As a child of the 70s and 80s, I cannot experience prior history through memory of experience. Rather, much of my understanding comes through processing visual information in the form of photographs and films. The way we process this information and the impression of history we get from it is what I’m exploring in my paintings. Questions can then be raised: Is my impression of the period accurate? Am I taking part in idealization? Most importantly, what are the social and cultural contexts of the images and of my viewpoint today and how do I reconcile the two?
The idea of approaching the perception of historical time is one that I can envision applying to many different time periods and subjects. For the duration of my MFA work, I’ve decided to continue my exploration of the 1950s. This program has forced me to be deliberate and intentional about every aspect to my work, which is why, in addition to creating the painting, I need to understand the historical concepts that inform the reference photo. This paper is my attempt at that. I’ll be exploring the socioeconomic context of the 50s to provide a framework for seeing these images, and what I believe are the deep connections between the past and the present. The key to understanding the 1950s lies in recognizing the monumental cultural shift that took place after WWII- specifically, the way that prosperity radically changed America and created the world we live in today.
I first began using 50s photographs as reference a few years ago. I recognized in those images a simultaneous detachment from and connection to the present. They are humorous and strange, and contain a particular look that lends itself to painting. Initially I incorporated all kinds of photographic reference, including period advertisements, movie stills, posed photographs and personal snapshots. I have since narrowed my use to the personal snapshot only. I am finding the best reference images through groups of people who purchase old photos and slides from estate sales and antique stores. The images are often restored digitally to their original brilliance. They possess a displacement brought about by the anonymity of the photographer and the absence of any verbal or written explanation of intent. What remains is an often-clumsy composition made by someone who at one time for whatever reason valued what he/she saw and decided to capture it. The process of making that image into painting further detaches it from its original context. There is a mysterious distance then between the viewer, the artist and the unknown photographer. For all of the uncertainty with my source imagery, knowing the framework of the time period is a matter of great importance.
I’m convinced that there is great relevance to the 50s in 2009. We’re living in a fascinating time in America. With our current economic downturn, we’re learning the hard way the reality of American Dream. If any good has come from the whole financial mess, it’s that it happens to coincide with my study of mass affluence in post-war America. Everyday we read about people loosing their homes and jobs, all because our financial system is built on careless lending. This system operates to satisfy the American sense of entitlement; the notion that as Americans we feel we deserve to have what we want when we want it (even if we can’t afford it). It’s the logical response to a culture driven by advertising and mass consumerism. All these ideas can be traced to the remarkable boom of consumer culture brought about by mass affluence in post-war America.
The 50s were a complex decade of rapid cultural changes brought about by the abundance of wealth. Post-war America was the wealthiest society in the history of the world. Modern advertising and consumerism can be traced to the early 20th century and the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, but it wasn’t until the 50s that America changed from “a scarcity-based mentality of self-restraint to an abundance based mentality of self-expression. The aversion to material luxury was the first thing to go, as Americans reveled in wave after wave of new factory-made comforts and conveniences” (Lindsey 62).
In his landmark 1952 book “The Lonely Crowd”, David Riesman acutely observed the rapid changes in the new middle class. He correctly wrote that Middle America was changing from an “inner-directed” to an “other-directed” ethos (Riesman 20). In other words, people were not so concerned about what they had to do to contribute to society. Increasingly, other people were the problem. This represented a huge cultural shift from the previous generation. Riesman saw in the new middle class the dangers of conformity, but he also saw it’s potential: “The more advanced the technology, on the whole, the more possible it is for a considerable number of human beings to imagine being somebody else. [The technology] spurs the division of labor, which, in tern, creates the possibility for a greater variety of experience and of social character” (Riesman 247).
Fifties America is often criticized for being complacent and shallow. While there is obvious truth to that assessment, it’s far too easy to dismiss the period as self-delusional. Americans were living the good life, but they were filled with anxiety. They had known the Great Depression and seen the horrors of war, and now they had constant fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was a popular belief among many that World War 3 was inevitable. It’s understandable then they turned to the home and family for stability.
Often seen as a stereotype on television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, the pleasant American family was a new invention. During the war with so many young men deployed oversees, women filled the holes left in the workforce. When the men returned and the baby boom began, things changed drastically. For the first time in more than 100 years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined and women’s degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply. Men were now expected to seek emotional rewards from participating actively in the family, but for women the expectations soared much higher. “Being a wife and mother- managing the family’s consumption, attending to the emotional needs of dad and the kids, and generally choreographing and producing the suburban idyll of harmonious togetherness- came to be regarded as the highest and best outlet for female self-expression” (Coontz 110).
Families in the 50s were not so naïve as we often think. Rather, they were living in the midst of profound societal changes and facing challenges previous generations didn’t have to face. Eventually, the 50s family wilted in the reality of daily living, which led to profound changes in the next two decades. Today the image of the 50s family endures as a strong symbol. For many it represents repression and false idealism, and for others a nostalgic lost paradigm of family values. The legendary family of the 1950s was not, as common wisdom tells us, the last gasp of ‘traditional’ family life with deep roots in the past. Rather, “it was the first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members’ personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life” (Coontz 27).
It was only natural that with the shift towards an other-directed philosophy of consumption came a boom in advertising. Advertisement was not new in the 50s, but the demand of an affluent culture transformed its role in society. In his 1956 culture study, “The Organization Man”, William Whyte wrote: “We are now confronted with the problem of permitting the average American to feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending, even when he is not saving, even when he is taking two vacations a year and buying a second or a third car” (Whyte 19). To solve this problem, advertising fused the marketing of products into every aspect of culture. Advertising and marketing had been around for decades, but it wasn’t until Americans discovered television that it began to drive American culture. With television, advertisers were welcomed as guests into millions of living rooms.
Television and advertising have completely transformed the way we function in culture. In the 50s TV radically changed the cultural landscape of America. In his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Neil Postman observed the consequences of a world altered by TV, mainly that TV has conditioned us to see everything as entertainment, measured out in doses of time. TV has taught us to process information through privately seeing from a distance as opposed to using language and dialoguing with others. Being bombarded with media has a numbing affect on us. I have never known a society apart from television and mass consumerism. This is one of many reasons why I find the 50s so intriguing. I have never had to process how television and life with all of its comforts has changed me, because it has always been there.
Postman’s writing on photography speaks directly to concepts in my work: “Photographs have the capacity to perform a particular kind of dismembering of reality, a wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing of events and things that have no logical or historical connection with each other” (Postman 73). What Postman correctly sees as a key problem with TV, mass media and the way we consume (both images and material goods), I see as great potential for making art. With media, we have been conditioned to accept as ordinary truth “a wrenching of moments out of their contexts”. In my paintings I’m attempting to place found images back into a proper context.
What interests me is the way that we approach history through imagery. What that looks like in my paintings is something that I’m continuing to discover. The challenge is to incorporate an understanding of the period into the paintings themselves, a difficult task considering there is no virgin territory with this kind of cultural exploration. The ideas behind my work are not necessarily new, but working with photographs will always require contextual knowledge. What makes my idea different is that it looks to the past when all eyes look to the future. I think that too often we neglect lessons from the past and fail to appreciate where we’ve come from. The American 50s represent the monumental shift to an abundance-based mentality of self-expression, a philosophy we live with everyday. This is what makes history relevant.