March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.