People often wonder why I was an art historian, and why I took Visual Culture classes. There is nothing
lucrative that you can do with art history. And visual culture must be the silliest subject in the world. I mean all you are doing is looking at pictures, right?*
Yes, I know, your 5-year-old can look at pictures*. But that doesn’t make him a cultural critic. That doesn’t give him an understanding of the language of the visual world (visual semiotics and semantics) and the ability to analyze the power of images over popular culture. That is what we do in art history.
This might not seem so interesting or useful. I mean they are just harmless pictures, right? Why would anyone want to criticize pictures? Well, some pictures, like children’s illustrations, or paintings, are fairly harmless. But the majority of pictures that we see every day are not art or illustration. Most of the images we see today are advertising, and I believe advertising must be criticized and historicized. That doesn’t mean that we have to think ads are “bad”. But we should see ads for what they are, an attempt to sell us something in a very seductive way. Sometimes ads are cool. But they aren’t art.
I was recently thinking about those great 1990′s ads for Guess jeans (Georges Marciano). They were so beautiful. They looked like dramatic films stills and they featured top models like Claudia Schiffer or Anna Nicole Smith. They usually had a very “American” feeling to them, like something from a western. But others were very European like an old Italian realist movie. They felt gritty and cinematic.
It occurred to me that a major influence on the 1990′s Guess ads was John Houston’s 1961 film, The Misfits. You know the one with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. If you don’t know it you should see it. It’s set in the American desert and tells the story of a divorcée and some struggling cowboys in Nevada still trying to live the frontier life in the 1960′s, but probably well on their way to just becoming trailer trash on the outskirts of Las Vegas in a world where global distribution and spreading suburbanism was killing the frontier. It’s a study of the end the cowboy persona and the American idea of “freedom” that came with it.
The Misfits and those Guess ads have so much in common. Passionate love, beautiful dumb people, and a gritty, black-and-white environment. But I would say that the Misfits is art and the Guess ads are not. John Huston, filmmaker of the Misfits, wanted to say something about how the frontier no longer fits daily life. Like an advertiser, he used beauty to make his message attractive and seductive. But his message was so much more thought provoking than the Guess message, which is simply “buy jeans”. But I don’t think much more of an argument needs to be made for these differences.
But lots of people who grew up on the Guess ads (like me) stop there and see the ads as iconic. The ads do have the feeling of the film, but they are derivative. They only communicate how the film looked, and not Huston’s overall message. To get to the message, you have to think harder and find the thing in history that influences the ads. But in our visual world where new images are constantly replacing old ones, we are not conditioned to look up the older things. We are so caught up in watching the ever-changing slide show of new images, some of which make us forget the past, but many of which, like the Guess ads, evoke it. These “throwback” images represent consumer culture’s obsession with nostagia that post modernists like Fredrick Jameson referred to as the “historical amnesia”.
And it’s cool. After all, we don’t want to overanalyze and over think things. And yet, sometimes being constantly entertained gets old. We start to wonder if we are making our own choices any more. That is why I personally love old images and old things. I love to see what people watched on TV in the 1950′s and 1960′s. I love to see the products they bought, the brochures they looked it, their flowery kitchen wallpaper, their speech and lack of clever irony. I even love more recent old things, like techno from the 1990′s. I think it’s important to try to remember or research how people behaved in other eras. And I’m not just talking about cool hot rods and rockabilly music or raves and pacifiers. I’m talking about the boring everyday aspects of a past era. How they might only have had one telephone in the house, or a girl might only have had two dresses because clothes were made in America, the little forgotten details.
So overall, art history is good and useful. We see lots of images – art primarily. We see how they have been received through history. An understanding of these older images serves as a triggers for memory when we are looking around our highly mediated environment, so that we can demystify popular advertising images and understand where they came from, and we don’t get too swept up in the seduction of novelty, like hapless cowboys trying to live in a romantic past that doesn’t really exist.
