Artistic Nostalgia & Longing

July 17th, 2011 § 0 comments

A musician friend of mine called Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris (2011), “Woody Allen light,” a perfect way to describe a film of little substance but full of longing: artistic longing. The story follows a frustrated contemporary screenwriter named Gil Pender, who is engaged to a shockingly shallow woman Inez, as they vacation with her insipid parents in Paris. One of the most beautiful, wistful, and nostalgic cities in Europe, Allen’s Paris is one that makes anyone who has ever been miss it immediately. The opening credits capture still images of dreamy cobblestone alleys that recall old Paris, Atget’s Paris, as well as the comings and goings of modern day Parisians. The film’s protagonist, Pender, is hopelessly absent from his own stifling reality, and dreams of Paris in the 1920s, when it was brimming with expats, artists, intellectuals, and writers. Lost, drunk, and alone one night, Pender is greeted by a car full of drunken strangers, who happily drive him to the 1920s at the stroke of midnight.

It’s a Cinderella-esque fairy tale about meeting your artistic heroes, socializing with dead geniuses, and confronting your personal idylls from the past. Though the moral of the film suggests that it’s unwise to lose yourself in what was, in your own particular Golden Age, you come away from the movie fantasizing about Midnight in Paris happening to you. Where would you go, who would you like to meet, and what time period would you like to visit the most? For Gil Pender it was Paris of the Lost Generation, of Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott, Zelda, Dali, Man Ray, and Picasso. For each of us it would be different, as we all have our own time, place, and intellectual or artistic heroes, and for each of us it would be as enthralling and magical as it is for Pender. Midnight in Paris is about finding beauty in the present, however, about mustering up the same enthusiasm we often have about the past for the present, about creating artwork for the here and now. Only at the end of the film, after his trips to the 1920s and beyond, does Pender begin rewriting his novel about his own life.

Artistic nostalgia, romanticizing past greatness, is an interesting problem. I believe it’s necessary to find the delicate balance between revering those who created the artistic history we draw from today, and forgetting about them when we enter into our own creative contract with ourselves. When a craft is so well learned nostalgia should become irrelevant. Like a great dancer whose body dances without her mind, artists must make artwork without thinking about who made what before. My generation of artists, pressured like never before into making artworks that feel, at least artificially, new, fresh, clever, and different, is so stifled by this demand that everything we make somehow feels derivative—either to us or our viewers. There comes a point, however, when “human experience” overlaps with other generations, and while the visual setting of our lives changes drastically from one decade to the next, the cultural problems and questions of each generation don’t. Not all art needs to be about something new.  I wonder if it is nostalgic to think that the past has never plagued the present so much as it does today.

Adam Gopnik, in a recent New Yorker article that details his own experience with learning to draw from life, talks about his “realist” teacher, a fellow dad from his son’s school, who deeply revered all pre-modernist art. Gopnik writes with his usual humor and candor:

It was only when we talked about art that we disagreed: he hated the triumph of modernism, and I did not, and there were moments when I felt a bit like a lapsed Roman Catholic who, out looking for a good Unitarian to show him a new spiritual path, has found instead a cheerful, welcoming Satanist.

This nostalgic sentiment, also dissected in Midnight in Paris, is one that we all know and understand, that feeling of being born in the wrong time or place, like being a classicist stuck in a contemporary age of blogs and Tumblrs. The Art in America writer Max Kozloff states in his essay A Planet of Relics,

It is disappointing, this sense of having come too late upon a scene.

This feeling of displacement, of nostalgia for a different aesthetic, can be used to make provocative contemporary art, or to shackle yourself to the style of dead masters. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, for example, who has said of being a landscape photographer, I was born 100 years to late, has become known for his pristine landscapes marred forever by human activities. They are photographs shot in the aesthetic vein of the great landscape photographers of the early 20th century, and yet they are filled with portent. Adam Gopnik’s teacher, on the other hand, seems to represent the artists who are willingly enslaved by the past. “You can’t go back…but you can look back.”

Endlessly looking back, rather than reacting to the moment you find yourself in, has contributed greatly to the arts recent derivative turn. The art critic Peter Schjeldahl says, you can’t play a hand of cards that history hasn’t dealt, meaning that you are stuck with the time you get. Education, so necessary and beneficial, might actually be at fault here, as MFA programs teach their students to be terrified of recreating what was already made, while endorsing artwork that slightly tweaks or shifts what we have already seen. With most graduate seminars being designed around teaching students about their contemporaries and predecessors, it’s hard to forget these influences when working in the studio. If MFA programs put more stress on the less academic side of art, forcing students to spend all their time in the studio with their own references surrounding them, it might raise questions about why a graduate degree is necessary for artists at all. The art critic Jerry Saltz, writing in the New York Magazine about this year’s Venice Biennale, said the following:

Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar….it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

While it’s too easy to dismiss a generation of young artists, as so many past groups were that we now greatly admire, and while there seems to be something ageist in Saltz’s argument that all aging critics must be constantly aware of, nostalgia of the past does haunt my generation. Some generations are haunted by wars, depressions, or disasters, but we are haunted by the sense that all the great artistic movements and moments have already passed. Success, rather than genius, is our compromise for having missed out on so many great things. What we forget is what Allen’s protagonist learns at the end of the film: how much art can teach us about ourselves, our time, and our culture. Like writing, when sentences and sentiments sometimes seem to write themselves, the true power of art is its expression of infinite perspectives. We are hardwired to be nostalgic, it creeps over every aspect of our perception, but we need to be reminded of our present condition as often as we can. As Woody Allen suggests, that is our true job as artists.

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