Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Nostalgia : It's Not Just a River in Egypt | Open Thread

"Nostalgia is denial of a painful present," says Paul, the pompous, "pedantic" philanderer played by Michael Sheen in Woody Allen's new film "Midnight in Paris," a love letter to the City of Lights that eventually snaps the audience out of the romantic trance it lulls you into. So gorgeously shot they should set up a travel agent booth right outside each cinema showing it, the film follows Gil, a disillusioned, self-declared Hollywood "hack" screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancee and her hyper-conservative, hyper-obnoxious parents.

Gil, however, longs for what he considers Paris' golden era (the 1920s) in which he could live the life of La Bohème, write real literature, and truly embrace his inner artist. Out walking alone at midnight, he stumbles into a time machine in the shape of a vintage car. Each morning he's back in the present, but each evening the car takes him on ever more marvelous adventures with everyone from Picasso, Dali, and Man Ray to Gertrude Stein, F Scott and Zelda, Hemingway, and T.S. Elliot. Woody's crush is clear: so much incredible talent in the same place at the same time. And each new cameo impersonations is better than the last (I particularly loved Adrian Brody's Salvador Dali).

But my purpose here is not a film review, but rather a wish to explore Gil's eventual epiphany: not only is the "golden era" a myth (Allen demonstrates that by having a character from the 1920s reject it as nowhere near as golden as la Belle Époque), but wallowing in nostalgia is for those who can't handle the present.

Which isn't to say there's no room for nostalgic feelings (which come naturally from time to time) to inform current artistic explorations, just that it's not a particularly productive realm to dwell within itself. Moreover, it's obviously not at all a progressive realm to dwell in, which is why wallowing in it is an abdication of each living person's obligations to the future.


Yes, yes, an appreciation or even a serious study of history is not only smart, but necessary for many reasons (being doomed to repeat past mistakes otherwise being just one of them). My focus though is on those who choose to ignore what's going on around them in the present in order to ensconce themselves within some hand-selected comforts of the past. This can take many forms (and not all of them without some at least momentary value, of course), but ultimately it's an insistence that today is somehow inferior to "yesterday"...or a hardcore wish for a return to the ways of yesteryear...that reveals the exercise to have been taken to an irrational (or even psychotic) extreme.

First of all, short of leading to the invention of an actual time machine, such obsessions are a waste of precious time. Second, though, and a criticism I have of Allen's film, specifically with how he portrays the conservative parents of his protagonist's fiances, is that nostalgia is perhaps the ultimate conservative indulgence. Third, and most unforgivable, nostalgia leads to all kinds of Utopian movements and manifestos.

I know that may seem counterintuitive. After all, manifestos are declarations of how things should be moving forward, but as Sean Scanlan notes in his introduction to the issue #5 of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies:
Nostalgia keeps on returning. The Romantics were nostalgic. The Victorians were, of course, nostalgic. And even those modernist artists and critics, those make-it-new avant-gardists were nostalgic. They were nostalgic for a tradition and an individual talent, they wished for social relations and architectural structures that were as simple as they were during feudalism—they wanted feudalism without the plague and the serfdom. Theirs was nostalgia for a time before power corrupted art, a longing for a time and place that never existed. They wished for antiseptic designs and images that avoided representations of the recent past, yet harkened back to the Greeks. They wanted Athens minus the slavery. [emphasis mine]
In my humble opinion, imbalanced focus on nostalgia weakens an artist's importance. But that's a bit harsh, so I should explain. For me an artist's importance is defined by their influence on other artists. By whether or not they influence the direction
other artists will take. Although one can choose subject matters from times gone by (most of the great Western art wouldn't exist otherwise), if the approach to that subject isn't forward looking, contemporarily illuminating, and exhilaratingly executed, it's not very likely going to have much impact on other artists.

Consider this an open thread on the value and/or hazards of nostalgia.

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17 Comments:

Blogger ellen yustas k. gottlieb said...

