12/13/08

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

In this month's issue of the Atlantic, P. J. O'Rourke pens an invective against Disneyland's new-and-improved Tomorrowland for its patented lack of imagineering (the theme is Retro, i.e. classic future). The problem, writes O'Rourke, is not Disney's alone: "Disney’s Tomorrowland is deeply, thoroughly, almost furiously unimaginative. This isn’t the fault of the 'Disney culture'; it is the fault of our culture. We seem to have entered a deeply unimaginative era." While I am sure that he did not mean to personally insult me, O'Rourke did make the curious choice to end Future Schlock by attacking all that I hold dear:

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles—natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal—call it “blogged” for short. ...

And here we are in 2008. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.” More modern poetry is written than read. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

Well, that sounds like a challenge to me. Given O'Rourke's preference for the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance revealed in the paragraphs that immediately precede the ones reprinted here, he might not think my answers are worth the pixels they're printed on, but I thought that A Shout In The Street readers deserved at least a few links on the subject.

Name an avant-garde painter.

Trick question. The furthest afield in the avant-garde aren't painting any more. In fact, they may be making films, which O'Rourke derides in his next sentence:

...movies are famously not any good anymore.

Really? Too big a topic to grapple here, but suffice it to say I disagree. From the yearly Godard film to Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, some of the best movies ever made are being made right now. At the very least, we are lucky to be alive in the time of Brad Bird.

Name a great living composer.

Christian Wolff. The youngest member of the so-called New York School, he started taking composition lessons from John Cage when he was sixteen. Cage quickly realized he didn't have much to teach him and soon Wolff was having his music performed by the likes of Cage, Feldman, Brown and Tudor. His inventive notation for the piece For 1, 2 or 3 people, his masterpiece Burdocks and his invention of the prose score have inspried at least two generations of experimental composers and have led some people, like me, to consider his music some of the most important written in the twentieth century. He is still living and working, writing for ever larger ensembles.

Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.”

We're outside my comfort zone, here--I can safely say I know more about nuclear physics than musical theater. Even so, I felt Richard Foreman's opera What to Wear was pretty damn good. In fact, it blew my mind. I experienced a heightened state of consciousness that I cannot describe but that moved me to tears simply because I knew it could not last. It was not everyone's cup of tea--I heard him tell his cast that the house would be full but that they would probably be performing for just five people--but it was better than cereal box songs to be sure.

More modern poetry is written than read.

Maybe, but we can correct that ourselves. You can start here.

Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home.

Okay, so the 20th century's enthusiasm for new materials hasn't produced buildings that will last for millenia. But having weathered the great, glass slab epidemic of the 70's and 80's, contemporary architecture has taken a very interesting turn. The most recent buildings to go up in Los Angeles, such as Thomas Mayne'e CalTrans Building and Pfeiffer Partners Incorporated's Colburn School, are both beautiful and unlike any other buildings I know of. Note that in an article otherwise concerned with a lack of imagination, O'Rourke doesn't tackle the inventiveness of the buildings themselves, just their construction. His version of art-and-culture criticism is a curious oscillation between "this isn't avant enough" and "they don't make 'em like they used to," with cantakerousness seeming to be the unifying factor.

The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

I recommend Joel Agee's treatise on the subject, A lie that tells the truth: Memoir and the art of memory, published in the November, 2007 issue of Harper's.

But isn't it a bit of a stretch to say that memoirs are "the most prominent contemporary art form?" Would it be more of a stretch to nominate blogs? The Atlantic didn't think so. They are, after all, a creative, even imaginative use of the technology that O'Rourke chides us for only using "to sell one another 8-track tapes on eBay and tell complete strangers on Facebook the location of all our tattoos."

When I read O'Rourke pine for the future of his youth, I'm reminded of one of the best lectures I ever heard Thom Andersen give. It was a lecture on a curious film adaptation of Don Quixote, Honor of the Knights, that depicts Quixote not as a deluded bumbler, but as someone striving to teach dignity and respect for life and the world to Sancho Panza. Andersen began the lecture by mentioning an exhibit called Birth of the Cool, whose thesis, he decided, was that 1957 was the best year ever. After an expansive, ranging lecture that belied its precision, he circled back to this idea. For some, the golden age was ancient Greece, for others it was the Renaissance and for others still, it was California in 1957. But the golden age is not in the past, he said; it is within us.

Put another way: if the future isn't bright enough, take off your blinders.

Photo of the CalTrans Building by DisneyKrayzie.

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