Supermarkets are held in contempt by many, with the charge-sheet against them being long and varied. To the aesthete they are ugly, uniform and bland. To the socially-conscious they are anti-local, anti-environment, anti-worker. To the individualist they represent the triumph of the many over the one, the mass-produced over the hand-crafted, the factory over the artisan.
These criticisms are obviously valid. And just as obviously futile. For the rise to dominance of the supermarket was and is unstoppable. Their popularity, their ubiquity, is a result of two of the most powerful currents in our society: the economic monopoly of multinational companies, coupled with the deepening passivity and helplessness of their customers. That is, supermarkets thrive not only because of economies of scale, town-planning and a craven political culture, but because they cater to that most depressing of modern desires: convenience, under which ragged banner people will apparently endure any indignity. A glance inside any average supermarket will show a full spectrum of human frailty and weakness: feared family patriarchs reduced to the status of children by limitless choice and ambient music, children themselves driven mad by jarring colours and noise, staff: ghostly, exhausted, sun-starved. And as its customers endlessly follow the ritual circuit from fruit to checkout, the last of the independent, local, non-corporate enterprises of their towns wither and die, ignored, crushed by the merciless Panzer advance of the supermarket.
This might be considered depressing by the unambitious and the unimaginative, but seen with the right eyes the supermarket is more than a basin of suburban activity and tranced consumption. It is genuinely a place of wonder. Magic, even. As an example, consider logistics. If logistics were painting, supermarkets would represent a repeated Sistine chapel-level of achievement. Because it isn’t visible, it is not counted as wondrous, but consider what you would see if you could attain an omniscient view of the place – if you could follow the thousands of tendrils of production back to their roots. Each plant species grown, nurtured and harvested; each animal reared and culled; the thousands of concurrent processes of blending, distilling, refining, merging that are underway everywhere at all times. And the constant assessment, the judging, the rating….. This surely is an allegory of evolution itself, or even divine creation and government.
Traditional art forms – painting, theatre and especially writing – are fading in power. Culture is important to our nation’s bourgeoise, who see knowledge of it as a badge of class membership. Transformative or spiritual or transgressive art, however, is only feared. Nobody weeps in front of scenes of the crucifixion in western galleries. Theatre stages aren’t stormed by scandalised audiences and governments don’t cower if an author accuses them of an injustice. Music has fallen the furthest, existing now as a sort of traded internet currency. Art and the spiritual, like everything else, has been catalogued, processed and commoditised. It is over-lit and has lost its mystery, its wildness, its otherness. But our culture, such as it is, does offer new forms of magic to wonder and marvel at, to be awed by, for those prepared to alter their perspectives.
If consumption has become our society’s function and purpose, then it must provide its beating heart. Soviet art in the 20th century celebrated the factory, the Stakhanonvite worker, the surpassed quota. That is, it celebrated production – and its art form, Productivism, was dedicated to extolling industrial achievement. Where is the artistic form to celebrate our society’s achievement of product diversity, abundance, the miraculous fecundity of the supermarket? Who will be the champions of Consumptionism?
Our need now is not only for new artists willing to give themselves to this movement. Our need is greater. Enough of this apathy, this drift, this meaninglessness in our wretched suburban lives. Our need is surely of a rebirth of spiritual life and of elemental passion. That is, a new religion. Think about the opportunities: new martyrs, new wild and drunken preachers, new visionaries and theologians, new desert fanatics, madmen, whores and ranters. New schisms and heretics and sects and blasphemers. Our society is gravid with a new religion which needs only to be given form and structure. Because its vital ingredients already exist, as seeds, as potential, as untapped energy. Supermarkets are the cathedrals and the flock is already there, docile and credulous and lost. They are, without knowing it, craving leadership and certainty and deliverance and you can and must provide it to them *.
I would urge you, upon finishing this article to go forth to a supermarket and claim your flock: promise, threaten, cajole. Fashion robes from discarded packaging and containers, write commandments, incantations, hymns. Create and perform disturbing rituals, write edicts in your own blood and punish those who won’t obey them. Declare yourself pope. Your people need you for protection and guidance and meaning. Do not fail them.
* To those unswayed by this argument, I would say simply, consider the parallels. Sunday families who reluctantly went to church in the past now head just as reluctantly and ritualistically to their out-of-town hypermart. Yesterday’s parables have become today’s special offers, singled out for their pertinence. Tradition’s vicar, delivering the good news, will now deliver it for free within a five-mile radius. The loyalty card has replaced the crucifix as the new symbol of membership and the banking and insurance services now offered by supermarkets are just a new strain of medieval indulgence. The parallel is uncanny.