NYT Lectures on U.S.'s 'Endless Consumption,' Hawks $38K Croc Handbags and Gold-Plated Lamb Skulls

Friday's New York Times Arts section featured a liberal lecture on America's "culture of endless consumption" and "income inequality" disguised as an opera review from music critic Zachary Woolfe.

Never mind that Woolfe's newspaper panders to a rich liberal readership with stories like this from June 3, 2012: "Family Travel at the $300,000 Price Point." The lead: "Imagine you are heading to your ski house in Aspen with a couple of friends and a weekend’s worth of luggage. The forecast calls for snow. Do you grab the keys to your practical family vehicle or climb into your Ferrari?" Jennifer Kingson tackled the pressing populist issue of luxury dog houses on June 28.

And Stephanie Clifford on October 17 penned "Just the Thing for Those Who Have It All," which opened with an invitation to spend: "So you've earned it. Now, how to spend it? We have a few ideas." Among them: A $50,000 camera, a $37,500 crocodile handbag, and a gold-plated lamb skull at the bargain price of $5,500.

But never mind all that, back to Woolfe's hectoring lecture against "endless consumption."

We hope and expect that the arts can play a political role in our culture. They can’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily bear tangible fruit -- they can’t elect a candidate or pass a bill -- but they should cause us to reflect on our moment. They should make us angry when we need to be angry.

Few operas elicit anger like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s still-ferocious 1930 satire “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” currently being powerfully sung and acted at the Manhattan School of Music. And few times like the present seem so appropriate for the work’s coruscating attack on a culture of endless consumption, a world in which having no money is the most serious crime of all.

In the opera, that consumption – of food, booze and each other -- takes place in the pleasure city of Mahagonny, situated in a fantastical (if all too real) America somewhere between Alaska and Pensacola, Fla.

But in the sobering performance at the Manhattan School on Wednesday evening, you were reminded why Brecht and Weill placed a note in the vocal score that Mahagonny “is in every sense international.” Its lessons are not just American ones: they bear repeating everywhere there is income inequality, austerity, deregulation or Black Friday sales.

Woolfe ended with politically tinged praise for artistic director Dona Vaughn.

...her cast brought all the necessary passion, culminating, on the verge of Jim’s electrocution, in his bitter delivery of the opera’s all too relevant moral: “The joy that I bought was no joy, and the freedom I got with money was no freedom.”

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.