* Here is the rest of my diatribe about your five year old. It felt like I was getting off-topic so I made it a footnote: Your dear child CAN make something that looks like a Rauschenberg, or a Jackson Pollack (more likely a Pollack. Rauschenbergs were really complicated multi-media collages and most 5-year-olds couldn’t do the nailing or sawing involved). What your 5-year-old cannot do is make them at the right historical moment. Your kid doesn’t understand the evolution of painting over hundreds of years, and the “art rules” that were in place up until the 50′s that caused manipulating paint in a seemingly haphazard way to be so revolutionary. Sorry. Your 5-year old is not avant-garde.
I grew up in Los Angeles, but have been away for almost 20 years now. I left around 1995. When east coast friends describe the city, their descriptions couldn’t seem more different from the L.A. I know and remember. I could never put my finger on why, until now.
When East Coast people describe L.A., they talk about a place that is bright and sunny. The air is warm and beachy, and there are surfers and mellow people everywhere! I can understand why that would be the appeal today, on a January morning in New Jersey as I look out my window at the snow and grey skies, or if I get out on the road with all the uptight drivers, trying to run errands in a few hours without sliding off the icy shoulder of the road or losing our tires to potholes.
But when I was growing up in L.A., I had to find my own dream, and it was not the sunny beaches and bright colors that people from the East Coast remember.
Of course you know before even reading this what I was like, right? I was that freaky girl with black clothes and black hair. Well, actually I usually had a shock of bleached white hair, or magenta. Long bangs covering my face, and a The Cure blasting out of my walkman or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”. That was me!
But it got even better than that. I was more than your average garden variety death rock chick, and this can only be understood by the fact that I grew up in Los Angeles during the 80′s. While everyone else was aerobicizing, driving convertibles, and being happy, I was looking for a darker setting. I wanted to ride subways like Berlin street kids in “Christian F”, I wanted to walk up dark stairways to old apartment buildings where people did socially unacceptable things. I wanted a seedy city, and I cultivated that everywhere I could while surrounded by blonde people in pastel clothing eating Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt (well ok I admit I liked Penguin’s too, a little).
I was not only into goth music and dark clothes, but i wanted to find the real dark L.A., the noir city. I had never even seen a Raymond Chandler or a David Lynch film. I just had an idea that there was an old, gothic city beyond all of the happy bright beaches, and I was intent on finding it.
Luckily, I grew up in Long Beach, a working class beach town with an industrial harbor. It wasn’t preppy like yacht-rock Newport Beach. It was an old downtown with crumbling buildings and bars and tattoo parlors where sailors used to hang out. This made it interesting. I loved to walk around downtown Long Beach with my best friend Raina. We explored, smoking clove cigarettes and searching the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store for the perfect 50′s cocktail dress, psychedelic pants, or goth rosary to wear around our necks when we went to Disneyland. We would go to Zed Records and buy punk buttons or the occasional record (but mostly just buttons as we were more into fashion when it came down to it).
Even the bus ride to Raina’s house was fascinating in the mid 80′s. There was a mysterious bar called “The Bistro” on 7th street. It was all boarded up. Boarded-up buildings have always beckoned me. I have been known to take detours with my kids onto streets where I know there are rows of condemned houses. “WTF, mom?” complains my son, who is sure I am wasting his time. When I peeked into the windows of The Bistro, there were manneqins, which made it even more perfect, a Twilight Zone fantasy. (This turned out to be Faye’s Bistro, which made a huge comeback in the 90′s with their cheap pitchers and pool tables for 20-ish grunge crowd. I spent many a drunken night there, but that’s another post).
As I got older Long Beach became too small. As Orange County seemed to have no places dark and shadowy enough to feed my sick fantasies for bad vibrations, my attentions turned to Hollywood. Hollywood was my sleazy city, a glam fantasy, a dream come true. Every weekend my friends and I drove around Hollywood listening to David Bowie and Japan’s Adolescnt Sex (a great, underrated album if you like 70′s glam), drinking and trying to get into clubs like the Glam Slam on Sunset Blvd where pale guys with long black hair listened to the Cult or T-Rex. Hip stores on Melrose were much cooler then, when everyone had pointy boots and a cigarette, spiked hair and a lounge lizard style. And all the better if we got to an underground club in downtown L.A., such as the Fetish or the Scream. Downtown was the ultimate long-forgotten city, all warehouses and underground clubs in those warehouses.* It was abandoned and blank, and could be New York or Tokyo or Berlin, depending on where you wound up. Looking back at it now, with the distance of 20 years, the bright pavement and lack of trees just reminds me of Repo Man.
