Pop Art Makes for the Best Snuggie

In a January 16, 1957 letter, Richard Hamilton, creator of what is universally regarded as the first piece of “pop art” (Just What is It that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?, 1956), concluded with, “I find I am not yet sure about the ‘sincerity’ of Pop Art.”  If the father of pop art was having a difficult time buying the genre’s legitimacy, it’s easy to see how others in the art work could and did question it.

Yet, pop art not only survived, it’s become a metaphor for our collective consciousness in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Why?  Paraphrasing from H. de la Croix and R Tensey’s book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Wikipedia states, “The concept of pop art refers not as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that led to it.”   The overriding attitudes leading to pop art were the rise of existentialism and relativism–our certainty that there is no longer any certainty, except that we are all kicked off this mortal coil at some point.

Any legitimacy the genre has garnered, therefore, is not from experts, but from a dazed populace whom I believe, took some comfort in a form that at least celebrated the absurdity this clash between our programming (there is an absolutely truth “out there”) and our revelation (all that stuff about there being an absolute truth is bullshit).  To this end, I submit that pop art doesn’t challenge the beholder, so much as it validates their response in the face of this schizophrenic clash of ideas.

Consider Hamilton’s Appealing.  A young and buff adonis stands almost self-consciously in the middle of his pad, a hodge-podge of all the modern trappings of life…including a stripper in tassels and a lamp shade, waiting to party.  The Tootsie Pop he holds becomes a bloated phallus about to explode, and the promise of “Young Romance” on his wall overpowers the shameful glare of the unidentified Victorian man in the painting beside it.  The whole is no more than the sum of its parts…it simply says, “Yes…you feel ridiculous in this life, and that’s okay.”  What makes homes today so different and so appealing?  Now one can laugh at the whole thing–life and convention and decency–right in the face and simply enjoy oneself…because enjoying the ride’s all you got left.

Nothing But Flowers

Legendary economist and social commentator Peter Drucker once wrote, “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation…a ‘divide.’ Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself–it’s worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions.” He goes onto claim that we’re currently living through just such a transformation.

I believe that postmodernism is an implement in the transformation Drucker writes about. In fact, the very aspects that bring criticism raining down on it–the disconnection, fragmentation, and numbness it generates–are creating a cultural, intellectual, and philosophical clearing that fosters this transformation.

As messages mash together into some relativistic white noise, and the significance of ideas and philosophies reach a point of equal banality, the din will eventually morph into a form of silence, similar to the phenomenon where sensory stimuli of a static nature is eventually tuned out by our brains. Therefore, instead of having a merely entropic effect, all of this postmodern chaos might just help create a new “quiet.”  In this quiet, new ideas, philosophies, and conversations may be heard with greater clarity, in which case, we should be more clearly guided by them (their Marco to our Polo) through the old arrangement and into the new.

In this environment we will, I believe, be guided into a nexus of objectivity.

Today, as I was driving, the Talking Heads song, “Nothing but Flowers,” popped up on my playlist. The song is a testament to this notion. Talking Heads were postmodern poster children, yet bandleader (and Renaissance man par excellence) David Byrne never came off as a deconstructionist or a hedonist. Moreover, it never shocked me as much as I thought it should when he abruptly changed musical genres, from art/pop/punk to Latin world music.  Yet, today is the day I think I finally, really grokked Byrne’s shift.

I think Byrne’s “old” music with Talking Heads served as a tool to desensitize audiences to the inherent absurdity part and parcel with the existential hell we’d created for ourselves. Talking Heads helped us look at all that in way that helped stay our hands from slitting our own throats.  They helped us just laugh at it.  Once we were done laughing, rolling our eyes, or being downright ornery about the whole thing…once we were past our “fear of music,” as it were, we ceased to notice either the music or its underlying messages much anymore.

I believe that Byrne was aware of all this at some level, and he knew that we, his audience, were ready to receive new messages…ones that represented the real things he wanted us to know. He delivered these to us wrapped in a happy Latin beat so we would recognize them as different from his previous messages and connect his new songs to a contiguous stream of thought. “Nothing But Flowers,” a standout track on Talking Heads’ final album, was Byrne’s introduction to this new paradigm. It didn’t even present his thesis yet, but it was certainly an invitation to all of us, “Jump in, the apocalypse is fine.”

