Shelter-Mag Porn and Hieronymous Bosch

The advent of the credit crisis and the evidence of what rampant consumerism has done to the environment have given us wordly reasons not to fall into the trap that religion has always warned against.

By Michelle Martin
Published March 27, 2009

I read an interesting article online in the April edition of Vanity Fair, called Rethinking the American Dream. In it, author David Kamp makes the point that there is nothing wrong with seeking to achieve a sustainable middle class existence (certainly Raise the Hammer has explored this) - the problem lies, as he writes, in it being allowed to degenerate "into the consumerist nightmare" it is now.

Certainly these are relevant words as Earth Day approaches once more, and as easy credit has helped to plunge the economy into its current state.

Indeed, Kamp makes reference to the use of credit cards in keeping up with and trumping (or should I say Trumping) the Joneses.

This is the paragraph that I really liked, perhaps because it speaks to my own temptations as a parent, a homeowner, and an occasional host:

Whatever your opinion of Rockwell (and I'm a fan), the resonance of the "Four Freedoms" paintings with wartime Americans offers tremendous insight into how U.S. citizens viewed their idealized selves. Freedom from Want, the most popular of all, is especially telling, for the scene it depicts is joyous but defiantly unostentatious.

There is a happily gathered family, there are plain white curtains, there is a large turkey, there are some celery stalks in a dish, and there is a bowl of fruit, but there is not a hint of overabundance, overindulgence, elaborate table settings, ambitious seasonal centerpieces, or any other conventions of modern-day shelter-mag porn.

"Shelter-mag porn." Well, now. That phrase certainly neatly summarizes the underlying link of self-preoccupation among the deadly sins (sorry, it's still Lent). And boy, those magazines sure encourage a lot of tempting fantasies at the supermarket check-out.

When my eyes fall upon the gorgeousness of table settings and room decor photographed from just the right angle in magazines that purport to encourage simple living, I start to suffer from simplicity envy and imagine a dining room that I've contrived to look uncontrived, everything carefully purchased and placed to give off the appearance of casual elegance.

My fantasy stops just short of me appearing perfectly coiffed in the most understated of hairdos and make-up, the palest of french manicures and an outfit that is stunning yet genteel: What, this old thing? It's just something I threw on...

But no - my fantasy doesn't get to that point because I start to total up the cost in dollars and valuable time needed to get that simple dining room look. And though there are magazines that will show a look that costs $10,000 and then show you how to achieve it for $5,000, I'm afraid that 5,000 is still out of my snack bracket.

Besides, it would mean getting rid of perfectly good furniture and accessories that may not be as trendy, but still serve the purpose.

Or it would mean updating a paint job that was in good repair to begin with, if five years out of date. And who says it's out of date anyway?

The Color Guild, that's who. They're the ones who look at the trends "on the street" to let us know which ones we should be following next - to advise us how to express our individuality.

Here's a radical thought from the street - can't we just express our individuality to our company with good manners, a tidy home, decent food and good conversation?

Wait: a new table cloth from Zellers, a few tchotchkes from the Dollar Store, maybe I'd only have to spend fifty bucks - my Visa's maxed but they all take debit and I've got $500 worth of overdraft protection.... See? It's still an easy trap to fall into, even if you're broke.

Don't get me wrong - I know that artists, designers and paint makers need to make a living. I know that, for our psychological health, we should all be living in immediate surroundings that are pleasant and in good repair.

And sure, these photo spreads can give us ideas about what to purchase when things wear out or how to re-arrange what we've already got in a new way - we don't even have to buy anything (well, except the magazine) to be inspired by them.

But to let ourselves be ruled by them is surely a mistake. The advent of the credit crisis and the evidence of what rampant consumerism has done to the environment have given us wordly reasons not to fall into the trap that religion has always warned against.

If Hieronymous Bosch was here and re-painting his famous work for our edification, which magazine covers do you think might influence him?

