Times Square Art Project Keeps Score on Capitalism
by JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
On Friday morning, an odd sign was unveiled in a pedestrian plaza at the north end of Times Square: a 20- foot by 9-foot red, white and blue retro-styled illuminated scoreboard, emblazoned with the chirpy slogan "Capitalism Works for Me!"
The scoreboard, which was hooked up to a device allowing passersby to vote "true" or "false," wasn’t a cleverly postmodern advertisement but a provocation by the artist Steve Lambert, who conceived of it three years ago as a way of initiating a direct conversation about capitalism and inequality without coming off like a crazy person.
"I wanted to get people thinking about something better than the system we have," said Mr. Lambert, who wears his own sympathies as openly as the brown fedora, orange sneakers and neo-Amish beard he sported on Friday. "But if you bring it up in a one-on-one conversation, people usually just run."
The scoreboard, brought to New York by the French Institute Alliance Française and Times Square Arts as part of the Crossing the Line arts festival, initially drew more gawkers than voters, with passersby perhaps uncertain if it had more in common with the huge Coca-Cola advertisement looming overhead or the handwritten "Free Hugs" sign carried by a man making his way down Broadway.
But a line soon formed, and just after noon a cheer went up for the first vote: a "false" from Michael Smith, 18, a vacationing high school student from Palatine, Ill., who had wandered by while killing time before his hotel check-in.
"Capitalism may work for me personally, but it isn’t working well for the country as a whole," Mr. Smith, who has campaigned for several Democratic political candidates, said, before rattling off statistics about income inequality and youth unemployment.
Seif Shazly, 24, an Egyptian living in Germany who was about to start a job in management consulting, offered a vigorous counterpoint. "My belief is that ownership of capital is a freedom granted by nature," he said after punching the button for "true." "An economy based on competition isn’t just better for me," he added. "It’s healthier overall."
Other early voters included a jump-suited worker from the Times Square Alliance (false); a retired federal government worker from Chicago (true); a part-time security guard at the nearby American Eagle store (false); a self-described "evil defense contractor from Texas" (true); and a young man from Coney Island holding a sign, apparently meant in earnest, announcing himself as the second coming of Jesus Christ (false).
Some rough and unsurprising patterns quickly emerged: younger voters, European tourists and people in working-class jobs tended to vote false; older people, visitors from red states, and the more prosperous tended to vote true.
"Capitalism has given me lots of opportunities to work hard and better myself," said Scott Grigsby, 61, who had flown in from Bella Vista, Ark., for the Razorbacks-Rutgers game on Saturday. He added: "I’m a banker. Of course I like capitalism."
Bernardo Silva, 58, taking a break from his job handing out fliers for a nearby Brazilian restaurant, voted false. "People don’t make enough money to live," he said.
When the polling ended at 5 p.m., the tally on the scoreboard, which will return to Times Square for another round of voting Oct. 6-9, stood at 93 for capitalism, and 109 against. Business in Times Square seemed to continue as usual.
But at least one "true" voter, James Wallace, 43, from Manhattan, spotted a hidden note of realism in Mr. Lambert’s idealistic project.
"The sign doesn’t say ‘Capitalism is perfect,’" he said.
The Crossing the Line festival runs through Oct. 13. Steve Lambert’s "Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False)" will be on view again Oct. 6-9 on Broadway between 44th and 47th Street.