Billboard Dreams

Lanai “Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”

—Don Draper (Jon Hamm) from Mad Men, The Wheel, 2007

Mad Men resides in the louche, languid and heavily intoxicated world of the Madison Avenue advertising firms of the sixties. Now in its fourth season, Mad Men evokes the imagery of the consumer side of the sixties, the new middle class side. Sequestered in suburbia away from the turmoil of the Vietnam war, the inner city and college campus explosions of discontent. The irony of Mad Men is in its title. The self-named advertising executives and creatives of the sixties were a group of egomaniacal, mildly crazy individuals whose own lives betrayed the false dreams they sold to everyone else. When the character Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) talks about nostalgia as the motivation for buying he is fully detached from cynicism. In essence he’s revealing the foundation of pop culture that arose in the sixties and now dominates the landscape of middle class America. Draper is referring to the paradigm known in the German vernacular as kitsch (based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophical theories of aesthetics). Kitsch first took form in the newly moneyed Munich bourgeoisie of the late 1920‘s. A derogatory term from the German, meaning pretentious trash (dialect, kitschen, to smear, verkitschen, to make cheaply, to cheapen) it was a descriptor of class distinction more than actual aesthetics. Hitler as dictator-artist gave the force of law to his own aesthetic ideas in the 1937 exhibition Entartete Kunst. Hitler’s fascist cleansing of what he called degenerate art, was an attempt to eradicate intellectualism and reinforce the power and pride associated with Germany’s bourgeoisie. It was also, of course a swipe at the culture and money retained by the German Jews, whose cultural awareness was rooted in intellectualism. Goebbels and Hitler rightly understood the power of art but misplaced their enmity by singling out those who they considered degenerate, empowering them in a way they could not have achieved alone. Entartete Kunst was also the first instance of state-enforced kitsch, when Goebbels paralleled the degenerate exhibition with Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition), an exhibition filled with sentimentality and nostalgic portrayals of an idealized, bucolic Germany. Kitsch’s dominance was largely crushed by the economic and physical destruction brought by WWII in Europe, but found its treatise written in America at the end of the fifties by Madison Avenue.

The uncomfortable link between Nazi Germany and 1950‘s/60‘s America is an important one. Fascism is wrongly associated with demagoguery and socialism but in reality Nazism had its foundations in corporate capitalism. Aside from his sociopathic behavior, Hitler’s philosophy was dependent on the power of production and manufacturing. Corporate production was the purest form of German nationalism and was of course responsible for powering one of the most destructive armies in history. It is the kernel of corporate ideology that found fertile soil in the growing bourgeoisie in 1950‘s white, suburban America. A second or third generation European immigrant population living in the inner cities of America, capitalized on their new-found wealth and education from the GI Bill and fled the inner city. Industry began to shift to white collar jobs and companies relocated to the suburban landscape as well in support of their chief economic fuel - the white middle class worker. This had a chilling effect on American culture In the 1930‘s the artists who fled the great European conflagration and immigrated to the U.S. were the seed for a new American aesthetic that achieved global recognition with Pollock’s drip paintings in the 1940‘s. Unfortunately, the migration of the middle class to the suburbs diluted our emergent cultural maturity. Without the benefit of influences from the abject poor, minorities and the patronage of the wealthy, suburban life became of vacuum of kitsch. Materialism supplanted imagination and Madison Avenue stepped in to fuel the fire of desire. Firmly entrenched in the white bread, cookie cutter sameness of suburban life, the American middle class fell into the same nostalgic leanings that dominated Hitler’s aesthetic of the 1930’s. When Draper talks about the ‘pain from an old wound’ he is not only speaking to his own personal trauma, resultant of his escape with false identity from the Korean war, but the collective pain of a ghettoized white immigrant population that now found pride in their materialistic desires. When spiritual and personal well-being are fixed to materiality the subtleties of human expression are lost in a sea of mediocrity. Advertising becomes art and even when art mocks and mimics the devices of modern advertising as in Pop Art, the general public is left to rely on their Barbie dolls and Cadillacs for aesthetic grounding instead of the works of Rauschenberg, Warhol and Rosenquist. The suburbs contain no art galleries or museums outside of the strip mall poster shops and inkjet printed canvas reproductions of digestible masterpieces.