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By Diannewood (registered) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 22:36:56

The celebration of Earth Day this weekend just goes to remind us how truly unfree we are. Our enslavement to material goods and of not being able to live simply means we have to turn off the lights for an hour to save a bit of energy so we can continue to go around like spoiled brats and forget to turn the lights off when we leave a room and buy silly things because we think they will make us happy. Bravo Ms. Martin and Norman Rockwell for reminding us that our rights to freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear have been lost for we have fallen into sloth greed, anger, lust gluttony, envy and pride. We will not get out of this recession by spending more, but by getting down on our knees when we turn out those lights tomorrow and begging God to save us. It's not too late.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 28, 2009 at 14:24:48

The advent of the credit crisis and the evidence of what rampant consumerism has done to the environment have given us worldly reasons not to fall into the trap that religion has always warned against.

Not all religions. In fact, I would argue that the housing/credit bubble was aided and abetted by the rise of evangelical mega churches who preached a gospel of prosperity as an earthly sign of God's blessing. Wealth and possessions are seen as rewards for virtue, the flip side being that poverty must be the result of moral failing. It's a short drive from this kind of self-congratulation to out-sized executive compensation. Policies that might create more social equity are seen as atheistic at best, immoral at worst. It then becomes 'virtuous' to school your less fortunate brethren in 'self-reliance' by leaving them to rot. (A Smith in 3..2..1...)

There have been a number of recent articles in American media about the decline of evangelical churches. Young evangelicals are concerning themselves more and more with environmental and social justice issues. Let's hope the new frugality isn't just a passing fad, and leads to a waning of the enormous influence of the prosperity gospel mega churches.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 28, 2009 at 14:37:22

Meant to add this to lighten things up a bit:

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 28, 2009 at 16:13:13

Highwater, your point about the prosperity gospel is a good one. Being Catholic, I'm not that up on the divisions among Evangelical Protestants, but I was under the impression that mainstream and eminent American Evangelical leaders have rejected the prosperity gospel as being unchristian. I'm wondering just how much mega-church members account for the population of American evangelicals as a whole, and if, in fact, every one of the mega-churches even preaches that stuff. It always struck me as a perversion of mainstream Christian teaching taught by a few high-profile people in order to justify lifestyles they had already chosen (perhaps we have a chicken or egg problem here where the prosperity gospel and the credit crisis are concerned). It is unfortunate that their profile is just high enough for the prosperity gospel to have become confused with mainstream Evangelical thought in a lot of people's minds.

Does anyone know if there are pastors in Canada who are preaching the prosperity gospel? All of my Evangelical friends don't follow it-- they are among the most environmentally conscious and simple-living people I know, who work hard for those less fortunate, and I regard their example as an excellent one for me, personally.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 29, 2009 at 17:37:59

I'm a Catholic too (not a very good one). I have to say, I don't recall any teachings about rejecting material wealth. In fact, many of my fellow parishoners were very well to do. I have a friend who is very religious, a member of some Evangelical order of some sort. He has a theory that most folks pray for selfish 'needs' - more money, a new sofa, etc. He says he knows this because of all the prayer meetings he's held, and the folks he talks to in his church. I am skeptical of this idea that religion is encouraging a less material way of life.

There seems to be a lot of commentary these days that capitalism will be changed forever after this recession. London in England is bracing for some tempestuous demonstrations next week. Evidently the UK banking system was less shored up that the US one. And now the middle and working classes are looking for scapegoats.

This wake up call was a long time coming.

These are interesting times.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 30, 2009 at 09:45:21

"There seems to be a lot of commentary these days that capitalism will be changed forever after this recession." (Rusty, above)

Readers may be interested in an article on this very theme. It is in the UK magazine Prospect, and refers to the work of internationally eminent Venezuelan economist Carlota Perez. I am not now, nor have I ever been a student of economics, but I found this article interesting, informative and readable. I didn't notice any ideological bias in it.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:22:35

Ryan >> Most governments seem to have learned the important lessons of the Great Depression:

* Respond to a crisis by injecting liquidity
* Stabilize banking institutions so they don't trigger a vicious cycle of panics, collapses and retrenchment.
* Keep trade between countries open.
* When markets won't spend, the government can prime the pump.
* Use the countercyclical stimulus to build enduring infrastructure that will pay future dividends.

