The following text is part of the exhibition catalogue, published by Silvana Editoriale and available online at www.silvanaeditoriale.it
Bartholomew F. Bland
Age of Anxiety: The Fantasy Impulse in American Art
Artists today, young and old, use their art not as social commentary, connection, or activism, but as a retreat from the chaos and indifference they see in the world around them. Turning away from a real world to create an alternate one that is more appealing, usually fantastic, and above all always controllable, reflects a cogent artistic trend in the contemporary United States. Many contemporary artists in America are documenting the existing societal reality, but there are many alternative artistic visions. American Dreamers showcases some of those visions and explores possible motivations inspiring them.
The nation faces challenges to its economic and military hegemony, startlingly different from the influence America wielded from World War II to the 1990s, when Communism largely collapsed. Anxiety over the loss of status is spreading now from America to all the developed countries of the Western world, exacerbated by financial crises and by the phenomenal growth and rise of influence of countries in the developing world.
As the 21st century moves forward, a retreat into fantasy is a distinct and growing impulse in the American art world. We see it in artists’ laborious craft, figural miniaturization, heightened supernatural or religious imagery and a powerful but simplified emotion that embraces universal ideas of good and evil, love and hate. While this art often evokes surface delight, it also reflects a deep unease for the future.
For some artists a fantasy world is their critique of contemporary society. Others, struggling to make sense of the real world, find it easier to create and then cope with an alternative one. A psychic break with reality or the creation of a beautiful counter-reality becomes, for them, a form of agency. What are the fears that inspire their escape? No jobs, an ingrained financial pessimism, and apocalyptic predictions for an environment that surrounds us all are too threateningly “real” in this real world, and so all around us are those who seek to escape to fantasy. The degree of societal complexity sometimes makes citizens of the modern world unable to envision possible solutions to society ills, and therefore escape into controllable, drafted reality seems a good alternative. The relationship balance between the real and the artistic worlds moves toward fantasy, the ticket to surroundings where its participants can control their lives. The mature artist’s desire to create other worlds and realities has long been a hallmark of childhood. What distinguishes the overwhelming popular successes of the Harry Potter novels, or America’s current obsession with vampires, is an engagement with the fantastical that transcends youth and draws in adults, through every imaginable form of high-speed digital device, a world in which simulated realities abound.
The desire to create a reality with definite boundaries, a world that can be controlled and creatively manipulated is seen in two distinct ways. One major idea is that of the exquisitely detailed, tightly burrowed cocoon of home, and another is the concept of creating more expansive elements for an entire imaginary society. The physical manifestations of both of these ideas strongly incorporate a traditional craft which, in many cases, is an implicit rejection of industrialized mass-market merchandizing and globalization. Christy Rupp’s series Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans (2004-2007) is a mordantly humorous critique on the destruction of wildlife and the ecologically as well as ethically critical intensive animal farming which generates mass consumption of animals by an ever-growing number of human beings. Her ability to transform grim statistics about vanished species, by creating pseudo skeletons, perfectly combines social critique with a macabre but more appealing fantastical world, for a comical yet thoughtful result.
A break with reality to neutralize the pressures of contemporary society may occur simply because of the complexities of modern life. People are so overloaded with waves of information and the pressured expectation to be informed on every newsworthy topic that it becomes oppressive. An alternative world makes no such demands. The romantic yearning for simplicity and distance, in a profoundly unromantic age, is universal, repeating in each generation, whether it be a longing for sheer beauty, hedonism or fundamentalism.
An inward imaginary world often serves as a comfort, one which parallels the growing desire of the American middle-class to “cocoon” against the troubles of the world. This trend is well documented (most notably by Faith Popcorn in the early 1990s) and dates to the rapid suburbanization of the United States in the 1950s, as the white middle class fled the problems of inner cities for a life of affluence that could permit control of home and hearth. Its most frequent manifestation is a delightful form of miniaturization in the works of artists such as Patrick Jacobs, which David McFadden calls “small realities” (McFadden 2010).
