The Unexamined Line

When I heard Dr. William A. Pelz, professor and “unrepentant Marxist,” was scheduled to lecture last Saturday on “The Commodification of Everyday Life and Popular Culture,” I decided to cut short a shopping trip and get myself over to Open University of the Left. I was wondering if the former SDS activist might have something new to say about that most blatant example of surreal economics, the art world, with its grant-grubbing charity cases and giant disconnect between value and price. The OUL folks set up shop a couple times a month in the offices of In These Times, above the Village Discount Outlet on Milwaukee Avenue. Before things got started they passed around a basket and suggested contributing a $5 donation to help cover their rental costs. Then Pelz began reading from a paper bemoaning how everything now really does have its price.

Pelz’s target was the entire capitalist economy, including most of what was going on in the bustling aisles beneath us. “Capitalist globalization, unwittingly, is a movement toward a less human society,” he said. Not only will it have us all working around the clock for a pittance, it’s spreading the commodification of culture, transforming “countless activities that had been outside the sphere of the market into mere sources of profit.” He said we’re no longer active participants—we’re spectators and brand-crazed consumers. Shopping, once done out of necessity, is our favorite sport and addiction of choice. Culture, once rooted in local practice, is shrink-wrapped and sold. Sex is something you find on a Web site, and human organs are harvested for a price. Corporations create demand for the products they want to sell us, and we’ve come to value ourselves and others according to what we’re worth in the marketplace.

He was preaching to the choir. The audience—fewer than 20, almost all male—concurred on the evils of capitalism run amok: plastic surgery, the wedding industry, ever-expanding wardrobes. Pelz asked for a show of hands: “How many of us have more than 10 tops? More than 20? More than 50?” He brought up a scene from a mid-70s Woody Allen movie, in which women are all over Allen if they think he’s a dentist but totally disinterested if he says he’s a writer, as an illustration of the despicable practice of assessing others based on their earning potential. And Pelz, a Sox fan as well as secretary of the Chicago Socialist Party, offered pet rocks and the popularity of the Cubs as evidence of a society hopelessly devoid of the concepts of use and merit.

I called Pelz the next day to see if he had any specific thoughts on art, and he said it too (eureka!) has been commodified. “A few people with money get to decide what’s hot and who gets recognized.” Besides that, he added, art has degenerated into advertising. “I’m not a critic, but I think that’s one of the points Andy Warhol was making with his Campbell’s soup can.” He cited Amsterdam as a place where government supports art for the public benefit, and high heels are a prime example of a useless and damaging capitalist product. “I cannot imagine the use of high heels, except for causing ankle injuries,” he said. “What is the point of fashion designers constantly pushing them on women?” Aesthetics? I offered. “I was thinking of shoes as something to help you walk from one place to another,” he replied. I didn’t mention the vintage pair of Ferragamo spectators perched like a sculpture near my desk.

The Not-So-Secret Radio Project

Last week Chicago Public Radio launched, finally giving the public its first glimpse of the ever-evolving plans for 89.5, CPR’s newly expanded second frequency. WBEW, once conceived as an all-music station and a home for the programming WBEZ is dumping when it goes all talk at the end of the year, turns out to be in large part a DIY project. Josh Andrews, one of eight CPR staffers on the secret project team, says 89.5 will begin broadcasting “co-constructed” content in April. The plan is for the public to submit pieces to the Web site, where they’ll be rated by other listeners and staff “curators.” The best will then be selected to air on WBEW.

In the end Andrews expects the programming, which will be wrangled by a cadre of yet-to-be-discovered hosts, will consist about equally of station-produced material, music (mostly single cuts), and public submissions. “We’re still dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” Andrews says, and there’s still money to be raised (in part through online advertising and Internet pledge drives), but “we’ve been given a green light. Our imagination is running wild these days. We want this to be a service that engages the listeners in many levels of experience–not just as radio, not just as a Web site. We want to be out in the community as much as possible with public events. I think younger audiences don’t want to be a member of a radio station–they want to experience a creative culture, and that’s what we’re going after.” In the meantime, they’re inviting input on the secretradioproject forum.


AlbertHall & Associates, the headhunting firm that facilitated Jennifer Bielstein’s leap from executive director at Writers’ Theater to managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville (more restaurants per capita than any other city, she claims), is searching for her successor. Her interim replacement is board member Rachel Weinstein. . . . There were plenty of seats available at last week’s invitation-only Actors Congress. Organizer Kate Buddeke says 50 to 70 of the 100 invitees showed up to hash over issues like getting actors’ names mentioned in advertising and a possible national actors’ manifesto. “There’ll be another one in New York in January,” Buddeke says, and then, maybe, another one here. “We want to do it in a bigger venue and open it up.” . . . Lincoln Park Zoo spokesperson Kelly McGrath says the zoo wasn’t hiding the fact that the USDA fined it $3,000 last February–they were simply waiting for word that the case had closed. In the incidents under investigation three monkeys consumed a fatal feast of yew, and a zookeeper got a lesson in property rights from an unrepentantly territorial gorilla.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yette Marie Dostatni.