Let's look at the facts. At the end of Hoover's term, total government spending in the U.S. accounted for 17.21% of GDP, an increase of over 80% from when he came into office in 1929. In 1940, after 8 years in office, Roosevelt had increase the role of the government from 17.21% to 17.65% of GDP, an increase of 2.6%.

If you are in favour of Roosevelt's spending policies and not Hoover's, then you're also supportive of not increasing government spending as a share of GDP.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:27:15

I'm in favour of not turning a blog about excess in home decor into yet another small government harangue.

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By George W. Bosch (anonymous) | Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:39:00

(leapfrogging ^this idiocy^ and replying to the actual discussion)

While we remembered the Depression lesson about not closing our borders, we forgot the lesson about keeping our banks prudent and solvent, and I'm still not quite sure this has been enough to re learn that lesson (I hope it has). This whole crisis has been one big bank run on some very funny looking banks. After that, regulators around the developed world made sure that would never happen again, and for the most part they were successful, with deposit insurance coupled with banking rules that prevent too much risky speculation. (It's not enough just to have the rules, because some bank panics are self-creating -- a rumour goes around that a bank may not be solvent, and people start panicking and pulling out there money, which makes the bank insolvent in a self fulfilling loop. So you need the rules AND you need the deposit insurance so people don't worry that there money might not be safe.) Except we forgot all that and let a bunch of new banks grow up outside the rules. Just like we forgot in the 80's with the Thrifts disaster (remember them?). You'd think we'd of learned our lesson then, except that crisis didn't spill over too far and we contained it by the government basically sucking up the losses to protect the real banks. Then we let it happen all over again with the derivatives funds and international speculators. Then Long Term Capital Management blew up in the late 90's and everyone started talking about bank regulation again, but no one could really be bothered and the government would-be regulators clapped themselves on the back and said LTCM was a fluke, a one-off. So the derivatives funds got bigger and bigger and their instruments got more and more complicated, and suddenly tens of trillions of dollars were tied up in great whipped up towers of financial cotton candy. It ran fine as long as more money kept funnelling into it and people were confident that there money was safe. As soon as that started to change, like when there was no one else left to buy a house and, crap, gas prices just doubled, and, oh s***, people are starting to default on there mortgages, people started to worry about whether there money was safe, and they started to pull it out, and -- LO AND BEHOLD -- there was a panic and a bank run that toppled the whole thing and destroyed trillions of dollars. Two things could have prevented this -- you guessed it, regulating these funds like banks and having deposit insurance. But the traffic controllers were asleep at the switch and they let the plane crash right into the middle of town, cracking everything up. It doesn't help the people in the town to say it was the fault of the pilots or the crew or the passengers or even the traffic controllers. We need to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. I HOPE that this crisis is big enough that even the financial cowboy free marketeers who've been running the show until now figure out that we need to get back to regulation. I don't know it for sure, though, and I'm worried that Obama has picked all the same cowboys of industry to run his finance plan. I'm afraid they'll put up a shell of accountability and just resume playing the game behind our backs until the next crisis blows up in our face.

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By George W. Bosch (anonymous) | Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:39:55

Sorry by "this idiocy" I mean this guy a "By A Smith (anonymous) Posted 3/30/2009 11:22:35 AM" not the message that follows.

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By Con Black (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2009 at 12:00:06

Interestingly, one of the deadly sins is described as 'extravagance (later, lust)'.

If the narrow definition of lust is that bad, maybe the broad one of extravagance needs resurrection.

But then I would spend much more time incarcerated.

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