Monday, March 5, 2012

Sensory Overload:A Memoir of the Beautiful, the Ugly, and the Unclassifiable

I have admitted before and it bears repeating yet again that I am in large part a perceptual creature. What this means in practical terms is that I will be haunted, seemingly for eternity, by a single image, vision, if only a vague texture. I will see it, and only it, and I will not be rid of the mood or effect of the style of this image for a long time. It could be as simple as an article of clothing, a bit of facial hair, an oppressive mansard roof on a chain restaurant, the pattern in a carpet, anything. What this means is that I have spent much of my life affected by things that may have had quite less of an impact upon others.

This raises profound philosophic questions that cannot be settled here: namely, the eternal separation of and conflict between appearance and reality. In my experience, because I am a perceptual creature I am guilty of not sufficiently separating where separation is called for: appearance overwhelms me to the point where I am often unable to see what is in front of me. Packaging can become everything. This might not be bad when the appearance and reality have a connection or are synonymous. But we all know at least since Plato that is not always the case. I confess to being a person for whom beauty is one of the highest values and ugliness can ruin an otherwise neutral or even good affair.

The presentation of a thing can indeed be more powerful than the content of what is being presented.

Such was the case with a father of one of my best friends from childhood. I have mentioned before that the child in question, George, had a father with a rather distinctive grooming presentation. I mean, of course, a particular kind of drooping mustache with a bald spot in conjunction with longish hair that swooped over that bald spot, flat, and lifeless: the so-called comb-over only added to the sad droopiness of this man's visual appearance. It disturbed me so. I know, I know, from all the wisdom of the ages and the sages, that I am to ignore and get past this visual information. Yet I could not see past it. This father spoke to me about so many things over twenty years yet I can barely remember a word of it; I do remember his mustache and comb-over, however.

I have searched for two images online that best resemble this kid's father. I have found two. One is the iconic image of Sonny Bono from the Sonny and Cher period. The other comes from a popular movie, an unusual attempt to make a high school sex or Romance comedy from a female and Feminist point of view: the 1983 movie Valley Girl, (Martha Coolidge). Neither of the mustaches achieve the heavy droopiness that my friend's father possessed, but they come a little close.

This all too brief excerpt is one in which the ex-hippie father gives some sound and rather traditional, commonsensical advice to his teenage daughter concerning the vagaries of fashion, sexism and so on. When I saw this film in the theater, however, I was inadvertently "taken out" of the film because he so resembled George's father. Moreover, it was confusing since I saw none of the love, warmth, and consideration from George's father as is exhibited here in this fictionalized representation of a father, as played by Frederick Forrest. What a brilliant move on film director Martha Coolidge's part to have this be the man to deliver this sort of pep talk or sermon!

It did no good for me as an audience member; but it did raise certain questions. You must realize that I was watching the movie on a date...with a "real" Valley girl, with whom I thought I was in love! (She was a transplant to Florida from Hollywood California. And I was a very young fifteen year old). This was quite fun, except for the fact that she sort of hated the movie and I loved it. That fact seemed to end things. (The reader can note that in the stereotypical reception of the film, it was I - the male - who was supposed to hate such a movie and it was the girl who was supposed to love such a movie. Luckily, the contemptible adjective "chick" had not yet entered into discussions of genre, as a prefix or otherwise).

The context of the movie is that Frederick Forrest's daughter is dating a "punk" or "new wave" kid, played by a very young Nicholas Cage, and her Valley styled female peers clearly disapprove of him. It is a very light toned and non-violent retelling of the old Romeo and Juliet narrative. When this film came out the battle between disco and rock was still (!) on everybody's mind. In the case of the fictional film it is the youth of the Valley versus the youth of Hollywood.

But there was a larger geographic question. Let's leave the film for a moment. Thinking of my disco versus rock example for a moment, there is the very real sense that punks and rock and rollers were threatened by the Beauty and glamour of, say, disco, and they crouched their fears in the language of aesthetic and cultural superiority. (This division cannot be explained by class or socio-economic reductions alone because many working class people chose to be a part of disco as well: they wanted to dress up and go out.)

In the case of this movie, his teenaged daughter will have to decide whether to listen to her friends who really believe that everybody should wear pastels, hoop earrings and Izod polos. She must decide if her friends' verdict on her boyfriend is correct: whether his presentation of self - (See Erving Goffman) the distressed leather, safety pins and dyed hair - is simply weird and ugly at best and a kind of threat to suburban civilization at worst. Certainly, from the point of view of the Valley girls, no boyfriend of their clique should look like Nicholas Cage does in this movie.

But does it all come down to the question of whether you listen to the Dead Kennedys or Bonnie Hayes? The father fails to see that such codes are deeply meaningful marks of what tribe you are in. When he was his daughter's age, would he have been so friendly should he have come upon a clean cut peer with a crew cut and Brooks Brothers suit, without the long hair and bell bottomed denim the father once sported?

