Saturday, April 14, 2007

Thesis Topics

Someday, should I ever get back to academia (ha), I think it would be a lot of fun to do a Ph.D. in Art History. (Don't laugh.) Specifically, I'd write on the correlation between general societal health and the manifestation of it's particular, current to that time period quirks in art, throughout history. My theory is that when the communicating portions of the planet (ie: societal groups or subgroups) are undergoing some enormous change in their community function/development (good or bad), funky trends begin to show up in that population's art forms. In modern culture, we see this in expositions consisting entirely of the sacred juxtaposed provocatively with the profane. We see this in the strange camera work in pop radio TV ads (angles and zooms meant to distort bodies to unrealistic proportions--large or small). We see this in the metal outdoor tree skeleton I saw a few months ago.

Some of these examples are just odd, by any definition. They don't seem to fit anywhere. Others, while objectively beautiful, have little to do with reality themselves. Some, like the tree, are an interpretation of the real. The topic holds great interest as thesis material in that I'm positive that following the Plague (Renaissance), around the Holocaust (Chagall), through Vietnam (Warhol), there are some relevant, predictable common themes developed by the art world, including those who don't necessarily think of themselves as artists, which end up greatly influencing the way society processes the trauma it has suffered in immediate connection to the creative trend or genre most currently prevalent.

My contention, based entirely upon conjecture (so far) is that when a society faces unbearable conditions of any sort, the need for expression bubbles out, quietly or explosively, in the way folks put brush to canvas, chisel to marble, knife to clay, or more recently, welding torch to chunks of metal. I would also guess that what we witness in this is that there is a portion of any population who finds holding still under the weight of such impending change (again, good or bad) to be completely unbearable, so they don't. They find ways to wiggle a little, to express things they aren't necessarily able to put into words. They aren't probably aware of the fact that they contribute to the altering of history, to that way people access their emotions, sell their ideas, and then go on to influence every one of every age.

I would also contend that the slow slide into hell we see in Bratz dolls and their ilk (yes, that again) represents an interesting sociological phenomenon. After all, when little girls played with rag dolls, stick dolls, corn cob dolls, no one argued that these were inaccurate representations of people and therefore likely to skew a little girl's view of herself or her peers, to irretrievably alter her ability to deal reasonably and kindly with her own self-image. But neither would a person of that era have dreamed of marketing (or even selling, marketing as a driving concept didn't really exist yet) a doll who represented a can-can dancer. Or one who was known to be the mistress of some famous person. Of course, the tendency of polite society in say, Britain or France to view those professions with admiration or aspiration was predictably low. However, were one a street urchin, rising to position of dancer or mistress would represent a huge and probably welcome change in circumstances.

So Barbie was based on a German prostitute, but redeemed by the latest lowest rung on the toy ladder--Bratz. One of my girls asked her daddy for a Barbie for her birthday because, "She doesn't have all that crazy eye shadow, cat eye's and lips that look like somebody smacked her." I smirked behind my hand and hauled myself out of the room before she could notice my amusement. But it begs some questions, to my way of thinking. I'm pretty sure that the nice lady who brought the Barbie idea home from Germany didn't consciously intend the correlation between the sex trade and her daughter's namesake toy. I don't know what the guy who worked for Mattel and then went to another company with his toy idea for twitty, shallow, spoiled Bratz was thinking, but I'm sure he didn't lie awake at night scheming ways to up the ante in our ongoing contest to see who can invest in the least worthy, most self-indulgent, least substantive cultural icon and make millions (insert evil laugh here). Nonetheless, the world is changed.

Some of this would be merely interesting, not material, were it not for the vast marketing machine which now drives us, propelled by whatever nutty new stuff pops up in the latest focus group. The problem that arises here is that some huge chunk of the public just buys stuff because they can, because it's shiny and sparkly, because it's new, because their only real identity comes from knowing they're capable of doing just the same thing everyone else is, but with just enough of a twist that they can tell themselves they are unique. These people are known as adolescents. Pop culture though these days is asking the very young to hit that stage of self-indulgence ever earlier, to remain in it longer, and for those of us rapidly approaching forty (shut up), to do whatever we can to scramble back to that place and hold on by our fingernails.