Nick Cave interprets the idea of the cocoon literally and with his Soundsuits creates a completely segregated environment, an ideal retreat from reality. Suits wildly different in color, shape and kinesthetic ability, conspire to separate the wearers from reality. With musical projection, they function twofold – the person wearing the suit breaks with reality, and for the people observing, the suits create a panoply of magical designs that suggest creatures from fantasy cultures or ancient rituals with alternate meanings. The creation of a surreal set of celebratory rituals can be also seen in Laura Ball’s work Mandala I (2011). Her watercolors bring together surrealist imagery and quasi-religious formations that suggest surreal societies infused with their own personal meanings.
Richard Deon, in unique and beguilingly historic revisionism, creates his own American histories, such as Storytown (2007), using drawings from 1950s golden-era American textbooks, with their unique views of American triumphalism. Politicians in maudlin recall remind us of the American 1950s as a kind of Edenic “before the fall” period of cultural unity and economic advancement, and urge the nation strive for its return. Deon extracts the images and creates pseudo historical events based on reality, that he scrambles into fantasy.
Tiny and meticulously crafted objects that are put to service by artist Thomas Doyle in works such as Acceptable Losses (2008) represent an ultimate form of well-ordered, social control in their terrarium-like worlds under glass. But within those contained worlds danger lurks. Doyle often shows a “cliffhanger” moment just before the complete descent into chaos, as when a classic American house seems to levitate above open ground, or an implied moment just after disaster, dramatically changing a perfect order. Although his works sometimes describe impending doom, in a more positive sense they can be seen as defying gravity – a house dancing on its grave. Doyle’s pieces successfully contain, and thereby neutralize, a Pandora’s box of societal fears. Scholar John Mack finds these microcosms so compelling that he calls them “focused, contained versions of larger, and sometimes enormously larger, universes” (Mack 2007).
By contrast, artist Patrick Jacobs’ idealized dioramas of fairy circles and dandelions are positive incarnations of the intense desire to create a perfect, miniature world, such as one that suggests Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s Titania and Oberon (as illustrated by Victorian artist Arthur Rackham) could easily appear in one the artist’s enchanted fairy rings. The charms of models are eternal: Ralph Rugoff suggests that “precisely because its antiquated virtual technology has long since ceased to dazzle us, the diorama easily assumes for viewers a transparently metaphoric status as model”, so keeping its relevance because of the nature of its makeup (quot. in McFadden 2010).
Both Kirsten Hassenfeld and Mandy Greer create works that emphasize the element of traditional craft. Hassenfeld’s Star Upon Star (2011), illuminated from within and shown in a darkened gallery, evoke both a distant universe and a highly developed array of fantastical architectural structures. Hassenfeld works in the medium of paper, while Mandy Greer creates by hand a fantasy world of hanging chandeliers in fabric. The modesty of her materials belies the totality of their impact within an installation, as an eerie, supernatural ballroom blossoms. She combines a lightness of touch with a more decadently heightened Gothic sensibility. The chandeliers drooping and engulfed by vine-like tendrils creates a decadence that is a similar thread among the artists in American Dreamers. Greer creates a dreamlike state within her installation, one of wondrous delight, but with ominous overtones.
Adam Cvijanovic’s grandly scaled, site-specific mural paintings show picture-perfect American suburban landscapes and the continued centrality of the American home in the American art lexicon, besides the fraught dangers to these fragile structures. His works show both the home in a serene setting as well as caught in the cyclonic winds from an explosion of domestic goods. Within these images rests the relationship tension between “house” and “home.” The former is simply a structural dwelling, while home encompasses a world of American hope and ambitions, and the damage wrecked upon this “American dream” during the last four years, since 2008, under a wave of foreclosures and bankruptcies.