Hello, dear Edward. Thanks for the outline, I LOVE WOODY ALLEN not deviational movies even though they are great. But it doesn't sound like this is a comedy. Then this is not Woody Allen piece. Indeed inserting art in his work speaks for itself. He is looking for some solace as a great creator who perhaps needs to admit, he don't have to make deep or abstract production. His genius is rare while nostalgic tone of light drama or adventure is done well by European movie makers. I loved his Matchpoint, but it wasn't WOODY F ALLEN. So maybe we will not have more luck of him doing himself. :)) TOTALLY WITH YOU yet again on the point of artistic nostalgia as escapism, purely human. doesn't belong to the madness of art. LOVE YOU!!! THANKS SO MUCH FOR WONDERFUL WRITING, yours. sincerely

6/01/2011 04:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Speaking of influence, James Panero just wrote:

...the rise of China might shift the balance of artistic taste in the global market, with outsider American realists recast as central players. If this comes to pass, [Jacob] Collins might well be considered their mentor—and, as a painter, still a first among equals.

With all due respect (and more freely tendered) to James, I don't think this is going to happen, and I present it as evidence that it's human nature to suspect that you're on the right side of history. It's easy enough to malign the Romantics, Victorians, and modernists. But how is this Scanlan essay any less balefully nostalgic, with half of its citations dating to the 1990s and carrying on as if those glory days of academic postmodernist writing weren't already spent? (Seriously, "a supplementary term in the Derridean sense"?) How is it forward-looking to employ the traditional model of art history as a chain of influences when we have almost seven billion people on the planet and haven't had a hegemonic style in fifty years?

I can only speak for myself (Scanlan ought to try the same thing), but my self-identification as a modernist isn't nostalgic or even all that historical. It comes out of an agreement with an anti-programmatic attitude towards art as practiced by other self-identified modernists. There are no artistic obligations to the future. There are artistic obligations to the present, and to a timelessness that is only accessible via the present.

6/01/2011 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There are no artistic obligations to the future. There are artistic obligations to the present

I would agree with this, but split a hair over what I actually wrote: "wallowing in [nostalgia] is an abdication of each living person's obligations to the future."

Artistic obligations are only to the present, but an artist exists beyond their art (despite popular romantic notions to the otherwise) and has the same obligations to the future everyone else does.

6/01/2011 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Nostalgia seeks the comfort of the familiar, whether real or imaginary. To identify oneself with 'Modernism' is nostalgic. To use the art of modernism as an historical referent is not. To mimic Modernism, with a slight twist added, remains nothing but nostalgic. To believe the words of dead critics will waft from the grave and guide the art of today is nostalgic. Nostalgia is that fleeting confusion 'remembering the good times' when you are on the verge of a divorce. It's useless.

6/01/2011 07:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Saskia said...

Nostalgia is a good, and very human way to deal with loss in all its forms. It's easy to see why indulging in nostalgia often dips deep into the well of idealism, but they are not one and the same thing.
For that matter even idealism isn't so bad in the right doses...
Loss is a part of who we all are, in the past, today and in the future.

6/02/2011 09:30:00 AM  
Anonymous sheri said...

I take more of a Marxist view on nostalgia - that it is a response to the inauthentic present. But the present has been inauthentic for so long, (perhaps the last 500 years??), it's turned into repeating tape loop.

I think it's fascinating to look at nostalgia for the past, in the past. The 1970s for the 1950s; the 1960s for the 1900s. I see it as instructive, definitely not useless.

And I also tend to agree with Saskia, that serves an important emotional function - in the right dosage.

6/02/2011 09:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It's true that it's nostalgic to "believe [that] the words of dead critics will waft from the grave and guide the art of today," but I think that's overly unkind to Derrida in Scanlan's case. The argument against Derrida isn't that he's dead, but rather that he represents a cultural touchstone which his adherents don't seem to be able to move beyond. Although we don't go to cultural studies looking for intellectual consistency, Scanlan indicates that nostalgia is not "simply bad, bad, bad." Few things are, but it's lame to suggest it after taking potshots at non-postmodernist modes, represented by no examples whatsoever, and then proceeding with an article that's as nostalgic as anything else out there. The double standard is typical, and maybe even requisite of the genre.

As a working attitude, modernism is useful to the extent (and only to the extent) that the attitude delivers results you want. Even a Victorian attitude can prove useful. I recently reviewed an Edward Gorey show for which no less than Karen Wilkin had written the catalogue. Karen, of course, has penned monographs on Hans Hoffmann, Helen Frankenthaler, and Giorgio Morandi, and found much to enjoy in Gorey. I did as well. I think of figures like Balthus, or the circle of Cadmus, Tooker, and Lynes, who had prosperity and influence despite profoundly nostalgic temperaments. Which leaves us where, that unhealthy nostalgia is unhealthy?

