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Wednesday, April 17, 2002

On a Clear Day You Can See Applebee's


Walk out your door and take a look around. Is there anything, natural or man-made, that is pleasing to the eye? If you live in America, especially suburban America, the view is probably one of an endless string of strip-malls and franchise businesses. For the past 30 years it has become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between Des Moines and Duluth.

People talk as if these Weblogs are the new journalism, a heroic new forum for ideas. I see them as the moral equivalent of bumper stickers. I can write a little bit more than the average bumper sticker but if I write too much I will lose the reader raised on the short staccato bursts of information portioned out by TV. This theme of franchise America is a large one best addressed in book form so I will focus on a single point. This is today’s bumper sticker. I would actually reach more people with a sticker but at least I don’t have to worry about somebody disagreeing with me and keying my car.

Take a look at the artwork inside of franchise businesses. They try so hard to be inoffensive that they are highly offensive. At their best franchises display reproductions of impressionist masterpieces, as if Van Gough’s Café de Nuit is somehow appropriate for the décor of a Jack in the Box. At their worst corporations hang robotic, machine-made, computer-generated abstractions on the walls. They seem as uncomfortable with bare walls as they are of inspiring thought or eliciting any remotely human response. The horror of these wall fillers is that it isn’t a result of corporate bad taste. Taste is subjective and what anyone considers bad is at least excusable. This is a deliberate anti-aesthetic policy .

Franchise corporations deliberately remove any semblance of charm from their businesses for the same reason that TV removes any sort of real controversy from the content of their programming. The anti-aesthetic and the anti-intellectual bias of big business is part of a process to ritualize every aspect of our lives. Ritual is devoid of thought and the absence of thought means the absence of dissent. I grew up catholic and I couldn’t tell you what any of the prayers meant that I recited every week. There was no thought, thought was not only unwelcomed but strongly discouraged. Your responsibilty was to learn your place and remain there. The creation of ritual is like arranging the furniture in a familiar manner so that the blind can navigate that geography without seeing. Move things around and all hell breaks loose.

MacDonald’s et al could just as easily have original art on the walls of their burger joints. There are thousands of artists in Seattle dying to sell their work. They could probably do this at less cost than the current system of using pseudo-art. Would it adversely affect business? I couldn’t say and I don’t think anyone could. The very thought of unleashing the public’s imagination must scare the shit out of the guys in the stockholders’ meeting. If we let them have their way every facet of life will be copyrighted and trademarked.

The fact that the music of Mozart and Bach, the novels of Dickens, and the poetry of Homer are public property must keep a lot of corporate lawyers awake at night with worry and dread. "Miss Jenkins, get this Mozart fellow on the phone. I have an idea for a Dorritos ad." If they can’t copyright it for themselves I’m sure they would prefer it to be destroyed. They already use this stuff to sell their products but they can’t own it. Where's the fun in not owning something? It's positively un-American, it's communist.

I'm sure people will say that I just don't understand big business. They would be right, 100% right. I don't understand why anyone would actively, with hearty ambition, work towards building a world that isn't worth living in.

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