By contrast, Will Cotton’s Tiepolo-esque, such as Cotton Candy Katy (2010), draw inspiration both from 18th century French decadence and 1950s Alberto Vargas-inspired pinups, as well as millennial era consumption. In Consummation of Empire Cotton’s candy-constructed buildings directly reference famed, 19th century American landscape Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series , which even in the 1830s was sounding a warning bell about American imperial ambitions, and its eventual dangerous outcome. For nearly two hundred years, anxiety about American’s decline has directly influenced American artists.
Not every artist works on a large societal canvas. The person is central to Adrien Broom’s photographs of women floating in apparent weightlessness. Their desire for escape from rational constraints into a state of emotional grace is palpable. Whereas the women in Cotton’s pictures are decadently sensuous, in works like Rapture (2010) Broom shows women in a state of inward abandon or ecstasy that also resonates as a middle-class fear of falling in an age of anxiety, a fear noted by critic Barbara Ehrenreich early in the 1990s.
The financial and social backdrop against which America enacts its living has been volatile these last several years, the period in which the art in American Dreamers was created. Like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who once referred to 1992 as the royal family’s annus horribilis, a year which saw several personal disasters, most of the world has been feeling under siege. For the United States, a place of once-unbounded optimism, there is a new unsettling. American exceptionalism no longer seems so certain, and Americans no longer are so confident about their futures, either personally or for their nation.
While it is true that the recession has hit much of the world community, many people in the United States have been in an economic decline for much longer. According to the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz: “There are 6.6 million fewer jobs in the United Sates than there were four years ago. Some 23 million Americans who would like to work full-time cannot get a job […] wages are falling” (Stiglitz 2012). Despite the “greed is good” roaring economy of the 1980s, the dot-com boom of the 1990s, and the real estate bubble from 2000 to 2008, when many people became very wealthy, income in the United States has become more stratified. Not since the Gilded Age period between the Civil War (1861-1865) and World War I (1914-1918) has income disparity been so great (Deprez and Homan 2011). Today’s poverty rate of 15% means that over 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line, many of them children (Kiviat 2011). Will Cotton’s glamorous portraits of the 1% acknowledge the reality of this new Gilded Age.
Income for blue-collar men, though adjusted for inflation, has been dropping since the 1970s, and is lower now than it was almost forty years ago (Greenberg 2005). Part of this problem can be linked to the decline of the auto industry, with huge effects on states where that industry was in the forefront. Detroit, Michigan, which has suffered economically for years, is headquarters for Rust Belt Cities (the pejorative nickname for Midwest cities that have lost their manufacturing base and gone into decline), and was the “canary in the coal mine” for accelerated job loss (Linsky 2011). Many Americans can now identify with the comments of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen in Alice Adventures in Wonderland: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”.
For great swathes of the population, then, it is no longer possible for one earner to support a family, and with the rise of divorce and subsequent single-parent families, the poverty rate continues to grow. The recent recession has exacerbated that problem, and with unemployment rates still hovering around 9% nationally, and higher in the hardest hit states, the problem remains severe. The ongoing, expanding, and engulfing financial crisis of the European Union contains the seeds of further economic turmoil for the United States.
Another contributor to the general feeling of anomie is the so-called “war on terror”. The United States, huge in size compared to its European counterparts and physically isolated from much of the world, had been insulated for the most part from the rise of individual or small group aggressive political activities until the 1990s. Shocking as the attack on the World Trade Center was in 1993, it failed to disturb the national sense of security. Nor did the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, once it was ascertained that the perpetrator was a discontented U.S. citizen. That sense of security was shattered by the events of “9/11”, as it is known in the United States, which not only killed over three thousand people but led to two seemingly endless wars, vague in their intent and expensive in their execution. Todd S. Purdum argues that the huge growth and vast cost of the military-industrial complex has led to an over-armed nation with misplaced priorities, such that there is little money for badly needed domestic spending (Purdum 2012).
At the same time the country has been paying for these wars, the real estate bubble of the early 2000s and its bursting in 2008 has had an outsized and lasting effect on the economy, especially in those sunbelt states of California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida where prices rose highest, sending ripples throughout the country (Florida 2009). Thomas Doyle’s precariously perched houses are an artistic metaphor for the danger in which many houses and householders find themselves today.
