thoughts on the counter culture, art, and consumer culture

by Art Zoller Wagner

In a different forum, I said that can accept that painting is "conservative." I see it as part of a romantic sensibility that includes longing to be part of a counter culture.

To this Carol Moore responded:
I don't agree that painting is 'conservative' --it depends on how one paints and I'm not sure about the 'romantic sensibility' -- what does that mean in this context Art? I also feel that once one begins to define self -- then they become part of a counter culture -- something of their own designation. We salvage a little from one model and a little from another paradigm and it meshes or jams into something that is counter to the culture from which we've emerged. But I do feel as though we are counter to any students we try to inspire -- and perhaps the more counter we are the more inspirational we'll be to those young and uninhibited minds (unless one is teaching community or university)....

My next response was:
When I say romantic sensibility, I'm thinking about a way of thinking/being that includes attributes like: dreamy (maybe better would be "not satisfied with the way things are"), intuitional, exotic-seeking, subjective, and individualistic. So, yes, it's got something to do with defining oneself as apart from the main group. That's an interesting idea.

The more I got to thinking about "defining oneself as apart from the main group", the more problematic that idea became. I'll explain.

Last week I was on my bike in line at the bank's drive-up window. In front of me was a young country dude in a rusty pickup truck. He looked like a Marine or a wrestler. I watched him and thought about what his life might be like. Then I noticed he had a HUGE bumper sticker on his truck's back window that read something like, "Action figure not included, available at extra cost." Whoa! Suddenly this guy became an individual for me rather than a member of a huge bland group. The bumper sticker struck me as a sign of his being a thinking, creative, humorous being. As Carol says, when you begin defining yourself, you set yourself apart from the dominant culture.

Later my partner said, "So he identifies with GI Joe? He might as well be wearing a Nike sweatshirt. He's branding himself!" Point taken. Then I realized that he is identifying with a very stereotypical image of masculinity. In fact, it's not even a live person but a plastic doll that he's identifying with! It's not much different from wanting to be like Barbie, is it?

A fair number of my students clearly think of themselves as counter culture, but it sure looks to me as though they're following the masses, just as my generation did in the 60s. One of my wonderful nephews, a college student, sneers at shopping malls that don't have "alternative stores". The alternative stores are national chain stores that sell cheaper version of the big name brands! Alternative is commercial?

In recent years, advertising has done a fantastic job of promoting the dubious notion that the counter culture can be commercial, even mass-market. I see no evidence that we're capable of resisting the influence of advertising. Even if we think critically about their messages, the message still sinks into our subconscious like a Trojan horse, ready to release its warrior hordes when a buying opportunity appears. The only viable option is to not let the Trojan horse into your head in the first place. Not many of us would give up reading magazines and newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio, looking at billboards, visiting web sites with banner ads, and going to the movies. So...the enemy is already in your head and mine.

(Please note that I very much enjoy my nephews. I'm not criticizing them, I'm using their choices--and my own--to consider some of the implications of "counter culture.")

Another very charming and capable nephew of mine is so self-identified with the Dave Matthew's Band that he included reference to that band in his email address. Is this self-defining behavior? Of course, this is no different than wearing the cap or jacket of a favorite sports team. Is that self-definition?

I recently overheard a father and son talking about sports teams as they chose which team's coat to buy. The boy said, "I like the Dolphins!" What exactly could a person like about a sports team? That they play near your home? That they win a lot? That they have cool colors in their uniforms? That their players look or talk in a particular manner? What is that boy who likes the Dolphins identifying with?

Have we gotten to the point that we're dividing ourselves into tribes according to consumer loyalties?

It's fascinating how seldom we see the degree to which we're formed by commercial interests via advertising, TV, music, etc. I'm having trouble imagining what a counter culture might be like. I used to think it was opting out of the work world, but even though I've pretty much done that, I'm still participating in consumer culture, largely because I allowed business to instill in me a desire for technology. It's not just young folks who think they're counter culture but seem unaware that they've been sucked into the dominant consumer culture.

Also, in recent years, I've noticed that many of my interests soon became or already were mainstream. I was in a Celtic band for a few years, and then it seemed like everyone was suddenly into Celtic music. I'd ask a friend if they wanted a copy of our tape, and they'd invariably reply, "Why, I was thinking just last week that I'd love to get some Celtic music!" Commercial interests are quick to pick up on the best of the counter culture and thereby transfer these aspects into the mainstream.

I don't think I can run fast enough to out pace consumer culture. And this has nothing to do with my bad knees.

One solution is to swim with consumer culture, but do a different stroke. Here's a striking example.

A week ago I was sitting in my car, waiting for my wife to return. A young guy drove up in a noisy old VW van. As I was noting the van's brushed-on paint job, the driver bounded out and smiled unusually broadly at me. He had on a Mr. Goodwrench hat, a mechanic's shirt with a "VW" label and a name label that read "Redneck". As he walked toward the store, I realized that he was wearing shorts and his shirt was absolutely spotless--two details that immediately killed my assumption that he was a mechanic. He returned a few minutes later, hopped into his van, and flashed me a grin and a peace sign as he pulled out of his parking space. This striking encounter was clearly a performance.

This is a post-modern guy if there ever was one: he combines a number of wildly "other" identities (alterities): hippie, redneck, grease monkey, VW fan, and who knows what else. Some of these are unappreciated or even disparaged identities. He presents these alterities as a performance, enjoying whole thing as a humorous masquerade. He clearly doesn't care if the various pieces in his performance don't fit together into a neat, unified image. The wackiness is fun! I'd bet that this guy would be happy--even excited--about having to change his performance if his VW dies. What about authenticity? I doubt that he worries about that. He'd be a lot more phony if he tried to make himself fit a stereotypical mold.

This guy participates ecstatically in consumer culture, a rebel from within, and he advertises too!


Posted on May 7, 2000, 10:57 PM

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  1. counterculture, commercialization --- and education. The Professor, May 8, 2000
    1. response to"does it providethem with tools". mikewindy, Oct 24, 2000

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