Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

BMW Art Cars

In the photo above, artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) stands in front of the BMW 3.0 CSL he painted as a part of the car company's Art Car program in 1975.

Calder was the first artist in the Art Car program; Frank Stella painted a car the next year in 1976, Roy Lichtenstein in 1977, and Andy Warhol painted a car in 1979. There have been 16 Art Cars since 1975.

The program started with Hervé Poulain, a French art auctioner who was also a racing driving. Calder was a friend, and the two worked on the car together. Poulain raced the Calder car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

BMW embraced the idea after the enthusiastic reception of Calder's car. The program is still going today, with Danish artist Olafur Eliasson working on a BMW hydrogen-powered car.

The cars designed by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella will be on display at New York City's Grand Central Terminal from March 25 to April 6 this year.

[via Luxury Culture.]

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Now Is The Time

...for a $24,000 folding chair by Hermès. It's crocodile. I can think of few better ways to celebrate the recession. Except for perhaps this $50,000 crocodile umbrella from the unambiguously named Billionaire Couture. [via via Born Rich.]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ski Cross: The Sport that Short Attention Spans Built

Are Americans utter philistines when it comes to entertainment? Consider the story that European football, er, soccer fans like to tell about how Americans lobbied to increase the size of the goals to make for higher scoring games. The rest of the world liked the game the way it was.

Or how about the popularity of NASCAR, with its endless left turns, over Formula One with its higher-tech engines and more complicated courses.

Downhill skiing has been slowly losing popularity in America over the last couple decades. Part of it is the rise of snowboarding, part of it has to do with how expensive winter sports can be (equipment, lift tickets, etc.). But a big part of it must be how difficult it is to become an expert.

In an article in the sports section of today's New York Times, we're introduced to ski cross, a sport that will be in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, one that many hope will help revitalize skiing for Americans. But is this sport, which is the equivalent of roller derby on skis, taking all of the subtlety and technical skill out of skiing in order to appeal to the American short attention span?

Take American skier Daron Rahlves, one of the best racers of his generation. He's won the Alpine World Cup a dozen times. He retired three years ago as a traditional racer, but at his peak, he was recognized all over Europe as a celebrity. And yet in America, no one really knew who he was.

Below is a video -- the only one I could find of Rahlves' racing -- that shows his famous crash at Adelboden in the 2006 Olympics. He walked away, but was out for two weeks with injuries (a relatively short time). In traditional ski racing, crashes like this are a frightening danger, a byproduct of the sport.

In the next video, we have ski cross. Here, like in roller derby, crashes are the point. Now that Rahlves has begun ski cross, he is suddenly an American celebrity. “Everywhere I went for a while — the post office, the hardware store, wherever — someone stopped me to talk about the X Games,” Rahlves told the Times. “They had seen it live, on prime-time TV. Ski cross is not some renegade sport any longer.”

The Times produced that video a year ago; Rahlves has since won ski cross at the X-Games.

Below is another ski cross video -- one that shows the sort of chain reaction crashes that make the sport exciting to watch. In this sequence, American Casey Puckett was leading a ski cross event in Grindelwald, Switzerland last March, but gets hit from behind in a smash-up that takes out three of the four competitors. Puckett is the one lying motionless at the end of the video. He was unconscious, and suffered a concussion and a season-ending shoulder injury.

We have a way of simplifying things in America, of finding the heart of something and simmering it down so that little else is left. Racing cars in a highspeed oval. Getting to the bottom of a snowy hill as fast as possible with bumps and other skiers as obstacles. Where an F1 course might weave through a city's streets, the NASCAR oval track is built for racing. Likewise, the ski cross course: it isn't using the natural features of a mountainside, but taking it and molding it with jumps, bumps and drop-offs for the racers.

