Toys and art

This week I was trapped in an aluminum tube with the movie, Mr. Magorium’s Magical Emporium. This is a piece of fluff that wastes Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman on a deeply vacuous story about a magic toy store, and how you can do anything you want if you only believe, and how accountants and grownups who work for a living are boring and need liberating by authentic people, like children, in touch with joy and love…I could, in Dorothy Parker’s immortal words, fwow up. In this movie, the toys are cast in the role usually given to Italians; actually the kid is eerily being the grownup for infantile adults, a little like the doomed hero of “The Rocking Horse Winner”.

What I realized later, though, is that it is not only a cheap piece of kitsch, but also inadvertently illustrates the problem I discussed in a post before Christmas, which is the way we are dumbing down kids’ environment by giving them toys that can’t really be played with, but only played in the sense that one plays a CD. In the whole movie, I recall only one scene in which any kid is actually playing with any of the zillion toys in the toy store at the center of the story, or anywhere else, and that scene involves an adult and a child playing dress-up parts with the help of a bunch of no-tech hats.Instead, the toys, with gee-whiz special effects, play by themselves and the kids watch. A bunch of balls fly up in the air…but no kid ever catches or throw a ball. Flying things zoom around. Dolls wave their arms. Everything lights up and flashes and turns colors…but the only thing the kids ever do is watch and speak the line “oooh!”, and sometimes the line “aaah!”. The juvenile lead actually interacts with a ball once…but it’s a room-sized playground ball that autonomously chases him and squashes him (no harm done) against a wall. The movie is playing the audience, in exactly the wrong way, and the toys are playing the kids. Good toys don’t come alive, they make kids come alive!

It’s cynical, manipulative and finally profoundly sad.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.