Where did all the new ideas go?
aco-worker recently asked me what decade I wish I had lived in, and, without hesitation, I said, “The ’70s.” She countered, “The ’50s or the ’70s?” “The ’70s,” I replied again. Testing me once more, she asked, “The ’20s or....” This time, I didn’t even let her finish—I already knew the answer. I’ve always loved the ’70s. Not for the icons (Bianca Jagger, Lauren Hutton) or photographers (Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin) or even designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo) who continue to capture the world’s imagination. I love the ’70s because of my mother: It’s the decade in which she came of age. And through the images of her that I obsessively collect, which capture her wild, carefree smile as she posed, lounged and danced her way through adolescence, I’ve come to know the elegance, romance and detached coolness of the period as if I had lived through it all myself.
I’m not the only one. The fashion world is currently having its own love affair with the ’70s, and for the past few seasons—culminating with spring/summer 2015—designers have been creating near-literal iterations of looks and styles from the era: patchwork jean bell-bottoms at Tommy Hilfiger, suede shirtdresses at Ralph Lauren, wooden platform clogs at Prada and a bohemian rhapsody of dresses at Just Cavalli. And while many of these designers can say they experienced the ’70s first-hand, others championing the revival, such as Stella McCartney, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and Phoebe Philo at Céline, were just babies during the decade.
On a recent visit to Toronto, designer Karl Lagerfeld was outspoken about fashion’s incessant impulse to romanticize the past. “It surprises me that young designers are not doing things from their own time but another era,” he told ELLE Canada editor-in-chief Noreen Flanagan. “I have difficulty understanding why these people would be satisfied by a retrospective recreation. The ’70s were okay, but not as great as people who have not known them think they were.”
British music critic Simon Reynolds was one of the first to question our unfettered love of the past in his seminal book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past: “Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward?”
We are living in the most technologically advanced era in human history. And yet, as Reynolds notes, as our high-tech capabilities evolve, our cultural landscape is, paradoxically, becoming overrun with the recycling, reviving and mimicking of almost every decade h
pre- 2000. More recently, art critic Peter Schjeldahl questioned whether there’s anything left to paint, while American fashion journalist Cathy Horyn bluntly declared that we might just be running out of ideas. And they’re not entirely off base.
In 2015, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley are still being used to sell CocaCola, while some of our most popular TV shows ( Mad Men, Downton Abbey, The Americans, Game of Thrones) and recent Oscar winners ( The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club) were inspired by the near or distant past.
York University English professor Marcus Boon believes that the current proliferation of revivals can be traced back to the rise of Internet culture. “It’s a question of speed and automation,” says the Toronto-based author of In Praise of Copying. “As ideas and images are being replicated ad infinitum because of computerization, there’s a certain kind of fake ‘return to originality’ happening.” Why is it fake? Boon notes that we’ve created a cultural landscape in which our pre-Internet past has become the benchmark for authenticity and originality— hence the misplaced notion that we need to copy the past before we can create our future.
Toronto-based curator and writer Philip Monk echoes Boon’s thoughts. “Within this new system of hyper-connectivity, I find myself retreating into the past,” says Monk, who explores nostalgia, revival and parody in his book Glamour Is Theft: A User’s Guide to General Idea. But he doesn’t see a problem with this. “Revivals are a way of recirculating culture and a necessary part of our relationship to the past.”
He does, however, argue that technology is vastly shaping the way we interpret and use the past. “The Internet has forced us all to become archivists, but because culture is being shared so quickly via social media, we are sharing what is familiar and similar. These are archives of the same rather than difference.”
But wait—wasn’t the Internet supposed to offer us a platform for difference? Where new ideas could be conceived and found within seconds? “There is no room for new understandings of the world when the Internet and social media have collapsed the space between the ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream,’” counters Monk. “Traditionally, the ‘underground’ has been an incubator for new ideas. This allowed ideas to be fully articulated before they were eventually embraced by mainstream culture. If everything is shared immediately, it can only be through a common language that already exists.”
So is there really no space left for new ideas to take shape? And—for the foreseeable future—are we doomed to just copy, recycle and revive? “I think copying is interesting and not something to be afraid of,” says Boon. “I think you see a lot of people today trying to reintroduce elements of slowness, difficulty even, into the process of copying.” Boon points to the formation of collectives that blend digital and analog practices, such as the activist movement Occupy Wall Street and the resurgence of board games and Etsy-style craftiness. “The irony of the situation is profound, but my wager is that, whatever comes next, practices of copying and recycling are going to be very important and are ultimately telling us something about the future that is not yet realizable but definitely on the horizon.”
Monk laughs at the notion that we may be running out of ideas. “We have to balance an understanding of the past on its own terms and in terms of what still interests us,” he explains. “Most cases of revival only deal with the latter— with a time period’s more superficial aspects. But revivals are also a means of discovering the fascinating things we have arrogantly forgotten. We need to discover what is meaningful within nostalgia. To do this, though, we need to go beyond the computer screen.”
I’m reminded of a quote from filmmaker David Lynch that has always resonated with me. He once said, “The difference between reality and imagination wasn’t ever clear to me at all.” Somewhere between what was and what could have been lies a hazy exercise in remembrance and make-believe—and this is precisely where nostalgia lives. But as easily and comfortably as we can find nostalgia between “reality and imagination,” it’s also the birthplace of new ideas—and I refuse to believe there aren’t any good ones left.
“Revivals are a way of recirculating culture and a necessary part of our relationship to the past.”