Kitsch is not to be confused with the art movement of the 50’s and early 60’s — Pop art. Beginning with Rauschenberg and Johns, Pop art became a reaction to the internal conflict and existentialism of Abstract Expressionism. It leveraged suburban kitsch and ever growing domination of advertising to subvert the cultural exigency for materialism. As Madison Avenue advertising became the dominant, piquant expression of suburban desire the artist James Rosenquist entered the art scene. James Rosenquist was born on the plains of Grand Forks, North Dakota in the heartland of rural, agricultural America. After attending school in Minneapolis in the early 50s he accepted a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York, fulfilling the peasant to urbanite conversion Greenberg refers to in his 1939 essay on kitsch. Rosenquist’s subversion of a dominant form of advertising he worked at before moving to New York — billboards. Rather than inure himself to what we now call the ‘red state’ mentality of provincialism and pedantic expressions of a Norman Rockwell cum Ronald Reagan mythology, Rosenquist embraced the dynamism and cynicism of advertising as a way of providing an alternative vision of American possibility. James Rosenquist added a surrealist twist to Pop art which questioned the semiotics used in American advertising by juxtaposing its imagery with the dreamscapes of the suburban imagination and the mundane. It was a nod to the so-called degenerated artists of the 1930’s and it would lay the groundwork for postmodern irony that followed. It was also a warning to the nostalgia fueled kitsch that was gaining a foothold on the aesthetic sensibilities of middle America as television grew in influence.

Long before America’s superpower dominance, Glement Greenberg wrote his seminal essay on Avante-Garde and Kitsch in 1939. He eloquently reveals the underpinnings of Draper’s sentiments on nostalgia;

“The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.”

Instead of peasants settling in the city centers of Europe, Americans resettled the suburbs in an inverse form of Greenberg’s theory. This suburbanization or faux rural culture allowed predominantly WASP culture to distance itself from integration with other cultural influences found in the city, streamlining edgy and complicated urban culture. It was a way of creating a false security amongst an increasingly integrating world. The unrest of African-Americans in inner cities,  the college rebellions of the disenfranchised youth, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the terror of annihilation to the forefront. Middle class, white identity reacted with a flight response to the nearby, newly bulldozed bucolic suburban landscape. Cineplexes replaced museums and isolated auto travel replaced mass transit.

Enormous half spheres, supine soft and wet against the backdrop of a giant spoon materialize from James Rosenquist's 1964 painting Lanai, like upended orange-yellow half moons. The peach halves, at three feet across take on the monolithic proportions. They’re imposing sumptuous, borderline sexual entities affecting a blushing response when taken to such human scale. Upside down and floating against them is a 1964 Lincoln Continental, silvery and mirrored against the convention of early sixties autos that were normally muted pastels, white or black. The car is both coveted object and reflection of the infinite and intangible. A spidery pattern of starbursts float above the peaches and Lincoln like a transparent linoleum appliqué. This fragmented scene pushes right against an erotic pink nude kneeling and bent between the rails of a swimming pool ladder. The ladder and woman are abruptly segmented a la Magritte by a penetrating blue sky holding a floating half pencil. In this painting Rosenquist thoroughly captures the American, suburban dream of the early ‘60's. The pedantic pseudo-luxury of canned fruits sweet in their syrup sexuality and the automobile as spaceship, twisting its mirrored finish in the glow of the peaches, making a fleshy sun. The unveiled, and unfurled nude whose coifed hair curls up as an expression of domestic bliss. The voyeuristic Hugh Hefner-like day dream of the housewife-whore, bending over in supplication offering the unseen pool dweller (or is it sky dweller?) a cigarette (or is it fellatio?) All is bacchanalian overkill as advertising billboard. Imagine a world where advertisements were surrealist renditions of the secret collective suburban unconscious.