Her father says that what matters ultimately is their love for each other. (This is a twist: in this case the parents approve of her boyfriend: perhaps because the boyfriend's "punk" ways remind of their own hippie youth. It is oddly refreshing in a conventional narrative to have the father express such approval of a daughter's romantic choice. This is but the aftereffect of a distinctly 1970s narrative perversity as discussed by Todd Berliner).

The father's idealism notwithstanding, as any fashion maven or stylist will tell you, the father speaks only a partial truth. He speaks for a world that he would like to exist, for an ideal. But our innate preferences can tend towards reading the "outside" code and ignoring what is "inside".

Moreover, we prefer, other things being equal, (though they rarely are, alas), something that is pleasing to the senses. Speaking from the other side, as a defense of a kind of sensual inequality, there really is the fact and problem of ugliness in the world. There is the very real sense that punks and rock and rollers were threatened by the Beauty and glamour of, say, disco, and they crouched their fears in the language of aesthetic and cultural superiority and virtue. And there is the equally real sense that the ethos and ethic of rock entailed an embrace of ugliness for the sake of emotional purity and authenticity. Beauty, as so often in certain Modernist art forms, becomes itself a suspect.

Indeed, it would be very hard to underestimate the force of the ugly: much of our built architectural landscapes for the past fifty years have been ugly. Many of our fellow citizens seem to delight in deliberate dishevelment, in being ill clad - to be fair perhaps more for reasons of principle rather than neglect or even laziness. (I leave aside economic necessity since the cheapest clothing available never has to be ugly or ill fitting).

The emergence of Rock and Roll culture only added to this problem: since it was predicated in part by a celebration of casualness, even dirtiness, combined with a disdain for artifice in presentation, a revolt that is initially against decorum could end up with an embrace for the ugly. Beauty was seen as something for squares and oppressive mothers, and Lady Bird Johnson's beautification projects. (Please, dear reader, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no Beauty in Rock - far from it - nor am I saying that Rock is only sociological rebellion, for it is also an art form. I am merely charting a certain tendency in the fullness of Rock's history, Glam and other exceptions notwithstanding.)

And this is one of the reasons why the 1970s remains such a powerful historical moment for me, for it challenges me - aesthetically, intellectually, even emotionally and spiritually - to think about what it meant for otherwise unremarkable, middle class people to pursue such wild and chaotic expressions of clashing designs.

Such expression seemed to be for the purpose of committing righteous rebellion against perceived "classist" traditions of good taste. You might consider it a kind of principled anti-Beauty. You can say many things about this Revolution in taste - you could even say it was depressing at times. You could say it lacked taste. But at least it had a point of view, even if the point of view was for a kind of visual incoherence and inanity - even if the point of view was that the color brown had to be used as much as possible because it brought us all closer to God and nature. What you can never say about the visual culture of the 1970s period is that it was boring. Sure, there is a tedium associated with highway and freeways stretching for thousands of miles filled with uniform Brutalist, cement and cinder block highrise boxes. But there is also a fascination there too. Fascination can be an attempt to master childhood aesthetic horrors, an attempt to intellectually understand.

My childhood was defined by a plethora of such distracting stylistic decisions. I remember one friend's house where the mother decided to have this wall to wall carpeting of sewn together bits of used shag carpet in all the colors of the rainbow. When I would visit her house, just at the moment I was about to be pay proper attention to the beauty of her three daughters, it seems that the real winner in attention getting was not these beautiful girls, but the immense distraction that was that damned carpet. That carpet won every time, so domineering was its effect upon my psyche. Strands of shocking pink, burnt orange, sky blue, bright red, and canary yellow stretched throughout the entire living room.

This family would have what they called a recital hour. (I was not yet far along enough along in my musical studies to entertain). When the daughters performed for all of us, they always did Carpenters selections. And they duly performed them upon this loudest of carpets. There is something perversely peculiar about the spectacle of three blonde teenage girls performing "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft", on 12 string guitars, a Steinway grand piano, and under a strobe light, the oppressive eye of their mother and over this carpet. Yet I barely remember all of this, upstaged as it was by that carpet. How could this be?

For this reason, to this day, whenever I hear The Carpenters I often think of that carpet. When I was a child I kept referring to them as The "Carpeters" and I had to be corrected, chiefly by spending some time around an Italian cabinet maker!

Everybody is probably different as to how sensitive they are to the perceptual, or the sensual. I have known people who are oblivious or indifferent to environment and surroundings. All they see is the person in the environment, indeed, they seem to bond with the very soul of whomever with they are speaking. All else, however distracting, seems to fade away for them. I would state with little doubt that such people, while they might be clueless about interior deign, or urban planning, get a lot right about human relations and interactions. There are probably still others who miss nothing, and take everything in with greatest clarity: the external and the internal; the character, as well as the packaging; the scene and everybody in it. Alas, I am not one of them.