Any old building appealed to me. In college I lived above a Jewish deli on Pico Blvd. What was I looking for? I don’t know, probably a Ragtime feeling of New York streets with people selling fruit and immigrants and cobblestones and opium dens and drug addicts in every dark alley. What I got was probably the least appropriate residence in L.A. when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994 and chunks of plaster fell on my head and the bricks separated. Clearly, brick buildings were not intended for LA. I’m probably only alive thanks to my landlady’s wise choice to retrofit the building with steel pipes before I moved in.
Once, after a night of clubbing, I got the chance to make my own personal “escape” up a hidden staircase late one night, a la a Raymond Chandler film. The entire story is strictly confidential but involves breaking into the kitchen of the club and consuming large amounts of cheap red wine. Eventually, even I got enough of darkness, started bicycling, quit smoking, and even hung out in daylight hours occasionally or gasp! at the beach in sunglasses, hippie skirts and Birkenstocks.
Years later, in Boston, I was talking with an English friend who summed it up perfectly. “It was always dark and grey in England. I loved the Beach Boys and dreamed of being a surfer out in California.” he said. “Wow,” I said, “I grew up in L.A. and was always trying to stay out of the sun. I lived for the grey days that reminded me of England and chances to go to San Francisco and wear coats or ride the subway”. To this day I always try to take the subway in New York – it’s still a thrill!
East coast people look at L.A. like they look at Florida, a place to enjoy the sun, wear a bathing suit, go hiking or to the beach. And that’s fine. I understand and I even like the sun too, like, once a year. But for me the best part of L.A. will always be its sense of mystery, that noir feeling between the hazy sunshine and and palm trees and bright pavement when you spot that weird little apartment over the storefront, where the drug addicts lived and you wonder who else has lived there over time.
*On a side note, downtown L.A. has had many bizarre restaurants. As a teen my mom took me to Gorky’s, where art students hung out and ate knish’s, and I thought was so New York. Whenever I am in L.A. now I try to make a special trip to Philippe’s, a 100 year old vintage restaurant which serves “french dip” sandwiches. It looks like the 40s at Philippe’s with Venetian blinds, long benches, sawdust floors and cheap coffee with apple pie for dessert. It is the ultimate noir diner. You can sit in small individual rooms where I like to think Philip Marlowe sat alone pensively plotting his case as the late afternoon L.A. sunlight streamed in through the slats in the blinds.
When I was a child I had a special connection to certain interiors. I would imagine a world within the walls or in the far corner of the room, the odd places where nobody looked. I loved interior spaces that were small and irregular, high up, or just weird. My parents used to go to a thrift store in Long Beach, California, which I remember quite well. They had furniture arranged up on some old scaffolding (at least that’s how it seems in my foggy memory of my experiences at age 5). For some reason I always wanted to climb and explore around there, with the old things it seemed like a different world. That memory still gives me a very nostalgic feeling.
Another weird interior was the doll museum in the back of Dooley’s Hardware store in Long Beach, CA. It had old porcelain toys and dolls in glass cases and seemed like it was a secret place. I would spend hours there. At Christmas they would decorate it and it seemed so magical and perfect.
Of course I loved the doll house which my mother made for me. It was an imperfect, homemade little space full of old-fashioned Victorian furniture which I collected for years – a coal-burning stove, velvet sofas, a tiffany lamp, a little toilet with brass pipes and a lion claw’s bathtub. It was my perfect, miniature little world which was nothing like the Southern California ranch that I grew up in. I can relate to that episode of the Twilight Zone where the man falls in love with a dollhouse doll who comes to life for him at night.
David Lynch seems to understand the hidden psychological power of interiors and furniture. He understands how rooms come to life and hold secrets. I love Dorothy Vallen’s apartment in Blue Velvet.
The exterior is run-down and seedy. It’s a big building in a small town (another obsession of mine) and I read that it was built in the 1930′s by an architect who was inspired by buildings he saw in New York City. It’s in a neighborhood that seems abandoned except for underworld gangsters who make unwanted visits in the middle of the night. The interior walls are deep 1930′s mauve with rounded beige furniture and elegant plants in shiny brass planters. There, in the shadowy “noir-ish” 1930′s elegance, lives Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) a woman who holds a secret that two teenagers feel compelled to discover. The velvety furniture cast a rich loungy hush over the entire room and seem to keep her secret with her.
