Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Subway: it's what America is all about.

We didn’t invent obsolescence, but we’re champs at turning a profit at it, and Subway is a prime example of that. I’ll explain.

You know how if you had, say, a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci or some such artist’s work, it’d be worth a lot of money, right? In fact, if you’d had the foresight to get in on the ground floor and buy one of their paintings while they were still alive, they’d be worth a fortune. Even Van Gogh’s paintings are worth a bundle, and they were painted more recently than those other two. Van Gogh’s stuff you could have picked up for a song, while he was still alive. (Or maybe half a song, considering.)

Anyway, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Van Gogh were artists, and their stuff has grown in value since they stopped producing it. From a supply-and-demand point of view, this presents two problems: 1) the supply has dried up entirely, and 2) the demand grows with the increased population of the people looking for these masterpieces. The artists are dead, and even if someone could knock out a convincing copy or fake new work in the same style (which does happen now and again,) no one’s going to want those. The marketplace for these guys’ work has been structured all wrong. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, sure—but only for those who can afford them!

So leave it to the Americans to solve this sticky wicket. Until Subway came along, the idiom in the United States for a sandwich maker was “sandwich maker,” or sometimes “short-order cook” or “that guy/chick who works at the sub shop.” By making their employees into “sandwich artists,” Subway thus made their sandwiches into art!

It was quite a coup. There’s close to 300 million Americans, and most of us can’t afford art. I’m fully employed and I’ve got a nice painting in my house, but it was a gift; I don’t think I could have afforded it with my own wages, so I’m typical in this regard. However, if I want more art, I just have to hie myself down to Subway, plunk down six bucks, and I’ve got art! The beauty is that this art is quintessentially American: it can be mass-produced, it’s inexpensive, and it’s functional. And the best part is that Subway sandwich art actually depreciates in value after it’s created! That’s the thing we Americans love the best about this art form: it keeps the art market fluid, since there’s always new product, and the new product is the most valuable product. Whether you get a chicken teriyaki sub with extra onions made by Chip Snurd in Omaha or a turkey-Swiss sub with hot peppers made by Tammy Culpepper in Savannah, Georgia, it’s art of similar quality, and it’s affordable. And what the Subway managers lose in appreciation of the œuvres, they make up for in volume of sales. Chip and Tammy, like all sandwich artists, may burn out after a year or two, but that’s okay—there’ll be more, and the art is all pretty much the same, no matter which Subway you go to. (Warning: if you go to a Subway in New York and don’t immediately see a sandwich artist, don’t sit down and wait for one. Chances are, if you do this, your seat will start moving and you could wind up in Queens or some such place.)

So that’s the distinctly American concept of sandwich art for you. It’s a glorious achievement in obsolescence, and keeps the market jumping. America is where the Renaissance meets the assembly line. What has your country contributed to civilization lately?

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