Saturday, January 11, 2014

A fifties phantasmagoria

The 1950s was really the last time this country had an ├╝berculture. Exhausted by the hardships and uncertainties of World War II, the nation relaxed into a decade of well-earned prosperity and a retreat from nagging issues of identity and destiny. From port to starboard, from stem to stern, the great yacht America was a tight ship indeed, run on a few simple rules, chief among them being: don’t rock the boat. Conformity was a kind of civic religion. The idea being, if there was only one template for a successful life (well, actually, two—the ladies needed their own), then we wouldn’t ever have to bother with those messy notions that landed Europe in so much trouble and then sucked us into the vortex, now, would we?

Never mind that an insurrection was already under way, nurtured into being by the first really distinctive teenage culture in American history, a generation that had already decided conformity wasn’t cool—a generation that had in fact invented the whole concept of cool—and that was thriving beneath the bleachers of the American pep rally, reading Beat poetry, experimenting with free love, and smoking loco weed. 

This would of course explode in the sixties, in ways we’re still striving to understand. But even with as much disagreement as there is today about how we live and why, there also seems to be a paradoxical fascination with the fifties; not so much a nostalgia for it—no one but the most ramrod Republicans wants to go back there—but a kind of stunned appreciation for the mere fact of it. Looking back at the decade for our vantage point is like watching archival footage of a circus performer who balanced a dozen spinning plates for ten whole years. 

Of course, being the subversive lot that we are, our favorite way of looking back on the fifties is to impose on it the disorder it so feared—to take the entire carefully sorted spice cabinet and dump it all into a blender, and whizz. The strangeness of this most homogeneous, yet most segregated—this most self-assured, yet most anxious—this most chaste, yet most salacious decade in our history, is only really apparent when you blur the lines it drew for itself, and see the pigments bleed into one another. 

All of which is a long prelude to my saying that this month I discovered the wonderfully witty and incisive work of the graphic artist Nadine Boughton—who melds illustrations from fifties men's and women's magazines into incongruous, yet gorgeous tableaus—as well as the jaw-dropping new kaleidoscope video by Bonobo. All of which I am moved to share. Enjoy.

(One final thought: I can speak with authority on the fifties, because…I was there. Just barely, it’s true; but long enough to know from bitter experience that this is no exaggeration.)