When will this age of aggressive tawdriness end?

September 18, 1998|By Richard Striner

SEVERAL years ago, Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill reflected on America's current love-affair with the disgusting -- from the vulgarity of characters like Howard Stern and Don Imus to the prevalence of obscene violence to the avant-garde's lust for the grotesque.

"We're a little hungry," she enthused, "for violence and cruelty and horrifying destruction, for devourings, for crudity and unsweet sex. For snot and vomit and blown-up bits of skull. We want our world unsocialized." Good taste, she proclaimed, "is dead and was probably never alive to begin with."

The question is not whether Ms. Sherrill and her subject are reflective of an interlude in history. Of course they are: The real question is how much longer it will take for this interlude to end. How much longer will we have to wait for these transient moods to get flushed to the place where they belong?

Is it possible, for instance, that the dreary tawdriness of the sex scandal dominating public life at the moment will cause a wave of revulsion against tawdriness in general?

A disillusioned generation

Such trends often flow in cycles. "What pleased us 10 years ago . . . now seems to us extravagant and laughable, wrote Rene Descartes over 350 years ago, and we continue to prove his point. Take an early 20th-century example: the widespread pose of disillusionment among the literary "Lost Generation" of the '20s -- the generation "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken," as F. Scott Fitzgerald summed it up.

This fad of despair was largely swept away in the '30s by an earnest new mood of commitment. In Britain, George Orwell compared the short-lived cliches of the '20s with the moods of the '30s. "If the keynote of the writer of the twenties is 'tragic sense of life,' " he wrote in the aftermath of the period, "the keynote of the new writers is 'serious purpose.' " The change was so extreme that it was funny: all of a sudden, Orwell observed in the mid-1930s, "we have got out of the twilight of the goods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing."

So it is with the current scene: The end-of-the-century detritus of the '90s may yield to a counter-reaction. How ephemeral the garbage of the '90s is: the manic hyperactivity of pushy electronic music, the in-your-face aggressiveness of TV computer graphics, the surreal TV advertisements that make no sense, the noxiously spiced food, the kitschy clothing fabrics with a harsh and metallic-looking weave, the lupine smirk of Jack Nicholson, the chuckle-headed strangeness of David Letterman, the postage stamps bearing likenesses of rock stars and cartoon characters.

And, not least of all, the gross-out fare that appeals to the brat-like side of human nature. All of this -- so oppressive while it lasts -- is merely symptomatic of an age that is profoundly unsure of itself. It is all just a fool's compensation for an emptiness in public life.

Look at any Astaire-and-Rogers number on video and then ask yourself what we have in our contemporary culture that compares with such elegance. And -- with all due respect for the Andrew Lloyd Webber generation of composers -- what do we have in our popular music that can stand the comparison with the age that produced Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers.

Please avoid the mistake of associating these sorts of observations with a single political agenda, such as cultural conservation. Most people seem to feel a salutary longing for an element (if only an element) of inspiration at the center of their lives.

So is an age of elegance and uplift over our horizon? Maybe, but the pace of the transition might not be refreshingly swift. Consider the case of Jerry Hirshberg, automotive designer and creator of one of the most elegant cars of the '90s, the Infiniti J30. Crafted to recall the great age of classic cars, the J30 featured an exquisitely sculpted form.

A creator's confession

JTC Discussing the creation of this car in his new book, "The Creative Priority," Mr. Hirshberg affirmed that his intent had been to design a car that was "simple and graceful." But then, in recounting the brainstorming sessions that developed the J30 concept, Mr. Hirshberg could not resist adding this trendy confession: "At an early mindmap session for the Infiniti J30 luxury car, we were trying to enunciate the kind of identity we wanted the car to have, as well as imagine the people we wanted to attract. . . . This particular pow-wow began with an off-color story I no longer recall, but I do remember the toilet bowl someone sketched to remind us of its punch line.

"Only later did we realize that it was the abstract form of the bowl itself, its voluminous, fully rounded, stable and organic shape that brought the joke to mind in the first place. . . . For shorthand, we labeled the quintessential J30 buyer "the perfect ---hole."

Thanks, Jerry, for encapsulizing the dysfunctional '90s: elegance apologizing for itself at the shrine of vulgarity.

Richard Striner is an associate professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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