Dorothy Vallens never seems to leave this apartment, except at night, when she goes to a place that is equally weird and shadowy, a mysterious old theater with red velvet curtains where she sings her famous performance of “Blue Velvet”. It seems blurry like it is 3 AM or a dream and she is lit by blue light as she sings. In that scene Jeffrey and Sandy (Kyle MacLaughlin and Laura Dern) sit watching her, transfixed and transported out of their familiar daytime world of school and bright sunny small-town life. Jeffrey stares at Dorothy as Sandy watches him, jealously aware that this older woman’s sexual power is taking possession over her teenage boyfriend. The old decaying theater is a symbol of jealousy and secrets and night-time visits.
The bedroom where Laura Palmer lived is another example of Lynch’s powerful interiors. Laura Palmer is the beautiful high school prom queen who is murdered in the beginning of the Twin Peaks series. She lives in a cute little house in a small town in Washington. Her bedroom is bright and tidy, a portal between childhood and womanhood with the frilly bedspread and doll collection, (including a clown doll that makes it all the more disturbing). Because the sexually precocious Laura is dead already in the movie, and kept her experiences secret to the grave, her bedroom becomes an ironic shrine, a child’s room inhabited by a teen who would never reach womanhood, but in many ways already had.
I love old rooms of any sort. I love velvet furniture, old peeling wallpaper, old pianos, and crumbling theaters with velvet curtains. I don’t like to update the places where I live. In my den is the original wood-paneling from the 1970s. The decor is kind of Brady Bunch – bright colors and thrift store art. If I ever get more money perhaps I will replace it with 1930′s club furniture. But more likely I will have to wait until I find a perfect untouched old brick apartment with a fire escape in a forgotten town somewhere in America.
It Feels So Scary Getting Old
Last night I said to my son “In past generations, you had to use a lot of
words to win an argument. We tried to sound really smart. Now the thing to do is
sound really dumb, and you still win. Think about it.” He thought about it and agreed. I remember arguing to my dad about how I should be allowed to have blue hair in the early 80′s when I was experimenting with punk styles. I wrote a very complicated, erudite essay brining up every possible historical tragedy (you know – the usual ones, Jesus, the Nazis, etc) and compared it to my own persecution. I used as many big words as possible.
Now think of a kid from today, an angry kid. Who is the ultimate angry kid? Eminem. Think about him arguing with his parents. He’s been doing it all his life so that is easy. For example his new song “Headlights”:
‘Cause to this day we remain estranged and I hate it though
‘Cause you ain’t even get to witness your grand babies grow
But I’m sorry, Mama, for “Cleaning Out My Closet”, at the time I was angry
Rightfully maybe so, never meant that far to take it though,
’cause now I know it’s not your fault, and I’m not making jokes
That song I no longer play at shows and I cringe every time it’s on the radio
That probably wasn’t a good example. In this song he’s trying to make peace with his mom. And Eminem really knows how to use words. On the other hand, he doesn’t use the “20 thousand dollar words” which is why he appeals to kids. If you look at online comments from anyone under 20, you will see things like “bad” or “that’s gay” or just “FAIL”, without any further explanation. These bumper sticker-type comments will win against “the social significance” or “mutually exclusive” because no one has time for those expressions now! Words are old school, for prissy white people, or fussy teachers who have nothing better to do than sit around and read them, and anyone with a life has no time for that.
The other thing is that young people rebel by flaunting youth in the past generations face, for it’s own sake. It’s not that they think we are wrong, or have old-fashioned ideas. They really couldn’t care less about our ideas because they aren’t going to bother arguing against them anyway (see above). And we (the older generations) are really eager to side up with them. Look at how badly we want to be young! We spend all our money on plastic surgery and cosmetics to try to preserve our youth obsessively. Adolescence lasts until death today. Nobody gets “old” as in stodgy, old-fashioned beliefs. They just “age” and get more wrinkles but try to pretend nothing is happening, and all the bands that ever were just keep touring.