Ski racing is jumping the shark, trying a crazy stunt to save the sport. It's not the existence of ski cross as a sport that should sadden skiers -- it looks fun and it's fun to watch -- it's the normalization of it. It's an underground sport gone mainstream, and once it hits the Olympics, it's all over. When over-caffeinated attention-deficit pastimes and their creators become the tastemakers, the rest of the mainstream suffers. The scalpel is replaced by the amputation saw.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shepard Fairey's Sell Out is Complete

“Some people might think it could be making fun of what’s going on right now,” Shepard Fairey told the New York Times last week. “But I think most people are sophisticated enough to realize it’s a way of grabbing attention. It’s commerce. I don’t think there is really any political statement embedded in this.”

He was talking about his new shopping bag designs for Saks Fifth Avenue, the luxury department store that has suffered steep drops in holiday sales despite its steep drops in prices.

Appropriating Soviet iconography to sell handbags? Repurposing communist imagery for capitalism? Selling your own artistic style for advertising? Nah, no one would think that Fairey is doing anything political. What he's doing is eroding his credibility as a political artist and in the process diminishing the meaning of his now famous Obama poster.

“What we do every day, really, is propaganda,” said Saks' marketing head Terron Schaefer told the Times. True, and we expect this from Saks.

But to think that the guy who made his name with posters of Subcomandante Marcos (and giving the proceeds to the Zapatistas) and other lefty causes would use the same style for luxury department store propaganda is too much.

"It's not like I'm just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit," Fairey told Mother Jones in an interview last March. Aha!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Porn Bailout and its Associated Puns

The original press release, sent out by Hustler's Larry Flynt and Girls Gone Wild's Joe Francis, contained contradictory statements by the two porn peddlers.

Joe Francis:
"Congress seems willing to help shore up our nation's most important businesses, we feel we deserve the same consideration. In difficult economic times, Americans turn to entertainment for relief. More and more, the kind of entertainment they turn to is adult entertainment."
If that were true, you wouldn't be asking the government for $5 billion. Larry Flynt's quote came next:
"People are too depressed to be sexually active. This is very unhealthy as a nation. Americans can do without cars and such but they cannot do without sex."
He continued,
"With all this economic misery and people losing all that money, sex is the farthest thing from their mind. It's time for congress to rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America. The only way they can do this is by supporting the adult industry and doing it quickly."
Flynt claims that porn DVD rentals are down 22 percent. But New York strip clubs have claimed to do better as the economy tanked. “Since the market has been going down, our business has been going up — it’s unbelievable,”said the V.I.P. Club's Sam Zherka, quoted by the New York Times Blogs in October. With his business up 20 percent, he introduced a new $1,000 lap dance (20 minutes, private room, a bottle of Dom Pérignon, and a souvenir g-string).

“A lot of people are coming in and spending $2,000 and $5,000 and $10,000,” Zherka added. “They are spending like they are making millions and millions of dollars. I don’t know if they are depressed or what.”

Pathetic. This porn bingeing is apparently isolated to New York, maybe to Zherka's club. Everywhere else, Americans handle their depression by forgetting about porn.

Back to the bailout. The headlines should have been exciting, but no journalist came up with a "Headless Body in a Topless Bar"-style turn of phrase.

The most descriptive headline I saw was from an Australian source, ABC Online: "Americans 'too depressed' for sex, porn barons seek US bailout." The best headlines about the porn bailout weren't stellar. It's too easy and obvious a target. Here are some good ones:
"How Many 'Xs' in Bailout?" L.A. Times

"Porn industry seeks own stimulus ... package" MSNBC

"Mr. Smut Goes To Washington" Forbes

"Porn Tries to Get a Rise Out of Congress"

"Flaccid industry sparks porn bailout bid" Cape Times (South Africa)
Hmm. Those aren't even that good. The L.A. Times' piece had a pun about the softness of the porn market that was so earnest, I hardly noticed it. Most of the headlines were variations on hard and soft or straight information, like "Porn Industry Seeks Bailout."

Some headlines were indignant, like The New York Daily News: "Porn kings Larry Flint and Joe Francis go begging for a bailout."

The New York Times Blogs headline, "Bailouts Gone Wild! Porn Chiefs Seek $5 Billion," was so different it was refreshing. But this too is predictable.