These issues I have raised are not easy. But one thing that stands in the way of their proper discussion is the habitual assumption that sensory matters are but mere whims owing to arbitrary tastes and fashions. Carried to the extreme, it is considered inappropriate (in the vogue word of our particular cultural moment) to say that anything is objectively ugly or beautiful. We can certainly argue over how much value ugliness or beauty should hold in our lives, but at the very least we should be unafraid to name it when we see it without resorting to the qualifiers of "point of view" or "personal opinion".

The chief feature of our visual and sensory environment today is not so much ugliness but pervasive blandness. All one has to do to empirically demonstrate my assertion is to enter any Apple store, a stand in for the all the rest. All of that lean, light and airy glass, and transparent, weightless material contributes to an environment devoid of any literal or metaphoric color. It is as if, haunted by memories and reminders of the loud 1970s, designers have attempted to come up with environments that are offense proof. Needless to say, given my own constitution as noted above, I have little problem with distractions these days given the built environment. But I do get very depressed.

If you look at clips of the Oscars Academy Award ceremonies of decades past you might see garish colors, blazing lights and overwrought stage design. Sometimes you simply see the mark of basic creativity and art direction. Here is an example of B. J. Thomas singing Burt Bacharach in 1970:
A painted set! Imagine!

Today in contrast you see, as in everywhere else, a minimalist translucence. Everything seems bare: a speaker in a black suit or tuxedo stands out in an awards show since the setting has been so reduced. Political debates have the same look. It is all greys, washed out neutral shades, above all, lots of glass and fake chrome.

Designers have insured that it in our current period there be nothing to attract or arrest our attention. If the end result expresses a purity of spirit, it does so by abandoning the messiness of soul. (This is according to the ancient formulation where body, soul, and spirit must be taken into account, that matters of soul and spirit are separate concerns and in tension with each other). This, of course, is another case of neglecting and abandoning Aphrodite.

Yet bland and middlebrow good taste or no taste becomes, in the end, its own kind of ugliness. The ugliness is what you get at the end of such a bereft design project; it is the ugliness of a lack of individuality or personality. It is a world designed for nobody in particular, as if nobody were home: this is doubly ironic, for the world has never been more crowded and freed from unwelcome design distractions. The individual has never before been so embedded in the crowd, yet somehow been robbed of one of the perennial means of expression, that of creating a distinctive public environment.

Yet human expression will out. Thus male "hipsters", in their own spirit of rebellion, fight back by sporting some distinctive facial hair and becoming history buffs. Young people collect old, vintage things and delight in clothing from past time periods. And everybody longs to see representations of the past, a past that appears to us as much more multicolored than our own. (A paradox when one considers that the past is seen as more constricting than is our ostensibly more liberated present). Think of Madmen, Downtown Abbey, Boardwalk Empire and numerous other examples.

As Henry James reminded us, "every human being has his shell and you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances."


  1. This is a great blog. However, are you being ironic when you refer to the beauty and glamor of disco?? Do you mean the sheen and slickness of more pop type sounds as opposed to the rough edges of the types of rock people were championing, which had more of a hippie, self-made vibe? (I'm sure the same people who hated disco also hated Christopher Cross and Barry Manilow, for instance). But don't you think there was something intrinsic in disco that people may have objected to as well? I mean, something in the actual sound of it that was just too much for people, even people who could accept multicolored shag carpeting with no problem? Or did it just become too mainstream to be considered cool any longer by the time it really exploded?

  2. I was and am a staunch defender of disco. I consider it a legitimate part of the history of African-American popular music and dance music. There is of course bad and good disco, but most American historians (Bruce Schulman, Alice Echols) note that it WAS the genuinely glamorous aspect of disco - that it was interested in design and was produced (in addition to the unfortunate implicit or explicit racism and homophobia among rock and rollers - you can't ignore the role that African-Americans and gays played in disco) - that accounts for some of the backlash against disco. I can understand those that prefer what is perceived as the purer sound of funk as against the more "empty" quality of disco. It all depends what you mean by intrinsic. For every one ABBA, whom I do consider overrated and not very good, there is Donna Summer, Alicia Bridges, Barry White and Chic, and A Taste Of Honey, and so many good musical acts. I read disco as part of a self consciously non-high art musical practice, that is for dancing and going out rather than intense listening. Then there are great R&B groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire, who blended funk and disco. But I confess to being a contrarian on this one. But I do think you are right that when a genre or style gets too mainstream it loses its power or interest. Of course History is a weird thing, so now Kool and The Gang are going on tour with Eddie Van Halen!