Rosenquist rightly saw the open range as a fever dream vision of American idealism taken far too seriously. Billboard scale represented a forced perspective that mimicked the open landscape of the plains and demonstrated the false conquering spirit of post-war America of the 1950s. The idealism of the great plains could be seen as the endless breadbasket of American prosperity or the harsh reality of natures infinite power, a great ocean of grasses and petulant weather capable of crushing the hardiest of individuals beneath its churlish sky. The gigantism of billboard advertising was the perfect venue to express the hubris and irony of American. Billboards arose in concert with the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in the 50s. Eisenhower developed the freeway system in response to his exposure to the German Autobahn and its necessity as a national defense construct. The highway system provided both a gateway to the American landscape for the newly prosperous, and a vast network of access for rapid military deployment. Paranoia and pleasure. Whether Rosenquist intended it or not, the billboard painting became an ironic statement for the suburban sequestration of fear in the face of growing unrest. Irony is ultimately quieted by blurring its sharp edges. Ramming huge strands of spaghetti against F-111 fighter aircraft or peaches bleeding into silvery Lincoln Continentals forced the viewer to confront the idolatry of consumer objects as dream-state meanderings in an otherwise natural persistence. Where the plains of the Midwest form an illusory vision, unconquerable and dwarfing in its scale, the urban landscape offers a mash-up of manufactured imagery that becomes a living collage. Rosenquist transferred the urban living collage to his billboard canvases, recontextualizing them as billboard dreams.

Art can reinforce the notions of nostalgia or obliterate them. Advertising only reinforces them. Think of the last commercial you watched that represented women in a realistic light. We are still living in a post-war 50s misogynist, reactionary dream state where women are servants. As we watch, sometimes in laughter and more often lately in subdued horror at the machinations of the characters in Matthew Weiner’s creation Mad Men, we should reflect upon that subtext. What Weiner is suggesting, in part, is an examination of our past in order to gain insight into our future. We can continue to embrace our mindless consumer-capitalist system reinforced by the masters of simulacra (advertisers) or we can make our own world, shaped by the entirety of our surroundings. As The Sopranos exposed gangster mythos by showing the human dilemma of mobster family life, Mad Men does so by exposing the dark underbelly of Madison Avenue advertising and its ironic juxtaposition to the lives of the creatives who make the ads. Creativity used as propaganda, however splendid, is still disease — still kitsch. Rosenquist sees the irony of consumer icons and modern advertising as surrealistic expressions of our own fears and desires. The simulacra becomes a symbolic exchange for freedom through purchase.  Advertising is reality now, even as we understand it to be false. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes advertising’s driving motivation;

“They are trying as directly as possible to sell you experiences, i.e. what you are able to do with the car, not the car as a product itself. An extreme example of this is this existing economic marketing concept, which basically evaluates the value of you as a potential consumer of your own life. Like how much are you worth, in the sense of all you will spend to buy back your own life as a certain quality life. You will spend so much in doctors, so much in beauty, so much in transcendental meditation, so much for music, and so on. What you are buying is a certain image and practice of your life. So what is your market potential, as a buyer of your own life in this sense?”

Don Draper’s secret life is a metaphor for our collective lies and majestic hypocrisies. He is trapped between the nostalgic, falsehood of a past he never lived, a past emulated in the father-figure of Roger Sterling and the future that is Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell. Cinema and television are the medium that was the Caravaggio and Rembrandt paintings of the past. They are telling us stories which inform our collective conscious and offer options for other choices. At their best they fracture our protective spaces and push toward a more intellectually rich, creative space. Rosenquist’s billboard scale paintings were narratives that in the sixties offered us an opportunity to view our flaws objectively as the fragments of our daily experiences rather than the carefully fashioned dream states of advertising symbolism. Rosenquist said; “I got below nothing by introducing imagery again...That nothing came from painting advertisements up-close so they didn’t mean anything to me but color and form. They were recognizable imagery again, but I thought of them as completely nonobjective.” As a novel provides narrative that we must build visuals around, Rosenquist sought to deconstruct the modern life of bombarding visual distractions and carefully constructed realities by juxtaposing them on canvases that mimicked the imposing billboard dream scale of color and form. His aim was to remove the forced semiotics of advertising by blurring the lines between it and our own everyday reality. He obliterates nostalgia through scale and the masterful use of collage. James Rosenquist saw advertising as brainwashing and sought to unravel its message using one of its original mediums, the billboard. Scale was also a nod to the hegemony of abstract expressionism and the way large canvases by Kelly, de Kooning and Pollock could immerse their viewers in the mélange of modern imagery until it blurred into an internal dialogue that forced reflection. This is in opposition to Draper’s “carousel” as Rosenquist used his inherited Midwestern roots as a lens to observe the underlying deceptions of big city pathos and cynicism rather than a means to wallow in nostalgia.

