Debra Riley Parr
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon…
Forever young is not attractive. Everyone needs to pack up and leave Sugar Mountain sooner or later. And yet, the yearning to live in that space lingers. Indeed, the appeal of youth and youth cultures holds strong in a young culture like that of the US where being young is cool, powerful, sexy and dangerous. The Italian Futurists of the early 20th century thought similarly about the attractions of being young, and they clearly articulated—and sometimes shouted—that art was properly the province of youth. In their first of many manifestos, F.T. Marinetti publishes a scathing attack on old ideas, on old ways of doing things, on a past that must, according to their logic, be rejected:
[W]e will have none of it, we, the young, strong and living Futurists! The oldest among us are not yet thirty years old: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts! (Marinetti)
Contemporary exhibitions like INDESTRUCTIBLE YOUTH focusing on street-inspired art, skate cultures, hip hop and other musics, continue this youthful orientation of art production. The energy of youth skating a beautifully shaped wooden skate bowl built by the collective SIMPARCH in the Hyde Park Art Center at the turn of the millennium compelled curators at other venues, including Documenta, to include it alongside more traditional work. Nicholas Bourriaud in his writings about DJ culture as a model of contemporary art practice, for example, signals the extent to which the young have enormous influence in technique, subject matter, and attitude. Beautiful Losers, curated by Aaron Rose and Christian Strike in 2004, featured the poetics of street culture in the work of artists like Mark Gonzales and Margaret Kilgallen among others. You just can’t kill that kind of energy. Not that you’d want to.
Revolutionaries of the early 20th century also realized the moment of youth had arrived, valorizing its energy as a force to be reckoned with, as a necessary fuel for the engine of cultural transformation. In the 1920s, after the revolution of 1917, Leon Trotsky writes a series of essays entitled “Youth and the phase of petty jobs,” “Youth fills the breach,” and “Young people, study politics!,” all with an eye to directing the attention and energies of young people to the difficulties of forming a new culture. Trotsky writes urgently of the need to move beyond nagging young people to do the right thing:
It is not a matter of preaching, appealing and exhorting—there is already too much of that, and it is wearisome; young people growing up in an atmosphere of slogans, appeals, exclamations, placards, are in danger of ceasing to react to them. The youth must be given factual information in the right proportion and the right perspective. They must be given solid elements and methods of independently finding their bearings in the development of world revolution (Trotsky, 122).
For Trotsky the key is to provide youth with tools, education and independence of thought and then to allow them to find their own way.
Elliot Earls, a contemporary educator, performance artist, and designer (he is head of the design program at Cranbrook Academy) likewise urges the youth of the 21st century to find their bearings in a rapidly changing world culture—arguing that they ought to construct for themselves a life of merit. Tired of representations of the young as slackers who take on little responsibility for anything, Earls in a lecture he gave to a group of designers in June 2010, expressed a faith in youth to embody something different, to offer a critique of the status quo, to direct their indestructible qualities toward doing something good. As part of his lecture Earls played the famous recording of Walt Whitman’s poem Pioneers! O Pioneers! as an inspirational call to a life organized around passion and considered action:
Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers! …
All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers! (Whitman)
Anyone who saw the Levi’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign of late 2009, directed by Cary Fukunaga and M. Blash, will remember the moving cadence of Whitman’s poem as read by the actor and activist Will Geer. (Geer was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.) I’d like to think that Earls saw this series of ads, and wanted to situate the poem in another context. Like the youth Earls wants to call out to a better life, the poem demonstrates a kind of indestructibility, resisting appropriation and the potential to be destroyed even as it is made to work for corporate ends. With an unyielding Romanticism, the poem surges above its commercial usage, maintains a distance, creates a kind of momentary rupture with the expected “sound” of advertising—partly because of the analogue quality of the recording of Geer’s voice, partly perhaps because of the history of the Levi’s brand (it was around when Whitman was writing in the mid 19th century) and of the history of jeans as a quintessentially American working class garment worn for the last half century by youth cultures the world over. Seth Stevenson, writing for Slate.com, despite all his trenchant observations about the crassness of using Whitman in this way, sees the advertisement as a call to indestructible youth: he writes, “it acts as a galvanizing call to generational action: Times may be tough, but we've been here before, and America's youth will not be broken.”
