show and these two fellows. I imagine people who work in antiques around the country are turned off by Mike and Frank as people and perhaps even their tactics. I also imagine they see a lot of money left on the floor of the 'picking' locations just from what we are shown on camera in an episode. The show is getting hard to watch and it is part of a new trend of seemingly simple 'reality' shows that in actuality greatly bend reality and star unlikeable, semi-professional egotists.

Pretty good rant, but I have to eat my words here a little. The other night I was watching an episode where Mike and Frank went to an old bearded man's place who goes by Hobo Joe. He lived on a wooded area with creeks running through it and several buildings. Most of the buildings were filled with stuff and the land itself was covered with small, tarp covered piles of things. After a particularly fruitful 'pick' there Mike did one of his little talks to the camera. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here because I don't have the show recorded, “They should take buses of kids out here [Hobo Joe's land] to see all this great stuff. To remind them of when America made things. To show them that America used to make things too, not just be consumers.” I was stunned. I still am. Occasionally Mike or Frank says something I like or relate to because they like old stuff and so do I. They make efforts to chase down neat old things and so do I. In fact they take it to a pretty high extreme, so they have to say some things I agree with or that sound semi-intelligent. But usually it is rare, and I've come to respect them less and less as time has gone on. So I was surprised to my bones when Mike said one of my mantras, creatively articulately and with true passion. His short enthusiastic rant covers the spectrum of aesthetics to politics.

For one thing, one has to wonder what kids understand of aesthetics and the visual arts these days. They are brought up on Xbox video games, CGI movies and a sense of commercial design that is both hyperactive and dull, that takes no risk and has no ideas other than to layer more crap, plaster more pattern and shade more objects. Just take a look at the cereal isle at a local grocery store and then try to find some old images of cereal boxes from the 50's-70's. You'll see what has happened to them and design in general---but not just design, also aesthetics and our cultural values.

In a country that is struggling as ours is, not just economically, but with its identity, arts education should be highly valued. Instead it is the first thing to be chopped. At very least, what happened to our pride as Americans. We used to want to be on the top of everything---including arts. We were the best-looking, best run, richest country in the world and we knew it and no intention of giving it up. Now we seem to be willing to sell all of it off, piece by piece, to the cheapest bidder. Which brings me to the political side of Mike's rant. If you antique or just pay attention to old stuff, you start to notice something. America used to make a lot of stuff, and it was good. We don't make that much stuff anymore, but we consume more than ever. Perhaps beyond the point is quality---we may never get the care and attention out of the items we consume that we once had because those days are gone everywhere and as expensive to rehabilitate. But how can we expect to have a stable, fruitful economy, let alone the best one in the world if we don't make anything but consume more than ever? While some people might be shocked by our economic problems another more logical view might be to ask what took so long? Our lack of manufacturing and heavy reliance on service industries is only one of many issues that have led to our trouble, but all the factors were relatively apparent. What Wall street, George W. Bush and banks and lenders were doing was clearly was trouble for the future. And our corporation dominated, richness and fame doting culture have created weak minds and a helpless underclass in a country founded on equality.

Which brings me back to Mike the picker. Does all of this mean I now like the guy? No. Or even respect him? For the most part , no. But it brings an important idea into play: If even the idiot cries foul, there are changes that need to be made.