Swimming Against the Stream

Kate Moss

A Fantastically Hideous World

(Warning: This Will Get Graphic.)

The Barcode - Symbol of an Age

As you might be able to glean from the title, this little essay most likely isn’t going to be a paean to the glories of the age. The glass isn’t half full. It’s plastic with the logo of some mindlessly happy product scrawled on it, brightly colored, crushed, lying next to broken beer bottles at a dodgy roadside rest stop on a highway that looks the same wherever you are in 21stCentury America.

Times Square 1945 The End of World War 2 .... (Click on the photo for an enlargement)

Try this: Find a photo of a crowd scene from sometime before the 70’s. How about Times Square, New York City, in 1945 the day the war ended. Make it a good large photo. Look around in it. Investigate these these ancestors of yours. Look at them closely. I don’t know about you, but here’s the first thing that pops out at me: I can’t find anyone who is poorly dressed. Everyone seems to be wearing clothes that look good on them. Now I know if I were on the ground I would find some tawdry elements, guys with grease stains on their ties, ill fitting suits, cheap dresses, etc. But this would just be a poor use of basic ingredients. The next thing I notice is Times Square itself, there are a few large junky billboards but the architecture of the City impresses itself upon me much more than advertisements.

Times Square ca. Now ... (Click to Examine the Chaos)

Now let’s play the game a little longer: Let’s look at the same place in contemporary times. Now the first thing that assaults me is the chaos of the advertising. (And if you actually walk through Times Square you are overwhelmed in Sensurround by multiple and massive television screens.) The architecture has receded from view and the populace has become an extension of the endless logos and contradictory swatches of color. Visually humanity seems to be a silly and sad afterthought. There is no dignity left in jumble of clothing, which seem to have been chosen primarily for their cheap comfortable utility and not their aesthetic qualities. Don’t believe me? Start at the bottom and look for one good pair of footwear? And continue up the bodies looking for some signifier beyond comfort. You might find a couple of articles of fashion worth a moments notice. But the feel of the crowd as whole? Disconnected, lackadaisical, nervous, listless too. The word angst comes to mind. Ironically folks today have much more individual choice in fashions than any generation in history.

Cut and Paste Humanity in Times Square New York City

Let’s make another comparison. Pick a fashion magazine. Let’s say Harper’s Bazaar. Now let’s go back to the 40’s or 50’s again. What do we see? One simple elegant image of a woman wearing a rather attractive dress, one simple caption and the title of the magazine. And that’s basically it.

A clean uncluttered aesthetic - Harper's Bazaar September 1947

Now let’s move to the late 70’s and let’s look at a cover. What do we see? A big face with eyes meant to grab you if sitting behind another title on a rack, and a riot of truly bad graphics that practically cause the publication’s title to disappear. Almost every American fashion magazine had exactly the same aesthetics. This was the disco age; an era of shlock if there ever was one. Eventually this began to seem trashy to the folks in the trade.

A Cluttered Harper's Bazaar Cover Late 70's

And so believe it or not by the early 90’s there was a change. By say November of 1994 one could find classy covers again on Harper’s Bazaar: One classy image with somewhat tasteful blocks of copy on one side. (Although that pesky barcode kind of throws the general image slightly askew.) This coincided with the era of the supermodel and a time when there was more popular recognition of fashion photographers. It was also the Grunge era and other forms of Alternative music that valued honesty more highly than in the late 80’s or again by the late 90’s.

Harper's Bazaar November 1994 - An Attempt at Simplicity

But look at a recent 2011 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, or nearly any contemporary American magazine. It’s obvious that the war has been lost. Buried beneath the graphic hell is a hollow plastic pop singer in pseudo shimmery style. Meanwhile that barcode sits there doing it’s fugly commercial duty.

