Saturday, June 13, 2009

Imagery in the Pop-Rotted Imagination

We don’t want to produce kitsch. We don’t want to be ironic. We don’t want to be arch, disconnected, self-conscious, or sarcastic. Most of all, we don’t want to make pop culture references.

Too bad I can find a Simpsons’ reference for almost every situation.

Let’s face it – we are middle-class white Americans from the tail end of Generation X, and we are saturated in pop culture. It provides the context for every social interaction, for every intellectual exercise, for every conversation and argument. We fight with our spouses with scenes from sitcoms and 80's teen movies in our minds. We play with our children wondering if they will think of us as the parents from “Growing Pains” or the parents from “Married with Children.” On some level, we really wish our pets talked and our cars turned into robots.

Better writers than I have considered our generation’s borderline-diseased fixation on the pop-culture detritus of our childhoods, the combination of nostalgia for the simple, safe leisure of our suburban summers and over-developed, too-early cynicism that results from an education by TV, colliding with unprepared entry into a world that does not meet the expectations formed by our pop-coddled upbringings. It is this psychology that results in our fascination with Saturday-morning cartoon shows, Saturday-afternoon B-movie cheese, and all of the garish merchandise that we saw advertised on those programs. It results in adults wearing Thundercats T-shirts, hanging “Supervan” posters on the wall, and having children for the express purpose of showing them The Smurfs.

And we at Old Cat Died were raised on the same diet of TV, comic books, teen magazines and trashy, product-placement focused children’s movies.

So when we think about how to decorate our pottery, what Pebble People to paint or how our Naked Peeps should look, we are walking a fine and often imperceptible line. At what point does cute or appealing turn to cheese and kitsch?

Let’s face it – there is no such thing as originality. There are no original images. There are no unique images. Especially in a media- and image-saturated culture like ours. There are billions of images free-floating in our collective consciousness ready to be plucked out of the air and drawn, painted, sculpted, or carved.

So, when we use cloth diapers and Carrie starts drawing clotheslines in her sketchbook, it’s only a matter of time and a Google search before she finds another potter already drawing clotheslines on pots. When Carrie puts doors on bowls and cups, there’s no doubt that someone else has a whole door motif. It’s a vicious thing, really – when someone beats you to an image, it becomes theirs by the curious laws of temporality, but in reality, anyone could have drawn a robot on a teapot first. The first to do it is original. The second is an imitator.

But we all draw our images from pop culture to some degree. Few of us know what an owl looks like except from Tootsie-Roll Pop commercials and public-school educational cartoons, and even when we’ve seen the real thing, the simulacrum is more compelling.

And, since we all draw our images from pop culture, we are all on the verge of kitsch.

We’re all going to be tempted to draw, paint, or sculpt robots at some point in our lives. If we consider ourselves artists, the question is how to draw robots as a genuine personal, social, and cultural expression, rather than a knee-jerk response to the pressure of having to create out of a pop-rotted imagination.

Pop-culture nostalgia is a tricky gnome. As soon as it gives (common experience, unity, memory, the momentary joy and comfort of recognition), it takes away (irony, snideness, the bleak recognition that our innocence is behind us). While the imagery – cheesy surf T-shirts, big-eyed Japanese cute, robots, space ships, whatever – belongs to all of us, in belonging to all of us, it belongs to no one. It cannot be taken truly personally. It cannot be made one’s own. It can only be regarded from the outside. Ironically.

With Old Cat Died Carrie and I find ourselves constantly confronting this problem. Almost daily while sketching or decorating pots we ask each other “Is this kitchy? Is this ironic? Is it too hip? Is it too cheesy?” One of the pitfalls of coming from a self-aware and ironic culture is second-guessing yourself (and fighting the brain farts that remind you “Pitfall” was an awesome Atari game).

We’ve tried to combat the problem in different ways. I’ve embraced the inner child who wanted to be a cartoonist, and designed pieces that bring cartooning front and center, including panels, bold primary color and narrative. But then Carrie asks, “Why is it pottery? Just draw comics.” Carrie has made a conscious effort to explore personal imagery from our daily lives and childhood, taking great care to focus on imagery that is unique to her experience and not our pop-culture common knowledge. To which I can say, “But how much of our experience was even unique?” Did anyone of our class, race and generation have an unmediated childhood experience without TV and teen movies to show us who we were supposed to be?

There is probably no way to solve this problem. It’s one of those problems that has to be negotiated, not solved; treated, not cured. We will continue to second-guess the images that pop into our heads and into our hands; we will always wonder if we’re being ironic without meaning to, or whether irony is just our generation’s version of sincerity in the face of corporate fascism. In the meantime, I’ll be drawing Yoshi in my sketchbook and worrying whether it’s hip.

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