Still authentic youth is recognizable in photos and it is the holy grail in more ways than ever for both young and old. Anyone over 35 suffers from an automatic lack of swag, and young people know this. They don’t even need to “rebel” now, all they have to remind us is that they are young, and that is enough.
NOTE: All mis-spellings and grammatical errors in this article were intentional as they make the writer appear younger like she just don’t give a sh%$t.
I love the bathrobe that the mom wears on Christmas morning in “A Christmas Story”. It’s such a beautiful vintage robe with a shawl collar, tailoring, and a full skirt. I think it’s even got shoulder pads but that’s ok because it’s perfectly proportional. You could go around your house looking like great all day without even putting clothes on. It’s a robe of the 1940′s and it’s perfectly elegant.
In contrast, the robes of today are completely boring. Mostly they are just a straight kimono style without darts or fitting, like a sack:
If you do an Amazon search on “woman’s robe” this is all you will find, for upwards of $50. If you go to TJ Maxx, you will find the same thing. Sometimes they are made of nice materials like silk, but it’s always the same old boring style. Because they have a straight, narrow skirt, when you sit down the skirt splits open. Ugly! Impractical!
How did we get to this awful state of woman’s loungewear?
Perhaps we are still cringing from the abuses of loungewear that took place in the 1970′s when women like Mrs. Roper would go around in robes and mumus all day long.
Nobody wants to look like Mrs. Roper!
So we modern girls just throw on a hoodie track suit for hanging around. After all, we aren’t old ladies and we were just about to get ready for the day….OR ARE WE?…..more and more I see girls out and about in hoodie track suits. OK, a hoodie track suit is fine, but what’s worse, now people are walking through Target and the mall in ugly pajama pants! I think that pajama pants are the modern day equivalent of the 1970s mumu, a lounging garment that we kids ourselves into thinking is good enough for the street. I think we can do better. I think that robes need to be more elegant, like they were in the past, and they should be confined to the home.
In the 1940′s – 1970′s, they had beautiful women’s robes. They were edged with feathers or made of nice heavy padded satin. They had tailoring and button holes, like this beautiful quilted satin robe which is currently on sale at Etsy. Doesn’t look like much on the mannequin, but it would look great on!
Also there are plenty of vintage patterns for beautiful robes! I am so excited about vintage patterns. You can have old garments in new, strong fabrics!
Here is another fun vintage robe pattern, from the 1950s. The seller wants $20 which I think is a little high, but its stylish!
Butterick even did a re-issue of an old 40′s robe pattern. Elegant! I love the re-issue patterns.
ok, there are some ugly vintage patterns too, like this one :
So make one of these great vintage robes, (but not the ugly one). and sit around looking elegant all day long. As long as you have a waistline, you will never look like Mrs. Roper! And please don’t go outside in your pajama pants.
I recently took this picture on a drive from Milford, PA to Edison, NJ along Rte 206.
This is one of the things that fascinates me so much about American cities, those little towns that only have one or two small buildings, or even a little tiny downtown.
A one-building town provokes all sorts of questions -
When was it built? What made them create a high rise? What made them stop? Why did they not become NYC? Did the economy turn bad? Or was one high-rise all they ever wanted, just to add some apartments for the people who wanted to feel like they were making progress?
There is something lonely and beautiful about the “single high-rise”, or the “little downtown” of some American towns. We all know that. So did Edward Hopper
Hopper’s empty downtown was created by the Depression, in 1930. Today we have downtowns from that era which have just never been gentrified. They might contain an outdated pharmacy, a bail bonds, a 99 cent store. Here on the East Coast the forgotten downtowns turn into ghetto or they turn Hispanic. I don’t know what they become in other places, like the midwest or the south.
There are also downtowns which were abandoned a second time - gentrified in the 1990′s and made into “designer Main St.” with coffee shops and sports stores and trendy stores, only to be abandoned again because now people want to buy cheaper clothing at TJ Maxx and the pull to Target and Walmart is just too strong.
I won’t say I like downtowns best when they are in decay. I don’t really like them best when they are totally gentrified either. But it’s the empty old downtowns are the ones that I enjoy photographing and looking at the most, and decay just seems to be their destiny.