Monthly Archives: December 2015

Collage Envy

Still Life No. 1, 1962, by Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004); Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Images; art © estate of Tom Wesselmann/licensed VAGA, New York, NY.

Still Life No. 1, 1962, by Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004); Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Images; art © estate of Tom Wesselmann/licensed VAGA, New York, NY.

Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004) may not be the best known American Pop artist. His Great American Nude series, begun in 1961, had the dubious distinction of inciting both feminists (objectifying the female body!) and dermatologists (reckless depiction of tan lines!). From the 1970s onward, his affinity for voluptuous, red-lacquered lips wreathed in cigarette smoke, manicured hands holding smoldering cigarettes (see Smoker #9 below, Crystal Bridges Museum), and graphic bedroom scenes opened him up to tart accusations of sexual exploitation and perhaps questionable taste. But his earlier works from the 1960s in mixed media explored an arguably richer imaginative world.

smoker #9 crystalbridges Collage as an artform was popularized by Picasso and Matisse who in the early twentieth century introduced such materials as sand, newsprint, and cut paper into their art. In the 1920s and 30s, Max Ernst reassembled Victorian imagery into disturbing scenes of surrealist mayhem. Kurt Schwitters used the collage in the 1920s–40s as a sort of urban documentary, incorporating tickets, receipts, candy wrappers, and assorted street debris into his pieces. Around this same time, German artists such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch began assembling magazines and newspapers photographs into photo-montages aimed at deflating the pomposities of Hitler and the Nazi party. Whether as frottage, grattage, or other techniques utilizing found objects and chance manipulation, collage has had an enduring appeal for its accessibility and seemingly limitless capacity for creating meaning.

In Wesselmann’s collages, we are treated to a high energy snapshot of modern American life that jumbles together food, drink, tobacco, and alcohol advertising together with Woolworth-grade reproductions of Warhol, Renoir, or Mondrian. Even in the 1960s, the mix of high and low art no longer shocked the way it once did and Wesselmann must have known that. His collages instead dissect American identity through its proclivity for overstimulation—in media and advertising, in our susceptibility to bold colors, in our love of grand scale, and in our thrall to sweeping ideas like patriotism or pursuing the American dream (you can almost hear Wesselmann adding “whatever that is”). Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: A More Instrumental Peer Culture

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

Students who are anxious about their grades seem more likely to hang out with students who share these concerns. These relationships can become more instrumental and competitive. An eleventh-grade girl reflects:

… there was a lot of pressure to perform well on the SAT. Most of this pressure came from herself and from her friends … there is always competition … to see who performed the best or worst. She does not necessarily aim to do better than her friends … but that nobody wants to have the lowest score…. Also there is pressure from parents …

This kind of behavior was not unique to Wilson High. A girl from Pennsylvania reports:

[People] became friends with each other by taking the same level of advanced classes such as math and history, and became competitive with one another over grades and even trivial points on homework. This competition was … often shakily hidden with remarks like “I got a 26/27 on that reading quiz last week. Oh, you got a 24/27? That’s pretty good.”

Serious students who study together can develop meaningful friendships, but in many respects their friendships seem narrower. Students who are working hard to keep their grades up are busy. Often they have complicated schedules and less time to simply hang out. As we have seen, one of the ways they compensate for this is to communicate with their friends via texting and social media.

The students we observed in 2013–14 seemed less relaxed than the students of 1997–99. Admittedly, this is a very impressionistic observation and it refers to a subtle change of ambiance rather than changes in the social categories or the explicit content of social roles. More academic students still have “best friends” for sharing secrets and anxieties. The difference is that it is not unusual—much less “weird”—that many of these shared anxieties are about grades or standardized exams. In the previous blog one student joked about “white students” being concerned about “only” making a 97 on a chemistry exam. His remarks are, of course, a parody—but it is a parody that points to an important change in teenage culture.

As in the previous trends that I have mentioned, it is difficult to know to what extent trends in high schools stimulate similar parallels in the broader society versus simply copy or reflect these tendencies. Certainly other observers claim that such trends are present. In his extensive study, The Meaning of Friendship, Mark Vernon puts it this way:

With work, the threat comes from being used. In a utilitarian culture, such as obtains in many parts of our world, the problem is that people tend to be valued for what they do, not who they are; they tend to be thought of as means to ends, and when treated as such become, in Adam Smith’s words, “unlovely.”

Whatever the direction of causation, the replacement of expressive and emotional friendships by yet another form of instrumentalism is a reason for concern.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: December 11, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Divorce Colony,” April White
“To read the front pages of the country’s newspapers or sit in its church pews in 1892 was to know that the United States was facing a divorce epidemic. By one estimate, more divorces were granted in the United States than in all the rest of the Christian world combined.”

“Antigone in Galway,” Anne Enright
“The living can be disbelieved, dismissed, but the dead do not lie. We turn in death from witness to evidence, and this evidence is indelible, because it is mute.”

“He Really Was a Camera,” Katherine Bucknell
“Isherwood’s ambition is large; if he is a camera, like Lewis, he considers himself an artist as well. He adopts the posture of the English gentleman amateur, who prefers that nobody sees just how hard he is working as he smuggles into what was to be his third novel an unrecognized, American, democratic perspective and marries it to the leftist ideas in which he was then immersed.”

“Product Placement,” Lewis H. Lapham
“Although I never qualified for full membership in the company of Yale’s bohemian elect—it was known that I played golf, that my father had been tapped for Bones, that I was blind to the genius not only of Ginsberg but also of Joyce—I was by no means at a loss for instruction in the casting of a cold eye on human affectation and folly.”

“When Nothing Is Cool,” Lisa Ruddick
“Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism?”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: December 4, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]
Some noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Mainly True Tale of the Writer and the Spy,” Laura Spence-Ash
“Several years later, after he had returned from Germany and was studying at Columbia University, he was in the library and picked up the most recent copy of Harper’s Magazine. Pleased to see a story by Kay in the issue, he turned to the story and was shocked when, before the end of the first page, he recognized himself as Rod Murray, the main character.”

“The Dialectic of Love and Authority,” George Scialabba
“If irony alerts had been invented before 1977, they might have saved Christopher Lasch a lot of grief.”

“When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity,” Lincoln Michel
“What I’d like to focus on is the oddly persistent myth that genre fiction is “popular fiction” and that literary fiction is pointless and obscure. Or, as Jennifer Weiner regularly argues, that book critics and literary awards overlook the kind of fiction that real readers actually like.”

“Holing Up,” Mairead Case
“What if, instead of transformation or fire or constant reinvention, we just dig a home and make sure it’s warm and private and welcoming? What then?”

“The New ‘Horror Victorianorum,’” Michael J. Lewis
“So persuasively did Strachey make his case that no one thought it necessary to repeat the exercise. If in truth he made no case at all, except by implication, the tragic fact of the war was evidence enough that the Victorian age had failed.”

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