On my first day of class in Wisconsin, I dropped a “Breakfast Club” reference that thudded like Judd Nelson’s career after “From the Hip.” And I immediately felt a compulsion to familiarize myself with contemporary popular culture.
A man in my upper 30’s, my touchstones for affective metaphorical connectivity seemed to be mossy and only getting mossier, so I set out on a mission to brush up on my understanding of Rihanna, Drake and to discover what the heck Aeropostale is, through a strict regimen of MTV and regular trips to Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall.
I think this is a pretty common anxiety for professors who try to relate knotty concepts to their students by drawing from more familiar examples. I begin every Contemporary Art class by comparing art to fashion, and knowing fashion beyond what I might have worn to a Temple of the Dog show in 1993 would certainly behoove me.
I showed my class an image of a guy in a fine suit and asked, “If you were raised by English-speaking wolves, and encountered this person, would you know what he was trying to express through his choice of clothing?”
A resounding “no.”
The students agreed that the English-speaking wolves wouldn’t know that suit to be any more fashionable, or business-like, than a banana leaf loincloth. I suggested that works of art often function like fashion, though hopefully not always. I said that the best works, as Peter Schjeldahl has noted, communicate ideas, while the vast majority merely occasion them. In other words, less successful work needs to manufacture meaning, and thus should be understood within a self-enclosed system of signs, rooted in the history of art and ideas rather than in experience.
This held their attention for a moment, but I lost it again when I showed one of Anna Betbeze’s tattered wooly rugs and a Tom Friedman sculpture of accumulated pink eraser shavings. I got a version of the ‘anyone could do that’ complaint from a hockey player in the back of class. I usually match such pat resistance with a line from a comedian in order prove that a simple, elegant observation can ring as legitimate as a baroque painting that took weeks. I performed a clumsy version of the Jerry Seinfeld bit about how if someone from another planet saw humans cleaning up after dogs they’d naturally assume the dogs were in charge.
I think my problem was that I went for the whole impersonation in addition to the joke, and impressions aren’t my strong suit. Either way, they didn’t relate. I imagined my class as me, and me as my dad recounting Klinger jokes from M*A*S*H on a morning in 1979. Eyes rolling back.
This second thud, compounded by the “Breakfast Club” dud, sent me poking even harder for common ground.
So I finally broke the fourth wall, and asked directly what they found amusing.
A collective “meh.”
“Whatta about music. What do you listen to when you hang out and study?” I kind of felt like a viral marketing specialist conducting a focus group for a new energy drink.
“How about Beyonce..is she still big? I saw her at the Deuce in Miami two years ago and she looked pretty FINE.” Trying to seem cool.
“What do you do to waste time when you’re sitting in your dorm rooms when you’re not reading your art history book?”
I told them that in undergrad I used to sit around eating Chef Boyardee ravioli and watching “Real World” marathons when I should’ve been studying. I also had a roommate that watched this movie called “Army of Darkness” over and over and over and that I couldn’t stand it because it was like a watching a video game without having the pleasure of interactivity.
And then I caught a twinge in my audience. A spark of vitality. A flicker in an eye in the back of the room; a twitch of a thumb in row two.
Video games. Yes!
Most of the class, including the girls, lit up when I mentioned video games. And someone exploded giddily that the game “Call of Duty” was going on sale at midnight, and it was quickly clear that most of my class would be in line to purchase it. A major event in a world I didn’t know anything about. Before I could get dismissive, I recalled waiting in line outside at Kieff’s Music in Lawrence, KS at midnight to purchase R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People.”
I haven’t played a video game since a stand up arcade version of Karate Champ in 1985. So my mission to relate to my students would prove far more complicated that laundering old Seinfeld jokes through a newer and more relevant comedian. I’m up against a behemoth. A new paradigm that I don’t understand.
Considering now all the Johnny Depp and Major League Baseball and James Patterson Books I’ve dropped as relatable examples, I can’t help but wonder how much pedagogical ground I would’ve gained if I would’ve known anything about the game “Halo.” If I could only trade all of what I know about Seinfeld for a vague knowledge of which video game console is which. You’re never too old, right?
Maybe sometimes you are.
As the last few minutes of class melted away, I had a revelation. What these millennials need is a video game that bridges the gap between alternative visual culture and first-person shooter. A video game with substance. A video game that matches its phenomenological impact dynamic graphics with hearty intellectual concepts. What these millenials need is a video game about contemporary art.