Shouldn't TMZ and LAist do better than "Joe Francis to Uncle Sam: We're Comin'" and "Flynt and Francis: Flaccid Porn Biz Needs Gov't Pumping"?


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Obituary: Carl Pohlad

The billionaire owner of the Minnesota Twins baseball team is dead. Without putting too fine a point on it, Minnesotans generally regarded Carl Pohlad with the same esteem they reserved for institutions like Northwest Airlines. We saw him as a necessary evil, and as a miserly figure who disappointed the state over and over again.

As I reflect on the third richest man in Minnesota (his $3.6 billion made him number 102 on Forbes' list of the richest Americans), all sorts of warnings about speaking ill of the dead go through my head. I don't have anything nice to say about this man.

(Nasty obits aren't unheard of: A couple days after Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Christopher Hitchens wrote a pretty scathing piece for Slate called The Stupidity of Ronald Reagan -- I guess he couldn't help himself. This in spite of Hitchens' bizarre turn toward the conservative after 2001.)

While I think it's in poor taste to badmouth dead people -- at least on the ocassions of their deaths -- sometimes obituaries and news accounts romanticize divisive characters. Or maybe that's just a way of justifying this obituary.

Pohlad was no Ralph Engelstad (the infamous North Dakota-born casino baron who used to hold Las Vegas birthday parties for Hitler, and who financed the University of North Dakota's hockey arena only under the condition that they keep the controversial "Fighting Souix" mascot), but he wasn't well-loved in Minnesota either. He's been most famous as the man who constantly threatened to move or sell the Twins.

About a year ago, Murray Chass wrote in the New York Times that although Pohlad was the richest baseball team owner in the country, he seemed reluctant to spend money to keep great players like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. This after years of trying to bully the state into funding a new Twins stadium. By not investing in the team, by openly stripping the team of some of its better players, he was making it more and more unpalatable for taxpayers to swallow the idea of giving this billionaire a handout.

"The stadium fight was long and divisive," the Minneapolis Star Tribune said in an editorial today.
"In the end, Pohlad and the Twins prevailed, winning almost $400 million in public aid. The amount Pohlad contributed to the stadium deal — more than $145 million — was significant, though not enough to impress stadium critics who called the package a billionaire’s bailout."
It wasn't the fact that Pohlad wanted state money that I find so disgusting. I believe that the state should help with sports stadiums as much as it should help with theaters (the Guthrie), museums (the Walker) and public transportation. It's the way he fought and the threats he made. It's all the cuts he made and the indignance he showed at Minnesotans for not acting grateful after all of his whining.

Pohlad may also be remembered as one of the businessmen who dismantled the Twin Cities' streetcar system in the 50s, a system we are paying a fortune to rebuild now. This isn't quite accurate. Technically, the system, which was run by Twin City Rapid Transit, was dismantled in 1954, and Pohlad didn't take it over until 1959. (It was an investor named Charles Green who started the damage in 1948. His goal was to transition to buses by 1958. And ultimately, this was part of a nationwide trend of train-to-bus conversions allegedly financed by oil interests and GM.) Pohlad ran the TCRT for about ten years.

Was Carl Pohlad just a "regular guy" as his family says? Was he a clever businessman, or was he merely greedy? Did he have a secret life of generous philanthropy that gets obscured by his efforts to save money on the Twins? (He did start the Pohlad Family Foundation, which gives public and private grants to local causes -- $7 million in 2006 according to the website.) One could argue that he bravely stood up to the absurd escalation in pro athlete salaries. And that he saved the Twins in 1984 from previous owner Calvin Griffith, who wanted to move it. But then why did we all feel so lousy about him?

I don't know the answers to those questions, and it seems inadequate to say only that his public was suspicious of him and his intentions. What is certain though, is that his public image was not a rosy one.

Pohlad was 93, and doubtless he had a family that loved him. Yes, it's sad that he's dead, but lived a very full life, one that many of us might envy -- at least on the surface.

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