The problem with assertions that this thing is forward-looking and that other thing is not is that it presumes knowledge of the future, and that knowledge has an odd tendency to confirm one's private preferences about the here-and-now. We just saw that on a broad scale in the form of Harold Camping's ministry. Contrast it with Ray Kurzweil, whose studies led him to conclusions about the future that even he found hard to accept. Note too that Kurzweil's track record is both more accurate and more interesting. There's a lesson there for people who make such assertions with such surety.

6/02/2011 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art is pretty much Dead. Its on life support. Art Peaked in the late 1960s music in the 70s. The only way to save art as we know it would be to halt all technological advancements.

The Great Art of the last 40 years has been made by the Lunatics in Hollywood California , the Motion Picture Industry.

The Future of art and entertainment will be some kind of anything goes, anything possible on demand synthetic simulation stimulation.

Do you think a trust fund baby born today who will be able to live forever will care about all of Alberto Murgrahb's Warhols? or a 1955 chevy up for auction on the cable channel? It will be all obsolete. These are the good ole days ?

6/02/2011 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I simply could not agree more with this. I shudder when I think of the masses of people who think the best art ever was made hundreds of years ago, or that music found its peak with the Beatles or certain eras of rock. Of course these are all stupendous movements that deserve continued recognition, but to escape to those pleasures as a means of ignoring the contemporary world keeps our society stale and stagnant. !!

6/02/2011 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

[pick your own theorist] he represents a cultural touchstone which his adherents don't seem to be able to move beyond. This seems to be generally true historically.

I think the "zero history" postmodernist theorists are 180° out of sync with how art will evolve over the next century. With the progression of Modernism dead and already buried by Postmodernism, one Information Age tendency might be a consolidation and synthesis of art history of the recent past.

This means that modernist art may serve as an inspiration for future artists but that they will ignore the Modernist theoretical dogma. Same for postmodernist art, or surrealist art, or DADA ect. Once one drops the old theoretical and critical supports, one can see the historical naked and freshly again. The art world thinks it craves the 'new' but what it really needs is the sense of freshness which makes an artists work visible against a noisy background.

Anyone who has spent much time studying art should realize that artists in the present connect back through history and reinterpret the same general themes in the present. We don't know the future, but if we are sensitive to our present, we can fashion art which becomes the historical art of the future.

6/02/2011 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Nostalgia becomes a problem when it is intellectualized into a narrative. Emotional associations that spring from past sensory experiences are big drivers of art.

When Osama was killed, my 18 year old son was happy. He said much of his life has been dominated by terroristic events and that finally, we did something about it. The fact that he not only remembered those pre 9/11 days but longed for them was poignant. Of course we can't go back but I can't see it as a complete waste of time to long for more secure times - through nostalgia, they can as least be ssen as a posssibility.

6/02/2011 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger Eva said...

"Nostalgia" with a capital N happened around 1970 when everyone looked back at old Hollywood. The Boyfriend (Ken Russell) with Tommy Tune and Twiggy, YSL with Le Smoking, etc. Andy too, who loved filmstars and glamour. But many of these people of this time made something new with the love of the old. You can still do that - this is not the same as saying all good lies in the past. Someone once told me "You have to strive to arrive in the present." But so much of what he cherished and championed was already past.

6/02/2011 10:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I pick out notable shows at the New York Sun and produce a calendar of New England art exhibitions. This statement describing the "the progression of Modernism" as "dead and already buried by Postmodernism" runs so counter to the evidence of what's going on in art that I can only marvel at the difference. It's funny. Scanlan doesn't seem to notice his own nostalgia, and George doesn't seem to notice his deathgrip on "old theoretical and critical supports." Modernism as a defeated monolithic autocracy is a cherished convention of academic postmodernism. What I learned from actual modernists was looking at art and discarding theories. Which, as I learn from George, is the way of the future. So much for sensitivity to the present.