No one seems to notice that Bratz are a caricature of the already absurd--Britney, Paris, et al, ad nauseum. No one seems to notice that they look like Phyllis Diller via a Warhol interpretation--and this is attractive how? No one seems to notice that they are so about "fun" that the guy who makes them actually spoke with contempt of Barbie, who has, you know, a job as a pediatrician, and, like, cares about stuff in the world. I mean really. The nerve. Who'd wanna be like that, anyway? Sniff.

So what we see for art then, or rather, now, is strange. The Bratz thing is a culmination of odd and seemingly unrelated forces, some of which are socioeconomic, some of which are creative, some of which are people doing without thinking, some of which are folks saying things over and over until people believe it's true. I think the lack of connection between reality and art is problematic for the way we process issues of any size. As I listened yesterday to the radio (it was my allotted daily five minutes), an art teacher and program host were discussing the importance of art classes in the teaching of critical thinking and what loss is suffered when art is removed from the ongoing discussion that is education. The radio host brought up the fact that when treating kids, psychologists often ask them to draw a picture of themselves or their families. Kids with eating disorders often draw themselves with their heads disconnected from their bodies--in a stroke of near literal irony. So we use art as a diagnostic tool in caring for our children and that is an accepted standard, but we will not provide them with the language they need to use it well?

The break between reality and art is also representative of the issues faced by the U.S. population daily. How do we know what is true? (While I have my own firm ideas, this is not a rhetorical question. Feel free to comment.) We have folks who inexplicably wield a great deal of power in our government, business, schools, in general policy, who place no value on being truthful in their daily undertakings, who in fact, say things over and over that are demonstrably false, until those things creep in to the collective consciousness and sort of become accepted "fact". Or rather, urban legend with a sense of desperate certainty attached. Witness Enron and how long Skilling, Lay, and the rest were able to hold that particular fairy-tale together despite "scrutiny".

Seriously. There's this documentary--The Smartest Guys in the Room. These bizarre scenarios are the sorts of things one hears of only in business law class or practice. When recounting the bare facts of said scenarios to lay persons, one is first nearly laughed out of the room. That is, before everyone falls silent and says, aghast, "Really?"

So where was I? Oh yeah. So while Enron is raging, the middle class is shrinking, and the term "decent education for the masses" becomes ever more hollow, what's hanging on the walls in our homes? What's going on in the art studios? What are we beholding?

Brace yourself. (Please accept my advance apologies if I step on your toes or break your heart with my next assertion. Please? Thanks.) We are beholding. . . Thomas Kinkade. He's pablum for the soul. Not bad, really, but infinitely more a marketing creation than, oh please don't hit me, an artist. (By the way, pablum is Latin. It means food for animals. I'll duck now as you swing.)

I've enjoyed Mr. Kinkade's work over the years. I'd say I've enjoyed it as much as the next person, but I own nothing of his, especially nothing original, and definitely not the toilet paper or one of the houses based on his work, so I can't say that. It wouldn't be true. (Heh.) I think everyone who sees his paintings understands that what a buyer gets is a slice of "home", a place we all wish we could go, without strife, without judgement, where the lamps outside are always burning in eager anticipation of our imminent arrival, where the love, joy, warmth are fairly bursting from every crack. And there are warm cookies on the table just when we're ready for them, jammies laid out on the foot of the turned-down feather bed. No sadness. No loss. No cell phones. Hard to argue with something so nice.

It's just that, when looking around, I wonder about the role of such art in our consciousness. Are we helping to create megamillionaires because we're desperate to feel better about what is true? Are we having trouble facing reality so we create, or support an artist in the creation of, a sort of parallel universe? Is this something done throughout history? If things are going well in our society (even if there's plenty of horror in concurrent societies), do we end up with a glut of horrid "art" that involves the unspeakable? Would we be more comfortable with the proverbial envelope being pushed if we're more grounded, less threatened in other areas of our lives? If things are going badly, do we receive the mother lode of pablum? Do we need visuals to help us stand what is really going on with us when reality is bad, bad, bad?

Maxfield Parrish had some things in common with Mr. Kinkade, stepping even further into commercialism by doing advertising for Coke, but he wasn't viewed as a hack. (Though he deserved to be slapped, repeatedly and emphatically, for his horrid choices in his private life.) Why Kinkade and not Parrish? Do people who put this stuff out, along with the graphic incarnations of Bratz, etc., have any awareness of their role(s) in pop culture and the groundwork they lay for future artists, the extended effects of such things? Are they just high? Can an artist be wildly successful in his or her own lifetime and not come under rabid criticism? Can one be an artist and not be somehow cracked? Can one demonstrate a firm correlation between socioeconomic status and one's willingness to tolerate unconventional art? As in, how many Thomas Kinkade works do you think Paul Allen or Warren Buffett own? I'd like to know.

