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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Guest Blog: Is Nostalgia Cheap?


Is nostalgia a cheap emotional attachment; or a respectful nod to the past?

I've been thinking about this for a while. It makes me dredge up several random memories. First, referring to the the Disney movie "Cars" as "a cheap nostalgia" in order to market rides, games and toys. I thought later that I had insulted my father-in-law who had really liked the movie. Second, an unjustified preferential bias towards "modern" furniture while I was an Industrial Design undergrad in the 90s - (think of terms like "timeless design" or even better "universal aesthetic"). Third; my sudden (not that sudden) shift towards things that are older, made in the USA, even dare say "old-fashioned" -- all of this seemingly in step with everybody else my age.

As I grew older I looked back at that expensive modern design I shrugged: Nerds. Who cares about my Marcel Breuer chair? It looks weird next to my junky college furniture anyway. Yet, my own work as an artist is in every way trying to reference something that was at the core of modern art making philosophy... These three random thoughts represent a vignette into my past thinking about nostalgia (or what I labeled nostalgia): Cheap. Easy. Lazy. I scoffed at terms like "Vintage" or worse "Retro". I would save my money and heart for objects of quality, and fashion-less aesthetic, simple colors, simple lines, fabrics, materials. Hmmm.Where were they? Obviously, if you are 25 yrs old and up, you have been a witness to the great disappearance of variety in the world of things. Choose your weapon: Walmart or Target.

Suddenly there were realizations when I started searching for good woodworking tools: the better stuff was older. The tools of today are mass-produced garbage. Time to revisit my nose-thumbing at nostalgia.

Scene shift.

You can walk the dark side streets of Telegraph Avenue during the Fisrt Fridays of every month of the year during Oakland Art Murmur and feel like you're in a Dickens novel (except that people didn't drink PBR in Dickens novels). At first it annoyed me: the young in CA actually dressing in rags, top hats, riding rusty bicycles with absurd mustaches and old leather soled shoes -- drinking tonics from glass jars. Nerds. They might as well be buying blue jeans with pre-ripped holes in them.


But then, I started to connect the things on display here -- the galleries, the handmade art work, the movement towards craft, whimsical items, kicking down the door of high art yet again. Could this be a revival instead of nostalgia? Looking to the past not for fashion ques or cute memories...but searching for a deeper narrative... Was this qualitatively different than the noticeable up-tick in 80s fad-fashion among high school teens this past five years? Is there a real phenomenon happening out in that murky idea journalists sometimes refer to as "American Life" that is more than nostalgic? Did the past have something right? What is it that people are attracted to? Is it Harry Potter movies driving Art Murmur fashion? -- or could it be that well made objects, handmade, or machine-made and hand-loved, hold a higher value in our lives even as they live out their purpose of utility? Or is it because they are increasingly rare? Or is it the skill that is embodied in well made objects that is increasingly rare? --like a dwindling precious metal?

I leave us with the above example: my Stanley #65 Low Angle Block Plane. This is a woodworking tool that cannot be purchased today in its equivalent price or form (or excellence of utility). Its not that the technology used to make it is a lost secret -- what is lost is the care and fineness of the makers and designers. This completely mundane, old school tool, put to comparative use alongside an "equivalent" modern version purchased from Home Depot would make even the staunchest futurologist groan the cliche, "They just don't make 'em like they used to..."

- Mechanism Busboy Berkeley, CA

1 comment:

Ira Mency said...

o m g

This is great, I am tweeting it and sharing it on Facebook. The sad part is , I had that same chair. Got it out of "bulk trash" and had it sitting outside some flea market on my lawn. This kid offered me $150 for it, I thought he was joking so I told him give me $20. I think the joke was on me as now I realize he was serious.

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