A decade of Dilbert

Culture | The court jester of the e-boom turns 10, the king is dead but his memory isn't, and an artist escapes elitism

Issue: "The harvest of abortion," Oct. 23, 1999

Cube Nation
Dilbert won't go away. He's our Everyman. Scott Adams's creation is celebrating its 10-year anniversary as the icon of a nation of cube-dwellers. Our hero and his menagerie take a deadpan trip through insolent technology and hapless interoffice conversation. "I slavishly obey the insane commands of a pointy-headed baboon," Dilbert tells the world. Heading into the new millennium, he's still going strong. A new season of the Dilbert TV show started this month on the UPN network, and now his image is licensed for a Visa card. "Dilbert fans may not have a say in the boardroom, but they do with NextCard," the charge plate's promoters cheesily boast. The Dilbert comic pokes fun at the idiocies and hang-ups of corporate life, stopping just short of getting itself in trouble. Armed with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT, our hero works at a nameless company with a nameless boss. When the strip started in 1989, Internet service was rare and the PC revolution was in intermission. Today, Dilbert is the e-boom's court jester. Syndicate United Media estimates that over 50 million people read the strip, with several hundred thousand grabbing it off Dilbert works the way good stand-up comedy works. The strip airs out the frustrations, worries, and contradictions of life in public. You can't say that your bosses are foolish, but he can. Since he's minimalist, mouthless, and modest, he doesn't offend the big shots. At its worst, Dilbert is the safety valve for incompetence and inefficiency-allowing its victims to let off steam rather than revolt. Truth be told, the Dilberts of the world are driving much of today's roaring economy. High-tech firms bemoan the lack of quality people in their fields, yet stock options and generous benefits packages are now commonplace. While these people work long hours and must deal with a few dolts, they are often well compensated for the experience. A hunka', hunka, burnin' love
Every king leaves relics, and Elvis's leftovers are as prized as the treasures of Europe. Not even his shrine-keepers at Graceland can keep up with it all, so they held a three-day auction in Las Vegas. What do I hear for a sequined jumpsuit, letters from Marilyn Monroe, or a 1956 Lincoln Continental? Even obscure items drew thousands. People paid $8,000 for a sixth-grade report card (Elvis got Ds in math and geography, but a solid A in music), $22,500 for his draft card, and $65,000 for his first record contract with RCA. Meanwhile, over on eBay, the home Elvis Presley owned while he was a soldier at Fort Hood sold for over $200,000. Elvis achieved icon status after his death despite being spurned as a square by 1960s counterculture types and tarred as tacky during his fat, bloated days in the 1970s, when he belted out tunes for high rollers at the Las Vegas Hilton. Considered racy in the 1950s, his Graceland mansion was turned into a family-friendly monument in the 1980s, raking in over $15 million annually. What's interesting is that half of the site's visitors are under 35, meaning they have at best a vague memory of Elvis alive or of "Blue Suede Shoes," "Love Me Tender," or "Hound Dog." The whole Elvis phenomenon stays alive because most people have an opinion of him as everything from white trash to blues genius. Big boxed sets of his music are available for those who want the cream of his massive crop without much of the truly bad; those who want schlock can watch tacky movies like Clambake, Kissin' Cousins, and Change of Habit. The next few generations won't have an Elvis. We'll have more Ricky Martins, Britney Spearses, and Garth Brookses. Our postmodern subcultural splinters won't allow someone to reach so many millions. Escaping to a simpler world
Is Thomas Kinkade the new Norman Rockwell or just a hack painter with good marketing? He boasts of being "America's most collected living artist," offering romantic visions of tranquility to the masses. Instead of dealing to museums and elite collectors, Mr. Kinkade (who says he is a devout Christian) fights his war in malls in places like King of Prussia, Pa., Skokie, Ill., and Jacksonville, Fla. His work pops up on coffee cups, Bible covers, and even mousepads. Mr. Kinkade makes appearances everywhere from Christian bookstores to the QVC shopping channel. His marketing company, Media Arts Group, is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The work of the "Painter of Light" is dismissed as visual muzak by some, but Mr. Kinkade says it has purpose. "We were made for calm, not chaos, and that is why we long for simpler times," he said in his book Simpler Times. "That's the kind of life I strive to evoke in my paintings. It's the kind of life I'm committed to building for myself and my family." His work is openly escapist. Works with names like "Evening Glow," "Forest Chapel," and "Conquering the Storms" escort viewers away to a sanitized world where life's edges aren't as rough. The pictures sit on the wall like windows into another world. As commercial art, this isn't all bad, especially compared with awful kitsch often sold in Christian bookstores. And who can complain about a vacation from the ugliness and obscurity of much 20th-century art? "The average person can name the five top musicians they just love but there has been no populist expression of the arts," he told the San Francisco Chronicle last summer. "The artists have alienated themselves from the culture, and the average person has no interest in their work." Can Mr. Kinkade help ignite a pop-culture renaissance? Or will he become a visual Barry Manilow?

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