What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

– The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), 1975, ISBN

I don't know how far this analogy can be legitimately carried. Of course, the nice furniture at Target is more or less the same idea as the expensive stuff at Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, but is it really the same? Not really. I don't know. Maybe Andy had ties to Parrish through Coke? (Heh.) Maybe they both identified themselves more strongly as artists, but had trouble being taken seriously because of their careers as illustrators? Hmmm.

So yeah. I've been thinking about writing a dissertation. Or something.

(If you're thinking of doing a Ph.D. in Art History, you'll have to go get your own thesis topic. This one's all mine, baby.)


~ V ~ said...

OK, I will admit that when I read your title and first paragraph my jaw dropped and then I chuckled. Thesis. Yeah, right. Like you don't have enough to keep you otherwise occupied. I know I do and I can't imagine you being any less busy than I.

However, your dissertation-length post (grin) does have a thesis ring to it. When did you ever have time to write that?! Wow. You go, girl!

Oh, and I don't own any Kinkade either. Something about his stuff gives me the creeps.

Have a great week.

Marie said...

On the flip side of the mass market everyone-the-same world, how would you view the huge upswelling in arts/crafts - on the Internet and in the real world? Knitting, sewing, crafting seem to be getting more and more popular, as are sites like Etsy. Loved your thought-provoking essay; just want to thorw in an additional thought.

C said...

V--these things percolate in my head for a few um, years, (heh) then pop out with oddly prosaic, verbose force. I find I'm writing a lot in my head these days, then I sit down and sort of purge the system when I "have time". It's probably a good thing I don't have a lap top. . .

marie--interesting, indeed. I've watched the huge upswell in gardening, DIY, decorating kinds of projects with the same interest. I would posit that we are a socity that, regardless of how we like to complain, has reached a place of safety in our everyday: we don't have to fight off predators in order to survive so we subscribe to Country Living (etc.) to fill up our time and the rest follows. :o)


Sharon H. in IL said...

How much of this is the usual class-linked art preference? Middle-aged working class gals like Kinkade, and have always been the target market for collectible painted porcelain, angel teddy bears, and other Pretend Perfect World stuff.

Wierd art appeals to the Tragically Hip and the Bobos among us. I don't see an across the board run toward ugly art. Ugly dolls, sure. Have you seen the ugly wierd muscle-bound dolls for boys these days? It's as if we are exagerating all secondary sexual characteristics for all our little children.

Margaret Wise Brown's description of the strongest of The Five Little Firemen as having arm muscles "as big as baseballs" sounds quaint today.

Preserve, protect, and defend our young 'uns. And mentor the ones nearby. That seems to be as much as I know what to do.

Another excellent essay. Thank you.

Sharon H. in IL

Robin said...

Sounds like you have a great idea for a thesis. You have a lot of interesting thoughts.

Regarding Thomas Kinkade. Several years ago when he basically surfaced on the art scene here in California, I loved his work. We went to a art show and quickly fell out of love with his work. Basically the only thing about the artwork that was Thomas Kinkade was his dna. That's right. His DNA. He had only done a few real paintings. The rest were done by someone else and he may have put the points of light on them. Then signed them with his dna. My question was - how and what was the dna. Did he spit on them, what? It killed any interest I had for Thomas Kinkade.
I didn't want to spend 100's of dollars on something signed with what could very well be spit.

:) Robin


Kathie said...

My daughter, Heather, sent me the link to your post and I have had to laugh. I would, like you, NEVER buy a Bratz doll.....but the Kinkade art has bothered me for years. Yes, it is a dream world and probably appeals to my internal desire for Heaven, but like so much in our society it is a sham of the real, even a sham of real art. Have you read Francis Schaffer? He had much to say that resonates through your essay. Nothing is more disturbing than seeing a plastic reproduction of "Praying Hands" sitting on a persons table, and realizing that they are thinking of that as art. We have become a culture that is satisfied with the profane, even expecting it and lauding it as good. On a sad but rather funny mother and step-father gave my new husband and me a wedding gift on Saturday. They were so very proud of it and it was a work of was a professionally framed reproduction of a Thomas Kinkade "painting" done as a puzzle! Now.........where to hang it???? My, my, my.