Nothing in art is going to supplant anything else ever again. This is what non-academic or historical postmodernism indicates. Impulses will operate alongside one another with a little or a lot of faithfulness to category as suits the artist. Even Jacob Collins has an imaginable pathway to widespread acclaim. Here's what will be hard to get used to: there are going to be a thousand small art histories instead of one big one.

6/02/2011 10:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

The monolithic model is gone. Looking back the path will be evident, but looking forward is looking into a hazy cloud and maybe paths splitting into fractal multiples of ever more paths. Each path becomes a dogma to be avoided, yet there is pressure to forge ahead. Schizophrenic, an anxiety attack, a collective nervous breakdown, or the pause before collective-actualization (or something similar to that)?

6/03/2011 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I agree with Bernard that the monolithic model is gone. I think this loss creates a certain nostalgia for the certainty it represented.

Personally, I don't believe that the avant guard is dead, rather it has bifurcated into more than one front in order to accommodate a larger art world and the proliferation of media.

However, I don't think this multiplicity is infinitely divisible, rather I believe there will now develop new avant guard clusters which accommodate the new media and the more clearly defined aesthetic partitioning of historical media such as painting.

Art schools are turning out artists with their MFA guild credentials. In the present culture, they aspire to establish a "BRAND" and become providers of art as a commodity. Their intent is to understand the marketplace and sell art into it as professional journeyman artists.

For the most part, none of these artists will likely become part of the avant guard. However, they must make competent and high quality art in order to compete successfully in a crowded marketplace. This is not a criticism but rather an observation of how artists and art as a product parallel other areas of commerce.

When I suggest that Modernism is dead, I'm also including Postmodernism here, as well as looking backwards at over a century of art's history. I view Modernism as linked to the Industrial Age, to this period's notion of 'progress' as an impetus towards a vision of the future.

As we enter into the Information Age, the impetus which creates a vision of the future has changed. My earlier comment suggested that new artists can and will view history differently, using random access in a larger database of information. These historical influences are driven by the artworks themselves, or at least reproductions, and reinterpreted within the present critical context. The issue here is not exclusionary, rather it suggests a greater embracing of history, albeit without the imperative of past critical dialogues.

Moreover, many Modernist and Postmodernist artists are still living, it is logical to expect their work will still be seen and even influential. In particular, artists making art for the general marketplace can successfully reinvigorate past modes successfully without ever getting near the avant guard edge.

6/03/2011 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

George wrote: "As we enter into the Information Age".

It is hard to argue about or parse what is an obvious shift in society away from what has been called the "industrial age" to something different, yet I feel it is important to stress when and where I can that INDUSTRY STILL EXISTS. (sorry to shout there).

Objects are still made, still needed. Some processes of manufacturing and design have been computerized and that is a good thing, but until we are bodiless entities floating around cyberspace (and even then someone's got to keep the circuits of the computer-hive-mind in working order) or ghosts or dead we need things in this material existence.

Where I think post-modernism fails badly is in its separation of the object from the maker, instead we have endless re-iterations of the prejudice implied in objects which leaves no material or process innocent and free of inhibition; everything is weighted with implied meaning and creativity suffocates.

6/03/2011 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Bernard, of course, just as the Industrial Age didn't eliminate agriculture, industry will still exist. The Industrial Age, especially at the turn of the 20th century, fostered the idea of 'progress' and this was symbolized by the machine.

These industrial/mechanical metaphors were part of the zeitgeist which gave the 20th century the belief in progress, a better life. It represented the max exodus from the farms into the cities, to the urbanization of most of the world.

Using a different metaphor, consider boys toys, in the mid 20th century they were trains, trucks and airplanes, today they are video/computer games. It trains an entirely different mindset.

We are we entities in cyberspace, take this discussion or Facebook, as an example. Access to information changes what we know about the world around us, about the state of the art and the context it is functioning in.

To your suggestion that there is "prejudice implied in objects" I would answer this may just be revealing your own insecurities. There is no evidence of this in the artworld. There is a very large market for art objects, it dominates everything else.

FWIW, I consider Postmodernism to be a part of Modernism and not the start of something new. Postmodernist thought became confused in the transition from the Industrial to the Information age because the initial hints of the latter was based upon (mass media) TV and consumerism. Obviously that isn't saying much and cannot even begin to hint of how an information based culture will develop.

6/03/2011 03:26:00 PM  

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