I came across this fascinating article on salon.com about the corrupting influence of nostalgia on contemporary culture. The argument of so-called Generation Void is that retro-zeitgeist nostalgia has mutated to the point that there’s no longer any original work anymore.
On the one hand the Internet or broadband has sped up the cycle of retro fetishism from 20 years to zip. The base to superstructure has irrevocably been reversed, and Marx is permanently standing upside-down on his head.
But on the other hand this isn’t necessarily a negative: the 00s was the first decade to practice this. The constant swirling of the past with the present is escalating and a sign of the future: retro becomes so omnipresent that there’s no room left for normality, a dominant paradigm, and nothing gets marginalized. And in my book normality is the roadblock to creativity.
Normality has been the dominant paradigm for the last two centuries. Progress has been marching steadily. But once it broke down during the mid 20th century, from an explosion in the arts to a hyper-specialization in the sciences, the pace of improvement and development in most areas sped up and is now trending upwards in an ever expanding spiral. Naturally, we have the “guardians of culture” incapable of keeping up, and they decry this pace — as if originality is a linear evolution and a dominant paradigm of a single idea. Wrong. No such formula exist other than as the invention of culture critics.
A specific example of retromodernism: in comic books, Jack Kirby was the dominant style of the sixties. He drew almost every major title at Marvel Comics. However, by the seventies he was passé, even though the quality of his work actually hit their peak with Fourth World titles at DC comics. Editors and readers demanded more realism and less dynamic in comic art. Hence Neal Adams became popular. But now, Kirby has become a genre: certain artists such as Tom Scioli are drawing in his distinct style but with the advances of technology (printing, paper, and inking techniques).
Comics today are flourishing because no longer is there a dominant standard of style to obey. The explosions of retro has allowed various forms of style to flourish and appeal to different audiences: realism, Kirby, Image (Jim Lee), House of Marvel comics of the eighties (George Perez, John Byrne), minimalism (Mike Mignola), and the surrealism/hyperrealism of European graphic novels.
Alex Ross is actually an accomplished painter of the retro style that hearkens to a more classic era, yet his style doesn’t appear dated at all. It promises an older time – the Silver Age of comics – and further corroborates the story as something epic.
Also, Hollywood is currently mining comic books for stories and heroes for box office material and this has translated into a successful business model to date. This could be included in the retro-zeitgeist as well – recycling old ideas or stories of Americana lore, but recast in new mediums that reaches a larger audience.
Bottom line: the nostalgia of retromodernism isn’t a cancer of pop culture. It is actually a revitalizing force of consumption that reinvigorates pop culture and we should escalate this trend and celebrate diversity of styles.