Mad Men mimics Rosenquist’s paintings in its portrayal of the fragmented array of personalities that lay behind the creative vision of sixties advertising. As with Richard Yates’ tragic book Revolutionary Road, Mad Men is a study in the duality of America’s hopeful wishes and deepest fears in the wash of enormous prosperity. The realization of newfound prosperity in the 1950’s and 60’s brought with it the oppressive environment of the corporate workplace. Serving the master of success required long hours away from one’s own life, family and more often than not the quashing of youthful dreams. Draper’s “carousel” is a metaphor for the trap of modernity, the endless round-about that comes with Draper’s alcohol fueled hallucinations of suburban disillusionment. We mustn't be completely seduced by the constructs of Rosenquist as a perfect alternative either. At their best Rosenquist’s paintings underline our weaknesses, fears and desires within the context of modern living, but at no point does he escape this way of living either. Rosenquist sits not as some ascetic on his judgmental dais; he too was an adherent to the Cedar Bar’s collection of rough and tumble abstractionists who found solace at the bottom of a whiskey glass. He worshipped the work of Willem de Kooning and spent a great deal of time with the artists responsible for turning the art world on its head in 1949. He was (and possibly still is) a hard living, hard drinking man’s man. If his aim is to reveal the extant melancholy of modern advertising and its adherent suburban lifestyle, it’s because he is fomenting his own nightmares. Jackson Pollock revealed to us that after the Bomb and the foibles of consumer prosperity we are left alone in the dark with our own thoughts. Abstract expressionism annealed the irony of our manifestations and Rosenquist reaffirmed those ironic moments in the context of the existential crisis that would define the later half of 20th century America. The advertising creatives emulated in Don Draper’s character are projecting dreams onto a public in response to their inability to look inward. There is only one brief period of reflection in Draper’s life, when he finishes reading Frank O’Hara’s poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency after feeling intellectually taunted in a bar by a young intellectual. He meanders off in California and considers building hot rods and avoiding his family forever, awash in the baptism of southern California surf. Unfortunately his own fears bear down on him and he seeks the comfort of the smooth thighs and white bed linens of a wandering rich girl who finds him beguiling. This only serves to reinforce his ego and results in a return to the cynical hubris of Madison Avenue, and drowns a chance at self examination in Scotch. Draper sees nothing but the pastoral grandeur of idyllic imaginings in the creative campaigns he produces as a replacement for living, whereas Rosenquist accepts the impossibility of nostalgia and exposes advertising for the ugly, suffocating ironic expression it is. Mad Men reminds us to re-read Frank O’hara and Richard Yates so that we remember the foundations of our current malaise and somehow find the creative spirit to face it and change the course we’re on. The irony of a Mark Rothko hanging in the office of Bert Cooper is not lost on Weiner as he hints at the knowing duality of the men who craft the lesser dream for the rest of us, just as the paintings of Rosenquist have done for a half century.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of

pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of

perverted acts in pastures.  No.  One need never leave the

confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes--I can't

even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there's a subway

handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not

totally _regret_ life.  It is more important to affirm theleast sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and

even they continue to pass.  Do they know what they're missing?

Uh huh.

— Frank O’hara, from Meditations in an Emergency, 1957

Image at the top of the page; Lanai by James Rosenquist, 1964, Oil on canvas, 5'2" x 15'6" (157.5 x 472.4 cm). Private Collection