The Setting is the Story

A while back, I listened through The Arcade Fire’s newest album, The Suburbs.  I listened through the whole album, multiple times, over a period of weeks.  I let it go for a while.  Recently, I took another listen.  It’s still beautiful.

This time around, it’s coaxed me into thinking about art history.  The song Rococo is poignant for obvious reasons.  It takes its name from a movement in the late-Baroque period, especially of France.  The central thrust of the song is a satire against pseudo-intellectualism: “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids.  They will eat right out of our hands, using great big words that they don’t understand.  They’re saying: Rococo, Rococo, Rococo….”

Rococo, the art movement, has often been criticized as overly ornate.  This, too, fits well with the theme of the song.  It can even be seen as a variation on the unifying theme of the album.  The Suburbs are ornate, overly ornate: superficial.  This movement out toward the culture—or perhaps away from the culture—is the resounding note of the album.  And this note tunes the listener to do some of his own cultural criticism—whether constructive or deconstructive.

There is a trend, or at least tendency, toward what might be called a thrift-store aesthetic.  It feels like a rejection of overly rationalized fine art.  It appeals especially to the 25 – 35 age range.  Though, the rippled impact reverberates in the wider culture as well.  There is a slew of TV shows which testify to this growing aesthetic: the tried and true Antique Road Show; the edgy Pawn Stars; and good ole American Pickers.  Nostalgia looms large.

Specifically, though, this thrift-store Romanticism has been on the bodies and in the living-spaces of 20 and 30 somethings for some time.  The Grandmothers of these folks might have had a row of colored-glass bottles lining all three shelves of a misplaced, misused bookcase.  These younger, romantic folks might have two, colored-glass bottles, on opposite sides of the room.

One of the bottles might sit on top of a bookshelf filled with musty old books bearing names like Kafka, Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Dillard.  The other bottle could very well be found on a windowsill, next to a plant that is potted in a heavily glazed pot with an ochre palette—thrown, formed, and fired by a close friend.  And by the way: why buy jewelry from a store when you can make it yourself, picking out the materials you really want?

Eclecticism is a valid term and an ally of this Neo-Rococo.  To be sure, classical principles of design—symmetry, proportion, color, color tone—are all well understood by the thrifty aesthetes and even employed by them.  They are, however, reinterpreted.

John Ruskin said, “Symmetry is the opposition of equal quantities to each other.  Proportion the connection of unequal quantities with each other.”  For the thrift lover, proportion of different visual patterns is often unified through a common color: vertical stripes and paisley might work together if they are both varied tones of blue.  Symmetry is there, too: remember the two, colored-glass bottles, an equal division.  Symmetry is just understated by proportion and color.

The back-story for the development of this taste is as eclectic as the taste itself.  The clearly defined lines of Bauhaus turned into the nearly nebulous puff of early postmodern art.  And plastic is somewhere in between, conceptually if not chronologically.

Considering architecture specifically, postmodern art is really just an extension of modern art, and both have this in common: they lack complex shapes.  True, some of the lines created by these buildings can be mesmerizing, evoking M.C. Escher.  But much of Escher’s work, though two-dimensional, seems actually to push toward the fourth dimension, creating overlapping perspectives in one piece, which feel like different times in one place.

Bauhaus architecture, with all of its ground to sky reality, seems visually to slip back toward two-dimensions.  The sleek lines almost make it flat, with the eyes passing over it like a smooth piece of plastic.  Maybe this made sense when Bauhaus was beginning in the early 20th century.  At that time, non-Euclidean geometry and Relativity theory were taking hold, both of which aided the upset of formerly stable mathematical and cosmological systems.

Bauhaus wanted clear lines, not only because it was disgusted with the embellishments of the Baroque, but because it needed to make sense of a rapidly changing world.  While taking full account of the flagrant behavior of some, if not most, of its followers, Bauhaus was an aesthetically conservative movement, reacting against the liberties, the decadence, of its artistic forefathers.  It wanted to defeat the curvy complex.

Or maybe the victory of the square has more to do with Cezanne’s libertine breakdown of landscapes, refracting vision into its initial level of intake, that level which has not yet been interpreted by the brain.  Whether liberal or conservative, the vast field of vision gave way to a particular piece of grass.  Something about the forest and the trees comes to mind here.

Neo-Rococo wants to reverse this disintegration—with its earthy pottery, blown glass, hand-crafted furniture, bespoke clothing.  This junior Rococo wants revenge on those who killed his father.  But neither does he want to be his father.  The decorative volume is substantially hushed by the modern era’s criticism.  Still, Neo-Rococo is offered as a criticism itself, a jab at overly intellectualized ideas of symmetry and design.  It is romantically looking for form.  And with form: story.

The drama is still unfolding.  The narrative is in genesis.  It’s difficult to determine where it may end.  But the setting is coming into focus.  The props are placing the stage.  Exodus-like, we’ve left the suburbs; we’ve moved to the city.  Maybe the setting is the story.

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