The election of Barak Obama to the United States presidency in 2008 was a thrilling event for many Americans, showing as it did that the country, after a long history of racial strife, would elect an African American. In many quarters hope abounded too, as the country looked to a fresh, young leader to help it out of its financial quagmire, but gridlock in government was the most immediate and persistent result, the financial situation has failed to improve, much of that hope has dissipated into resignation (Wallace-Wells 2011).
Because the United States has a weaker social safety net than many European countries do, the recession has taken a greater personal toll. Self-sufficiency is a byword in America, so many people, particularly in the middle classes, are baffled at their own inability to find work. When they do, it often does not pay comparably to the jobs they lost, and many employer-provided benefits have shrunk. President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s gave his famous “malaise” speech about the American spirit and was roundly criticized for his observations about what was lacking in American society, but his words resonate today. Carter’s advisor Pat Caddell argued that after fifteen years filled with assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and a declining economy, Americans were suffering from a general ‘crisis of confidence’, words that ring true also today, so it is not surprise that a recent study shows that “happiness is dropping” (Bosker 2011).
In the mid-1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed as a bipartisan effort between the administration of President Bill Clinton and a Republican congress, and while helpful to some industries, it damaged others. One result of it was the increased competition of farmers in the United States against those in Central America. Another was the acceleration of jobs going both offshore and to Mexico, a trend that had begun long before and that has contributed to the stagnating wages of blue collar workers.
Even in today’s recession, the working classes have been harder hit than have the middle or upper classes. Many of the most affluent have seen their share of the national income increase, largely as a result of much debated tax cuts for the wealthy. The young, minorities, and especially young veterans have suffered most in the recession (Haynie and Neary 2011). The recession has also taken a terrible toll on the savings of those approaching and in retirement, as the Federal Reserve, which controls monetary policy, has held the interest rate down to help the economy grow, a move that harms savers, who tend to be older. People of the United States have for years had a very low rate of saving (Associated Press 2006), something that has harmed them as many have lost their jobs in the current financial climate. Because the rest of the world, most notably China, has been buying up American debt, the full impact of the lack of savings was less noticeable until the recession occurred. And then the bubble burst.
The real estate bust has hurt so many homeowners, and the government’s programs have helped so few, there has been added discontent because of the bailout of large corporations, notably in the auto industry and banking. Many people, rightly or wrongly, feel that the government is too concerned with helping the wealthy via big corporations, and this disenchantment has given rise to two opposing movement springing from the same well: the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tea Party movement, named after the anti-British protestors of the 1770s, takes a hard line on helping any group, calling for far less taxation (although taxes are at the lowest rates they have been since the 1970s) and less government spending, with concomitant individual responsibility. By contrast, the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up in 2011, in response to the perception that the money being spent by government was being spent to perpetuate the inequality that exists and that has been exacerbated by the recession. But the movement is, like the Tea Party, deliberately leaderless, and it is even vaguer in its aspirations (Klein 2011). While many Americans sympathize with Occupy Wall Street’s philosophy that individuals matter more than corporations, as a practical matter it has not yet had much effect beyond acting as a constant reminder of citizen dissatisfaction.
Finally, after years of growing illegal immigration, most of it from Mexico and other Latin American countries, the current economic malaise seems to have reversed the flow of immigrants to the U. S. (Ellingwood 2011). While some economists argue that immigration is good for the country (Isidore 2006), there is a more general perception that illegal immigrants are costly in regard to social services and education (Fahmy 2010), and the tight economic climate has exacerbated that idea so much that states such as Arizona and Alabama have led the way in passing harsh state laws in regard to illegal immigrants and some contenders for the presidential nomination have tried to outdo each other in their stringent attacks. It is generally agreed that illegal immigrants, while they do contribute to the economy, also contribute to wage stagnation for lower skilled workers and workers in some skilled trades.