And on the other side it’s quiet.  And nothing but flowers.

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

Wood stir sticks for coffee: an environmental impact analysis

A short paper I just wrote for my Sustainability for Business class.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but it does represent an important epiphany I had this morning: the businesses that are selling wooden stir sticks as a “green” alternative to plastic ones could very likely be full of shit.

Here it is:

Recently, I’ve noticed a move from plastic stir sticks to wood ones in nearly every shop I visit. I’ve assumed this change is an attempt by coffee shops to be more “green” because a move away from petroleum-based to organic products intuitively seems to be a good one. When it comes to wooden stir sticks, looks may be deceiving. Upon conducting a brief lifecycle assessment of wooden stir sticks, I would have to rate the trend a 7 or 8 in terms of its impact on the environment. In other words, despite distributors’ assertions that wooden stir sticks are “better” for the environment than plastic ones, they still represent a potentially significant negative impact on the environment–specifically as it relates to the destruction of virgin resources required to make the sticks and the waste generated after their use.

There are five stages in the lifecycle of a wooden stir stick: 1. Growing and harvesting white birch trees (the wood primarily used for stir sticks), 2. Manufacturing the sticks, 3. Distributing the sticks, 4. Using the sticks, 5. Disposing of/recycling the sticks. Although one could find red flags at any step in the process, the types of concerns raised in stages 2-4 are common across today’s commercial spectrum. The rise in the amount of white birch to accommodate increased demand, however, presents a real and immediate environmental concern. Further, although technically compostable, companies selling these sticks tout it as a presently meaningful benefit. This claim is erroneous, if not outright misleading.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources states, “The volume of paper birch (another name for white birch) has decreased significantly since 1983.” Moreover, growth rates have decreased over the past 23 years and are currently negative, which means that white birch mortality currently outpaces new growth. Present-day harvesting methods are one probable culprit, as birches grow naturally alongside aspen trees in the wild. The two types of trees fair better in “mixed” woodland systems, yet require different harvesting methods to most effectively support regeneration for each of them–aspens flourish with a clearcut method, while birches do well with a see-tree or shelterwood one. Commercial cutters typically favor clear-cutting. As a result, aspen trees often take over in areas that were far more balanced before cutting was initiated. This trend has put birch populations in a precarious position, as the number of pole-sized trees has decreased almost 35% since 1996, and the number of seedlings and saplings has decreased as well. Even more alarming is that the ratio of removals to growth tripled from 1983 to 1996, which implies that commercial cutters have not gotten the message that the birch population is in trouble.  An increased demand for this type of wood from stir stick manufacturers can only exacerbate this already troubling situation.

Companies’ composting selling point is also an area for concern. Although wooden sticks represent no more waste than their plastic counterparts (in fact, they represent less intrinsic longterm waste, as they break down easier), the composting claim as a selling point could lead to negative impacts. To be certain, wooden stir sticks have been deemed “compostable.” Whether they are “backyard” compostable or, like corn-based PLA containers, need to be composted in a commercial facility is still up for debate. Assuming they are compostable via facilities only, their use reaps virtually no net gain in environmental impact terms. At present, according to an article in Coffee Talk magazine, “There are only 144 commercial composters across the country serving 30,000 communities, the compostability…becomes almost an irrelevant environmental benefit.” Besides, in order for stir sticks to be composted, they need to be disposed of in a separate container–not the garbage. To date, I have not personally seen or heard of any coffee shop in the US that boasts a “compost bin” for stir sticks, PLA containers, or any appropriate organic waste, for that matter. Finally, one has to wonder whether the false sense of security the composting claims creates might lead to consumers using and disposing of wooden stir sticks much more freely than they used and tossed plastic ones. If this is the case, the change to wooden stir sticks could represent a net reduction in sustainability for the coffee shop industry over their plastic predecessors.

Both concerns are compounded by the fact that, according to CoffeeStatistics.com (which purports to be the leading provider of coffee statistics), Americans alone consume about 146 billion cups of coffee each year. And the coffee shop industry continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant business. The number of coffee shops in the US grew 157% from 2000 to 2005, and it continues to grow at a robust 7% per year. If the industry is truly committed to a sustainable path, real eco-friendly alternatives to both plastic and wooden stir sticks need to be found…quickly.