IN CASE ANY OF YOU WONDERED WHETHER SUSTAINABILITY was, at heart, an ideological love affair with subsistence living, take a gander:



Take this as a fashion forecast of our new footgear when the sustainable crowd finally erases the Industrial Revolution and its works from the planet. The shoes on the left are a bit hard to see in their full splendor but they are made completely of plastic packaging. In good weather, we can always go barefoot. Look again at the one on the right:



How uncomfortable to wear! Those cords over the instep would start to hurt before you had walked a block. It looks penitential—which, to ardent devotees of sustainability, it is truly supposed to be. Social justice demands that we in the industrialized West surrender the privilege of Prada, Mephisto, New Balance, et alia, and earn our callouses like everyone in the Third World. The point of orthodox sustainability—something quite different from responsible stewardship of resources—is not to raise the Third World out of its poverty and deprivation but to sink the West into it.  A stone in every pot! Our mea culpas on our feet! Such is global justice the sustainable way.

You can learn how make stuff like this in a summer residency at Transart Institute. And where might that be, you ask? Everywhere, it seems. It has addresses in Brooklyn, Berlin, the UK and on Park Avenue South, New York City. The images above, taken from their press release, illustrate their wares:

THE MFA PROGRAM is geared towards the development of a sustainable artistic praxis rather than training in certain media or genres, challenging students to think conceptually and work creatively in new ways.

Is there another way to think besides doing it conceptually? Transart’s commit to praxis sans training calls to mind Stanley Crouch’s criticism of Basquiat. (Crouch, the reigning jazz critic throughout his years as staff writer for The Village Voice, has been a keen cultural critic as well.) Taking Basquiat as a symptom of the times, Crouch considered his paintings to be the visual equivalent of rap:

. . . he is an example of the extension to painting of the standards of rock and roll—intensity, shock, and disregard for technique. I don’t know if you can make a sincere statement if you don’t really have the tools to give a sense of what you are actually saying. There’s no substitute for skill, but you don’t face that when you maintain an adolescent posture in the world. What this kind of thing begets is arrested development.

What Transart gives us here is a visual analog, not to rock and roll, but to the cant rhetoric of sustainability. Behind benign-sounding appeals to live within our means, is a call for economic restructuring and a laundry list of concerns dear to the academic left. Antagonism to Western prosperity could find no clearer symbol that those plastic-bottle sandals.

Moving from politics to aesthetic, what really does interest me about those shoes is their allusion—unwitting, I am sure—to Arthur Szyk’s magical illustration for Han Christian Andersen’s “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf.”



The glory of it! Its compositional complexity and linear grace can hold its own again details from the Book of Kells.



Szyk never gave two pins for praxis but he was passionate about craft, medium, and the soul of his art. His narrative watercolors sought the narrative truth of Andersen’s vision. A vain child, little Inger stepped on a loaf so as to keep her good shoes clean. Around her spiral “all the misfortunes that befell her in consequence.”

Szyk moves us to pity the heedless Inger. Transart’s shoe-designer moves us only to mockery.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey



  1. Aren’t we in the West supposed to die of guilt? We can’t avoid it unless we reclaim our innocence. Recycling is the way to do it. And lowering our carbon footprint.

  2. I remember that illustration from “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf.” It was terrifying to me … and I lost complete track of the story, and its moral, in looking at the picture … it was so powerful.

  3. Yes, Ann, just so. Every one of Szyk’s illustrations had–still has–a power unrivaled by few contemporary painters. None that I can think of.

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