In the midst of these difficulties, there is some optimism. First, the crime rate in the United States has been dropping for almost twenty years, through the current recession, with a 6.4% drop in just the past year (Mail Online 2011). Whether it is demographics, policing, or better entertainment with the communications revolution, it is a welcome trend that has made big cities more attractive and has brought them more attention and population. Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell suggest that new methods of policing, such as prosecuting minor crimes, have headed off more serious crimes (Gladwell 2002). Penelope Fritzer in one of her interviews reports an academic suggested that the rise of the internet, video gaming, and social media, providing increased interest and entertainment, has reduced much crime formerly committed by the bored and roving young (Fritzer 2011).
Partly because of the recession, less development has eased the prices of land for conservation purposes, and more big landowners are taking steps toward conserving their land (Cristensen, Rempel, and Burr 2011). Environmentalism has become mainstream a huge national argument about global warming, and caring for the environment has become an important tenet for most citizens of whatever political party. Another change is that the United States is producing more oil, such that it is becoming a petroleum exporting country (in role reversal), with all the ramifications of buying less oil abroad and subsequently becoming less involved in oil producing countries’ politics. Combined with advances in solar power and hydropower, and with new efficiency standards in electrical products such as appliances and lighting, oil dependency on other countries is to some degree lessening.
What is the national mood of the United States, given this wide variety of affective factors? Just as in the Depression of the 1930s there was great interest in movies about life in the upper class, so now there is great interest in life in alternative worlds, i.e. fantasy. Hollywood, popular literature, video games and other aspects of popular culture. Even the fine arts are awash in magicians, dragons, space aliens, science fiction, vampires and even 1950s aesthetics. Oddly enough, however, much of the content is dystopic, rather than utopic, so that the escapism is not always in a positive direction that would enable its followers to feel better. Kurt Anderson cogently argues that popular culture has become stagnated (Anderson 2012), to which Graydon Carter replies: “Pop culture began to stagnate the moment Americans started to love the past more than they did the future” (Carter 2012).
It is a said that art reveals the era of its making, the evidence is more subtle: the hedonistic French art of the Ancien Régime in the years before the Fench Revolution told one story about the society it depicted, but didn’t give the whole picture. In their detail, many of the works in this exhibition strive to be beautiful, but beauty is suspect in contemporary art, at best a minor virtue compared with the greater truth, social justice and overt political engagement. The fantastic, though, has a preeminent place in the art world and, as a reaction against contemporary life, it speaks volumes about America’s hidden fears and desires.
The Chinese saying “may you live in interesting times” sums up the era of American Dreamers just as it expresses the time-honored perception that vital artistic work, most definitely encompassing the artistic, is done in unsettled periods. The artists of American Dreamers express their visions, each responding to the American life they see. Not historians or sociologists but artists, they reflect their longings and interests as they create private worlds for us to view. The meanings of their works may be veiled by beauty glamour, or fantasy, but each reflects a degree of unease with the world today. The artists, though, are individual and optimistic, two singular traits that thread through American society from its struggling start in isolated colonies, through global hegemony, to a questioning and sometimes fractious present.
Bartholomew Bland is director of curatorial affairs at the Hudson River Museum. His survey exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues for the museum include Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth and I WANT Candy: The Sweet Stuff in American Art, which toured nationally. Other projects include the traveling exhibition A Field Guide to Sprawl, which appeared at Yale University. His exhibitions dedicated to single artists include Winfred Rembert: Amazing Grace; Whitfield Lovell: All Things in Time; Susan Wides: From Mannahatta to Kaaterskill; and Red Grooms: In the Studio. He has written numerous essays and articles and is co-author of the book Merry Wives and Others: A History of Domestic Humor Writing. He was a contributor to the books Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture and Westchester: The American Suburb, both published by Fordham University Press. In his former positions, he organized a wide range of interpretive projects for the Staten Island Museum at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida.