Context Speaks

Entartete Kunst Exhibit Poster, 1938

Entartete Kunst Exhibit Announcement Poster, 1938

There’s a story that always bothers me.

I don’t even need to open a book to read it. You can see it in every Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, hanging on the wall.

It’s called How Much is Enough?

In the story, a businessman with a Harvard MBA approaches a Mexican fisherman on a beach. The fisherman is done fishing for the day, and the businessman asks him why he doesn’t catch more fish. The fisherman replies that he can support his family with the fish he’s already caught. The businessman scoffs, recommends that he build a fish-processing empire. The businessman ends up looking like a jackass because the end goal he describes, where the fisherman can retire to a sleepy little fishing village once he has his economic empire, is the lifestyle the fisherman already leads.

I’ve read this story more times than I’d like to admit. After all, it is hanging on the wall, and I am a reader.

The weirdest thing about it is that it’s totally removed its original context. The author is supposedly unknown. It’s not in a book, so there’s no publishing information. There’s nobody there to tell me the story’s history. I know no other information about it, other than the message I’m supposed to take from it.

But it still has context. And that context is speaking to me, just as I’m reading the story on the wall, like I’m looking at a piece of schmaltzy art in a museum.

Schmaltzy or not, in any respectable museum, art is curated to promote respect and reverence. It’s rare you see someone curate art to persecute it, but that happened in dramatic fashion, once in particular.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, the movement looked to cleanse German culture of Bolshevik, Jewish, and ‘foreign’ influences, which included the suppression of modern art in Germany. They did so not only through confiscation of art, but its curation as well.

Through the 1930’s, the Nazis put on many approved exhibitions of ideal Germanic art, obviously curated with the reverence and respect you’d see in most museums. In 1937, however, they curated an exhibition of Entartete Kunst, or Degenerate Art. This exhibition traveled throughout Germany, showcasing jewels of modern German art.

How the exhibit was curated added a new dimension to the art. Pictures were hung chaotically. Some were hung upside down. Derisive commentary was painted on the walls. The disrespect to the art was obvious, even sometimes sarcastic. The context was meant to convey an obvious message, that such art was to be scorned, and that it was unworthy of real Germans.

The story How Much is Enough? was actually written by one of those real Germans too. But it wasn’t called How Much is Enough? or even The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman. It was originally called Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral, or Anecdote Concerning the Lowering of Productivity. It was by an author named Heinrich Böll; he wrote it for a German May Day festival in 1963. Böll’s version is different from the first in significant ways, but the stories are similar enough.

Originally, this story was meant to be an interplay between the capitalist and socialist ways of thinking, contextualized by May Day, one of the main holidays that honors the labor movement. It was shown on the Deutsche Rundfunk, which is the German version of NPR.

These days, this story can be found on the walls of every Jimmy John’s in existence.

Looking at this story in the context of May Day, and German public radio broadcast for which it was written, it makes a lot of sense: you have a worker who’s done enough, a capitalist that doesn’t understand life, and a conclusion that we should be following the fisherman and not the businessman.

On the wall of a Jimmy John’s the story takes on a whole new meaning, and a somewhat nefarious one. Because, quite literally, everything around me when I read this story on a Jimmy John’s wall is the product of the mentality of the businessman. That’s why there are over 2000 Jimmy John’s franchises in 43 states; they have the mentality of the Harvard MBA.

In this sense, How Much is Enough is not Böll’s story stripped of context. It is Böll’s story given a wholly new one. And this context fundamentally changes the meaning of the story. In Böll’s original version, with its original context, everyone is supposed to question the businessman. Everyone is supposed to side with the fisherman. On the wall of a Jimmy John’s, only we are. Only we are supposed to be the fisherman. The Harvard MBAs are running the franchise operation back in Champaign, Illinois, and making a fair bit of cash at it too.

We often think of information as lacking or having context, but realistically there is no such thing as information wholly without context. What we have to think about is what the message of the context is. Oftentimes that is where the story really lies.

Even if it is, well, troubling.

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