And as a man already on a mission, I pledged in that moment to bring it to the world. Stay tuned for what will be my greatest masterpiece: “Bruce Nauman: Call of Duty” – A first person shooter game where the act of shooting turns into a feedback loop of self-awareness, making the player uncomfortably self-conscious and forcing them to stop and do something else after a few minutes.
November 13, 2012 · Print This Article
I left New York City for Wisconsin just as hurricane Sandy was barreling up the East Coast, and I returned in the middle of the nor’easter that came to salt the wounds that hadn’t yet healed.
That means I was in Wisconsin to observe the aftermath of both the election and the hurricane. It was the first election I spent outside of New York in over a decade, and, despite being in a place that rallied behind a lesbian senator and prides itself on its artisanal cheeses and beers, the sense that I wasn’t in Brooklyn was palpable.
Romney/Ryan signs dotted most of the manicured lawns of the bedroom communities in Ozaukee County, one of the most republican enclaves in the state, indeed the country. Cedarburg, where I stay with my in-laws sits smack in the center of the county, and happens to be the place where John McCain and Sarah Palin chose to launch their 2008 presidential campaign, which didn’t even think about coming close enough to Brooklyn to see its forearm tattoos.
When ensconced inside Cedarburg’s city limits one begins to understand why its citizens gripe about the federal government. Look around and you’ll see a community that seems from every vantage to have figured things out. Not in some kind of sinister, Ayn Randian, elitist disengagement either, but in a real, communitarian, bucket brigade, do unto others way. A way that leads many of those who don’t leave the place to wonder why a bunch of bureaucrats 1000 miles away should be shaking them down for money to pay for social and cultural programs that they manage just fine on a community level.
In Cedarburg, if you needed food, you could walk up to any restaurant and they’d give you a meal. That’s welfare. If you were sick, the doctor would see you. That’s medical care. If you were pregnant and 16, the community would politely shame you and gossip about you for the rest of your life, but would also see to it that your child was cared for. That’s social services. That’s also the police.
My dad-in-law – who happens to be named Sandy – is one of a majority in his community who if allowed would shrink the entire federal government into a 24-hour help desk whose phone number was buried so deep on the website that you’d have no choice but to use the on-line chat to reach them. But as he watched New Jersey and New York plunge into darkness and not immediately light back up, I watched his conviction waver. And as he watched his beloved Chris Christie lay olive branches in front of Barack Obama, I thought I saw a little pan-American Esprit de corps bubble up from inside and pierce his usually impenetrable exterior.
Seeing Christie and Obama together, he muttered, “This must be a dire situation because it’s not easy for someone that big to kiss an ass.”
We stayed up late talking about Jacksonian versus Hamiltonian democracy as the disaster unfolded over cable news. We didn’t agree on everything, but it was wholly amicable. I gave him a copy of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” which he didn’t immediately throw into the fire or back at me, a gesture as tender as a hug if you knew the man.
He liked it when I riffed about how the media’s job is to locate scapegoats where they can and to create them when they can’t. I did a shtick about natural disasters in Chris Rock’s voice and then played him Rock’s bit about why people blame music and video games when kids go on shooting rampages at public schools.
“What ever happened to CRAZY!!??”
“What ever happened to BIG, POWERFUL, IMPLACABLE, UNAVOIDABLE, NATURAL FUCKING DISASTER!!!?”
He roared like a kid telling dirty jokes on the playground. He said all journalists were like hyenas but with less loyalty, and then told me an old one about a blind stewardess and a couple of donkeys for good measure.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to galvanize people.
The day after the election, I caught Sandy out in the front yard taking down the Romney/Ryan and Tommy Thompson signs. He like the rest of the town was emotionally hungover from the political orgy of the past few nights. In fact, earlier in the day I actually saw a guy crying at the gas station about the election. It could have been for other reasons, but I assumed he was pissed about either Romney or Paul or Tommy. After gathering and tossing the campaign signs in the trash we went inside where the 24 hour news droned on. It was Fox News and the subject was the fiscal cliff and the end of the Bush tax cuts.
Sandy yelled over one the pundits, “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!!”
“Of the host’s hair?” I added sarcastically.
“Of the SOCIALISTS!!”
“You mean of our democratically elected federal government whose taxes are roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product?”
“A quarter given is a quarter wasted and redistributed!! Protect my shores, deliver my mail, and get the hell out of my life!! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!”
Hurricane Sandy was back and no bucket brigade could stop it.