Out With The New

Matt Wycoff

The Yellow Reader, 2008 From the exhibition catalogue for, “Yellow,” curated by Lia Trinka-Browner

In his book Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus writes about the year 1984 as the year of Michael Jackson. It was the year of Jackson’s “Victory Tour,” the year of the outrageously overproduced Pepsi commercials featuring Jackson, and the year that he released his album “Thriller,” which produced eight number-one hit singles–more than any album before or since. Marcus goes on to write about that year, “Jacksonism” and the possibilities and implications of this heightened state of popular culture,

“Jacksonism produced the image of a pop explosion, an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic, and racial barriers: in which a new world is suggested, where new performances can momentarily supersede the hegemonic divisions of social life. Part and parcel of such an event is an avalanche of organized publicity, but also an epidemic of grass roots rumor mongering, a sense of everyday novelty so strong that the past seems irrelevant and the future already present.”

The moment Marcus describes is the moment in a consumer culture; it is what performers, producers, investors, and fans all long for–it is “the new.” Being something that you bask-in more than something that you simply experience, “the new” in art and culture is an event that gives you a glimpse of what is to come–of, as Marcus put it, the already present future. What allowed for the hysteria that Marcus describes (as well as his description of that hysteria) is descended from a moment in which the production of consumers eclipsed the production of goods as the foremost concern for both manufacturing and entertainment in America. It is precisely the yearning for everyday novelty described by Marcus, born from an elemental desire, pulled from its moorings and unleashed upon modern capitalist society that has both blessed and cursed American culture since roughly the end of WWI. This yearning for novelty, for progress, has made “the new” as an event possible. Capitalism and the innovation brought on by competition have made that heady mix of American culture possible on nearly every recognizable level, even when “the new” manifests as a critique of the system that enables it.

The economic boom of the 1920’s established the ground rules for the Jacksonian moment Marcus describes, as well as for the larger “American way of life.” This flourish of culture and technology imprinted Americans with expectations that tied the idea of the future inextricably to the idea of “the new.” Recently, this relationship between the future and “the new” has led to the slow but steady undoing of “the new.”

It’s certainly not that new things are no longer possible, they are. Newness is all around us. As science and technology race forward with promises of enlightenment and understanding the new washes over us and yet, it seems as though we have heard it all before. What has changed is that the future itself is no longer as thrilling a prospect as it once was. As the future becomes less desirable, the potential for the ecstasy of the new diminishes as well. It is the degradation of our hopes for the future that has made “the new” feel impossible.

This is because the shine of “the new,” the emotion of it, is largely a state of mind tied to our expectation of the future. “The new” no longer feels possible because the future is no longer the place where we house our deepest dreams and desires. “The new,” as it has always been, is of course a rediscovery–a mining of the past, an accumulation and recombination in search of insight into the present among the old new things lying hidden among the rubble. It is this larger process of recombination that has allowed for singular talent to appear, for a moment, wholly new, but it was the limitlessness of our hope for the future, even during periods of hardship, which made that newness, when it emerged, truly sparkle.

As a culture we long for the new. If at any moment it seems that nothing new is happening we may simply reconstruct the past to prop up our idea of how the new should look and feel. We take cumulative moments from the past and strip away all but a singular emergent moment, or movement, in which something new can be identified. This is why Edison is responsible for electricity when it was Tesla whose innovation led the way to the modern electricity that turns the light on our amplifiers to red before we begin to play. It is why Darwin will outlive Alfred Wallace as the father of evolution, and why Picasso will always trump Braque as the inventor of cubism, and thus modern art.

The current embrace of art and culture that revels in its quotation of the past is in itself a sort of newness. The heavy and overt mixing of styles, histories, technologies and influences seen in much of the current cultural landscape is an acknowledgement of the true cumulative development of art and culture. It is also a product of the dissolution of the single mainstream into literally hundreds of mainstreams in which varying levels of micro-stardom or “under-ground” cult-status often defines success. This is an art seeking to free itself from the burden of feeling as though creating something new is the only road to artistic salvation. This art is an embrace and acknowledgement of tradition–even when that tradition, paradoxically, may appear as the pursuit of “the new.”

This can be taken a step further to begin to describe the current mania surrounding what has been termed the “cult of youth” in contemporary art and culture. The mining of graduate schools by blue chip galleries and the success and stardom of artists and designers in their mid to late twenties also seems to be a symptom of our failing future. Youth culture itself has been utterly reified and become the only thing that resembles a feeling we have been designed to expect–the glow of “the new.”

In 1984, as in the early part of the 1920’s, feeling like you were in the future was a real gas. The future, from the Jetson’s to Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill”, was the place to be. This is not to say that the period from the 20’s through today has been entirely rosy, but as a rule capitalism tells us that the best is yet to come. In 2006 we are beginning to see just how dense a lie that might be. Small yet vocal groups of naysayers notwithstanding, American politics and culture has lauded the future of a world ruled by the market as a world for the better. After all, a promising future is the surest way to sell products. Without the future products become rather meaningless. And while in many quantifiable ways the argument can be made that quality of life is increasing, the questions are; at what cost, for whom and for how long is it sustainable through our current means?

In the future we will no longer have novelty New Years Eve glasses with two zeros as their rims, made as if by providence to fit our seeing eyes. We are beleaguered, over-weight, schizophrenic, we have high blood pressure, cancer, we pollute, we’re unsympathetic, greedy, depressed, and diseased. We’re somewhat aware that it has always been like this to a degree, only the specifics have changed, and we are beginning to realize that the future itself does not equal transcendence, only more of the same, or worse. In 1984 feeling as though the future had arrived was the mark left by the new, it was how you measured its presence. In 2008 the future is the inevitability of failed promises – it is the frightening vision of our becoming the huddled masses once flung upon our shores.

Alluding to these huddled masses conjures the rest of the now industrializing world. Those truly great masses of “outsiders” whom like Americans of the past century are filled to their very brim with the promises of industrial capitalism and the middle class. The alluring promises of stuff, of the future, whisper sweetly into their ears, they long for the feeling of freedom, however misdirected, that comes with choice. As Americans now live at the very pinnacle of comfort, as no other human beings have ever lived, the shine is in their eyes not ours. We are left with a kind of parenthetical hollowness, a whiff of regret that comes from our knowing that the hand we are playing now has been won on a bluff. For them, the ones now held entranced by the lie – levitating in its glow, the future holds the promise of their dreams. But it is the future that will cash the checks our past has written. The answer is to fix the future. Make the future the place where we invest our dreams and we will once again bathe in the flattering light of the new.

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Copyright © 2019 Matt Wycoff