The Messy Sheen: Harper's Bazaar 2011

More Ugly/Pretty

Barcodes? Gotta have ’em I suppose. But why are they always on the front of the magazine, squatting there like a cigarette butt ruining any decent attempt at an artistic layout? Why aren’t they on the back of the magazine? It’s a very little thing really. And I suppose you have a right to say why are you even bothered by it? Get a life! And I get your point. These things are small.

Except for one thing: It isn’t just one thing!

No Comment.

We are drowning in a kind of graphic squalor. Everywhere we turn we are sinking in advertisements, propaganda, logos, political signage, photographs, faux textures, demanding collages, edited nightmares.

As recently as the early 90’s alternative artists of various stripes were working to bring a challenges to these hard angular commercial forms that surround us at every turn. But the popularity of the Internet and computer graphics sent the culture straight to graphic damnation. We’ve all been subjected to shoddily designed websites. But it isn’t the weird amateur sites that have warped us as much as it is the big ones where we have to spend a certain amount of time conducting our affairs. It is Facebook, Yahoo!, eBay, MSN, Google, Amazon, etc. It is the tyranny of the angulated blocky assault of words and pixels, photos ands megabytes that threatens to turn our lives into a series of headlines and captions.

Graphic Purgatory

What Seems Normal

And we wear our headlines and captions in an endless stream of T-shirts and corporate logos. We even label our own skins. What is the meaning of getting a commercial logo stenciled onto one’s body? Or of Bible verses about love tattooed directly above the ass crack? And a search for ugly tattoos is beyond my ability to convey for shear odious queasiness. Evidently we are desperate to communicate to others who we are – directly, immediately through any visual means necessary . After all who has time to talk to everybody? Better just to let images speak for us. Yet somehow so much gets cheapened by the hollowness of our insecurity. It is much harder to just be, than it is to “express yourself”.

1st Corinthians 13 as a 'Tramp Stamp'

The Ultimate in Fetishization

Our speech is shortened into simplistic words. I get the feeling sometimes that the caveman is not an image from our past but rather a prophecy of our future. Did humanity ever stand around saying things like “Ugh. Me like.” ? I seriously doubt it. But are we that far from a time when they will say “Dude” “Sucks” “Rules.” “Ka-Boom!”? In other words our language is becoming dangerously close to being a series of slogans and ad copy. (This is one of the scariest aspects of the film ‘Idiocracy‘.) This is nowhere more evident than in what somehow passes for political speech. Even more graphic onslaughts can be found on the cruel bumper stickers produced by both the Left and the Right.

Anti-Bush Pro-Liberal Political Speech (Click to Read)

Anti-Obama Pro-Conservative Political Speech (Click to Read)

The endlessly noxious visual noise we surround ourselves with is not simply a little thing. Why do people in the past, people more prejudiced than we supposedly are, with less psychological insight than we possess and a poorer understanding of nutrition and health, seem more at home in their skins than we do? The answer to the question can be found in the aesthetic environment we have chosen to surround ourselves with. Our debris reveals a people with a very thin sense of reality and personal identity.

Fairly Standard Students

More Unremarkable 21st Century Folks

Our protests will go nowhere if we think the problem is merely, or even primarily, economic. There is a strange cancer the eats at the core of 21st Century reality. It doesn’t really matter what your politics are. It will continue to devour us until we can look it in the eyes and see our own complicity. There are no easy solutions. But it does take courage to see what we, and I include myself here, have become in this cowardly new world.

As Long As Everyone's Having Fun

A Search For Human Dignity

Owen Barfield, a friend of C.S. Lewis, once described how our societies become that which our imaginations create for us. In his 1957 book ‘Saving the Appearances’ he wrote: Even if the pace of change remained the same, one who is really sensitive to (for example) the difference between the medieval collective representations and our own will be aware that, without traveling any greater distance than we have come since the fourteenth century, we could very well move forward into a chaotically empty or fantastically hideous world. But the pace of change has not remained the same. It has accelerated and is accelerating.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

October 25 2011