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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Living In The Future? No, The Present Is My Past

Yes, that’s a reference to a Kanye West lyric from 2010. In case you needed more proof that we’re regressing.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but also—as the pillbox hats of the 1960s, platform shoes of the 1970s and perms of the 1980s go to show—as dependent on the decade. But what’s the defining aesthetic of the 20th and 21st centuries?

 According to novelist and critic Kurt Andersen, there isn’t one. In a 3,500-word cover story in Vanity Fair earlier this year (http://is.gd/JTaKvk), Andersen argues that, in recent history, “the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all—less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century”. The past, he continues, is a “foreign country”, populated with platforms and perms, “but the recent past—the ’00s, the ’90s, even a lot of the ’80s—looks almost identical to the present”.

 Andersen’s article, some readers maintain, makes too sweeping an assessment to pick up on the cultural cues of today, but others agree with his assessment that, in an environment of otherwise rapid change, “people are comforted by a world that at least still looks the way it did in the past”. Salient chief feature writer Elle Hunt looks at whether his theory can be applied closer to home.

Follow a certain route around Victoria University, and the decades pass before one’s eyes. Start at the Hunte building on top of Kelburn hill: the first of Vic’s structures, its late nineteenth-century revival, ‘collegiate Gothic’ appearance reflects its 1902 construction date. On the right is Weir House, designed in true ‘English renaissance’ style in 1931; on the left, Easterfield, which the Evening Post said “could well have been imported direct from the United States of America” upon its opening in 1958. Further up the hill is Von Zedlitz, constructed in the late 1970s; Laby in 1984; the Student Union Building extension in 1985; and Murphy in 1986. Each building reflects the aesthetics in favour at the time of its design and construction, and—bar some standardising modernisations—each looks different.

So far, so in favour of writer Kurt Andersen’s argument that, in the past, “just 20 years made all the difference in serious cultural output”. You don’t need to have aced, or even sat ARCH 101 to see that Weir House looks nothing like neither that “handsome pile” Hunter nor Easterfield; you just have to have a pair of eyes. But then there’s the latest round of additions to Vic: 2010’s Alan MacDiarmid building and 2011’s Hunter Lounge. MacDiarmid resembles a bunker from outside and a departure lounge from within; the Hunter Lounge combines polish wooden floors and Scandinavian influences with discounted Castlepoints to serve as the site of the perfect student experience. The spaciousness and linear elements of both are indicative of their being designed and constructed in the present day, but what, in particular, defines their look?

Now venture into the heart of Wellington’s cultural landscape: Cuba Street. You see plaid. You see facial hair. Then there’s the mainstream uniform of jeans and T-shirts—a constant for the past three decades. Martha’s Pantry, The Powder Room, Arthur’s, Emporium, Iko Iko, Havana Bar, Espressoholic and Midnight Espresso are among the Cuba Street destinations that look to the past for their interior inspiration, while photographs on the wall at Fidel’s suggest it’s much the same today as it was when it opened in the 1990s. And it’s not just architecture, interior design and fashion that seems to be stagnating. Pop into the Mighty Mighty on a Friday or Saturday night and hear bands that sound like The Modern Lovers (1970s-1980s), Pixies (1980s-1990s), or The Strokes (2000s-2010s). So what are the big, defining differences between the Wellington of 2012 and that of 2002—or even 1992?

Andersen would argue that there aren’t any; that New Zealand, like the United States, has found itself in a “period of stylistic paralysis”. Moreover, the cultural landscapes of both countries haven’t just stalled: they’ve started looking back. “The future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past,” Andersen writes, pointing to the trend of “reviving and rejiggering” old television series and films instead of generating original content. (That said, glancing at a Reading Cinemas schedule, there’s nothing contemporary about Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe or a silent, black-and-white film set between 1927 and 1932, Oscar or no.) Even Mad Men, he suggests, is a hit not because of its characters or stories, but because of its “’60s-fetishising” production design and wardrobe.

