Monday, August 1, 2011

The Potato Eaters

Regardless of the travails we face in modern times, there is some tacit recognition that centuries ago people had it worse, and that therefore whatever problems we may have now with our existing system are fairly mild relative to the problems that existed in the past.

What work of art doesn't exemplify that idea better than Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters'? The Potato Eaters are a dirt poor European family - farmers, field workers, etc. - huddled around a meager table in dim light eating.... potatoes... and generally looking grim. Yes, the painting is striking, just in the sense that Van Gogh is able to capture a certain type of misery before he went truly mad and began painting in more vivid colors, eating his pigment, applying thick brushstrokes to cypress trees and starlit nights and so forth.

I do not say this in jest as Van Gogh suffering from madness created some of the most beautiful art the world has ever known.

Nevertheless it must be noted that Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters' represents an earlier period of dull, drab, lifeless colors - a commentary on the miserable conditions of the poor and exploited working souls of Europe.

Today, despite whatever concerns we may have regarding the current state of events - the passage of our debt ceiling, the housing bubble bursting, the rate of unemployment, etc. - there is some implicit understanding among our collective gestalt that no matter what happens we will never again occupy that miserable state of affairs that effected the legendary Potato Eaters!

Indeed, the huddled masses fled Europe in droves! They came here to find their fame and fortune - to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes, only to forget those bland fruits they ate on bitterly cold nights under the most grim conditions in the Old World...

It is the American way!

Or is it?

I submit to you that if we examine 'The Potato Eaters' more carefully we will find a woeful tale of modern social neglect - so much so that were Van Gogh alive today, we wonder just which subjects he would deem suitable to paint!

Who are the Potato Eaters of today?

Why, they are the poor souls who lack two critical ingredients - time and money - to do anything but feed their families french fries from McDonalds.

Who eats at McDonalds? Who consumes the Taco Bell burritos - the subject of controversy because no one is entirely sure if their meat is really meat or not!? Who has pulled up to the drive through and ordered a 'happy meal', turning a blind eye to the quantity of saturated fat dripping from their children's chins!?

We know that issues of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, clogged arteries, and so forth are placing a heavy burden on our already problematic 'health industry' (which should be an oxymoron, but sadly isn't), and yet we fail to hold the fast food industry culpable for its negative effect on our population.

Today's Potato Eaters consume french fries. In large quantities (yes, super-sized, well covered territory at this point). We could ridicule them for making such a poor choice, but the fact is their choice is just that: poor. They lack time and resources for making 'slow food' with expensive fresh ingredients. They have never read 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' and even if they had, they lack the funds to follow up on the solutions suggested therein.

Those solutions are for you and I: we, marginal members of the aristocracy (or petit bourgeoisie, middle class - whatever you want to call it) gain from these wonderful suggestions of fresh and unprocessed food. We avoid corn meal like the plague, we spend the extra few dollars on the range-chicken eggs, we share bags of fresh produce from our eco-conscious neighbors, we dine at restaurants with the hotest fusion chefs and coolest latino valet dudes.

In short, we leave the exploitation of bodies and souls to the fast food industry, which preys on poor people no less ethically than the terrible injustices of the past so nobly captured by Vincent Van Gogh.

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