But is it true that America’s youth will not be broken? The Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., notes that some of the kids in that city have given up all hopes of working at a summer job, and in the face of increasing violence are hoping just to stay alive until school starts again in September. In addition to violence, youth in the US are struggling with conditions of poverty as well, with 20% of children living at or below the poverty line. The US Congress seriously debates whether to extend health insurance to the nation’s children—perhaps believing that youth is literally indestructible and can survive without medical care. In the face of such heartlessness, arguments could be made that youth is fragile and in desperate need of protection and nurturing. And yet, as INDESTRUCTIBLE YOUTH shows, the energy, the cool, and the sexy, even the danger continues the romance of youth, the love we all have of that sweet space we never want to give up.
Seth Stevenson, “Whitman Thinks You Need New Jeans: A stirring new ad campaign from Levi's”, Slate.com, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009.
Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia, Pathfinder Press (NY), 1994.
Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” Leaves of Grass, University Of Iowa Press; 1st Edition, 2009.
We. We. We. Not small. We. We. We.
For the we the clichés are on the table: struggling, starving, self-combusting. However as the numbers grow and spaces to facilitate each baby-faced dreamer become more difficult to hold, a collective we has emerged. A we that practices as artist, writer, curator, musician, thinker, assistant, friend and overall participant of society. A we that takes an egalitarian approach avoiding medium specificity. A we that resists categorization.
Youth happens only once. This performance occurs constantly congruous in the everyday. The we of today works above-ground. The we will continue to be until the past tense then is replaced by the next we. We are it until the we becomes other, replaced with a label like us. But at this moment the we acts. The we is unsure, insecure, excited, and always prematurely ready to take over the pond. The we operates as a codec for the present condition. Experience for the we is not a history, not a resumé, but a now; a present tense verb still in action.
The proposition of attitude is synonymous with youth. The we want to see you jump so that the we can do it differently. Not a leap with the intent to erase, but a gesture of ownership and a not you-ness. The we is viewing the current model of creation as subtraction, not deconstruction, asking “what to create”; to be critical and inventive, not reactionary. The we unapologetically recodes, resigns and juxtaposes it versus that without nostalgia or reminisce. But as currency without consequences.
Youth is a chronological apparatus. This crystallization, time splitting at each precise moment, leaves an unavoidable watermark. The recipient generation usually rebels against it. Demanding a turn in time. Demanding a selfish moment, but it happens alone – together. To be there in time, in real time, the we are active. Actively failing and succeeding; vulnerably on display. Actively performing. The we are participants of today. The we asks is there meaning if meaning is not shared? The we is always collectively indestructible preserving it for them.
Or how I learned to stop worrying and make some art
Great art is at first inviting and then challenging, it contains a piece of all history while representing its own time and pointing ahead of it. Great art is impossible and at the same time essential. Artists make art.
I am a young artist, and most of my dearest friends as well. We young artists come in all shapes and sizes with one common characteristic: we all make bad art. We make boring art, we make dishonest art and sometimes we make stupid art.
There are few things on earth more pathetic than boring art. It bears the mark of pointless rigor: actions repeated simply to camouflage themselves, or technique used to inflate rather than embellish. What it ultimately comes down to is hang-ups; the inability to let go of what doesn’t matter.
As if consistency were inherently irrefutable, we feign maturity by pushing, pushing, pushing our bland ideas and repeating, repeating, repeating. We make ourselves into moronic martyrs, begging gullible viewers to take pity on our self-torture, poorly disguised as technical prowess, conceptual integrity or just plain obsessive compulsion.
Making it into a chore doesn’t make it worth doing.
But we’re better off dressing redundancy as consistency than when attempting to shortcut content by emulating style.
The problem of style; the problem that it’s shallow and poisonous; is as prominent in art as anywhere, but no-one is more vulnerable to it than young artists, because it takes hardy confidence to perceive the difference between inevitably having style and being dishonestly “in” style.
It seems to be a desire to be clever that drives us to emulate the coolly loved, to be in style, to be consistent. But therein lies our central illness, and our salvation lies in our stupidity. Great art is just too demanding for the young and naïve because it takes time and deep self-knowledge to produce. This is a paralyzing concern for the bored and dishonest, but it’s no concern of the idiot.
Stupidity is an all too often squandered gift of youth.
The idiot isn’t afraid to misstep, for even a misstep is a step nonetheless. While a clever artist will spend a lifetime reinventing the wheel; moving no-where, the idiot has the courage to sally forth in pursuit of the obvious. The idiot has nothing to prove and doesn’t bother to ask why, he simply sees what’s in front of him and does what he likes how he likes.
At our best, we young artists call ourselves idiots, and even then we still make bad art. But in a way we can make something even better than great art when we make it honestly and in fun and love. We are indestructible. We fear nothing and no one can tell us what to do. Give us time and leave us be, we’ll make something amazing sooner or later.
Racer Le van