It’s easy to see Andersen’s point when it’s applied to a hipster rats’ nest such as Wellington, where so much of what is considered ‘cool’ is a relic from past decades. Case in point: the multitude of film cameras toted around the music festival Camp A Low Hum, in spite of their impracticality and expense. Even the reputation of the iPhone as a future-forward technology is called into question by the popularity of Hipstamatic, an app that makes uninteresting photographs look like Polaroids and therefore vaguely ‘arty’. (For the truly inane, there’s Hipstamatic Disposable, where one has to finish a ‘reel’ of 24 shots in order to view them, just as with a traditional film camera.)

This predilection to live what Andersen dubs “make-believe-old-fashioned lives” becomes more bizarre when one takes into account that people are devoting more time, energy and money to matters of appearance than ever before. It’s hard to imagine the phrase ‘personal style statement’ being said with a straight face prior to the 21st century, but today, 11.7 million people are posting pictures of Chloe Sevingy and Alexander McQueen to their Pinterest ‘mood boards’. Andersen believes this pervasive desire for ‘authenticity’ is a bid to offset rapid change in other parts of society—that is, “the profound non-stop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts”. “[T]he more certain things change for real (technology, the global political economy),” writes Andersen, “the more other things (style, culture) stay the same.”

But Andersen’s own “nostalgic cultural gaze” could well be clouding his perspective. As detractors of his article have pointed out, it is more than tinged with sentimentality for the land of the free’s golden years of industry. “It appears to me that Andersen wants to both maintain America’s cultural power as well as its reach,” says Dr Geoff Stahl, a lecturer in cultural and media studies at Victoria University. “The argument is one of a long string of treatises on the waning of America and its culture, a legacy which has always tied itself to consumption.”

As a writer that came of age in the 1970s, it’s not surprising that Andersen laments the decline of the US of A’s innovation-driven empire, but his portrait of its current cultural landscape is painted with broad brush strokes. In a response published on Salon.com, New York Times Book Review contributor Maria Russo argues that Andersen’s “glum” piece puts too much stead in external change and ignores the more subtle and significant developments of the 21st century. Sure, she reasons, car design “might not be as brash as it was in 1957”, but in an accident, “you’re unlikely to be impaled by your steering wheel, or see your trunk burst into flames”. “In 2011, usefulness and thoughtful details, and what’s under the hood, matter more than radical transformations of style,” retorts Russo.

Though Stahl found much about Andersen’s article “very compelling”, he remarks that it “suffers, in many respects, from two kinds of myopia: one geographic and one historical”: “It imagines an American barely in touch with, and only lightly touched by, the rest of the world,” he explains. “It seems rather shrill to be making claims about the end of cultural innovation from such a narrow sliver of time and space.”

For this reason, Stahl says, it’s difficult to imagine how Andersen’s argument might fit into a New Zealand context, for all the apparent signifiers on Kelburn campus and along Cuba Street. He suggests that, instead, the cultural landscape closer to home is shaped by other, related forces. Stahl, who hails from Canada, has identified the fear of being derivative or unoriginal as a “central anxiety in New Zealand culture”, to which the collective response has been to “rely upon DIY culture—enterepreneurialism in another guise”. “There’s a perception that culture in New Zealand is simply a pale imitation of something from elsewhere… so the kind of anxiety pointed to in Andersen’s article is something that has always existed here,” he says. “This always seems disingenuous to me… because cultural is always mimetic in the first instance.”

This point, that new cultural output is shaped by that which went before it, is glossed over in Andersen’s piece, if not ignored altogether. No-one can deny that the pace of change between 1914 and 1989 was noticeably more frantic, but Andersen appears to be oblivious to the more subtle, structural change the early decades of the 21st century are setting the stage for. The modern cultural landscape, Stahl argues, emanates “from nodes and sources, real and virtual”, rather than one particular “centre”; its aesthetic is therefore less distinct, but not less valuable. Above all, what Andersen inadequately accounts for that difference and innovation are just as subjective as beauty. Jeans might well have been the sartorial mainstay of the masses for the past three decades, but while the concept remains the same, the cut is completely different.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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