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Pessimism at the End of the Century

Pessimism at the End of the Century

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Published by D Hernandez
A study of the 1990's through fashion, art, and music.
A study of the 1990's through fashion, art, and music.

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Pessimism at the End of the Century

Danielle Hernandez

Prof. Cavin HIST110

December 3, 2012

Hernandez 1

The past century has given the United States many interesting movements in the arts. The twenties‟ swing, the clean-cut fifties‟ fashion, the psychedelic sixties, and disco-flavored seventies all conjure very specific and often poignant images for those of us who have lived to see these decades. However, the last decade of the century is one which gets commonly overlooked. The nineties in America are looked back upon as a time of anti-art, anti-fashion, and a cultural black-hole. Although the 1990's in the United States boasted the end of the Cold War, an economic pick-up, and a technological revolution, the decade was largely pessimistic. A dour outlook on the economy and the coming techno-millennium can be seen portrayed through fashion, art and music. Work, entertainment, banking, and communications were being done in homes and offices on personal computers. The internet had soared and bloomed into a worldwide network consisting of over 1.5 million hosts.1 A recession had hit the country hard but economists were beginning to see the light.2 P.S.1 in Long Island City showcased an art exhibition in 1999 of pieces by German artists- still celebrating a cultural revival after the fall of the Berlin Wall ten years prior.3 But these positive products of the decade were largely overshadowed by a pessimism that was permeating the culture. The recession of the late 1980‟s and early 1990‟s was receiving positive outlooks even by the beginning of the decade. In 1991, economist Michael Levy predicted a slow and steady

1

Milton Berman and Tracy Irons-Georges. Nineties in America. n.p.: Salem Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost. 453-456. 2 Joel Kurtzman. 1991. "Will the Aura of Recession always be with Us?" New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 24, 1. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/108765435?accountid=2694. 3 Holland Cotter. 1999. "Berlin's Art since the Wall." New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 12, 2-E35. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/110009195?accountid=2694.

Hernandez 2 recovery, but economist Donald Ratajczak observed that consumers were fearful of the future, that they were downsizing, and in effect, would be the cause of stagnation in the GNP.4 So, in response, fashion took a thrifty path. The excessed of the eighties were exchanged for what the media began calling “The Sober Nineties” or “The Practical Decade.”5 Thrift fashions were once something to be ashamed of, but in the nineties, it seemed that frugality itself became a fashion statement. In a 1995 article in the Virginian-Pilot, one teenager, Samantha Jones, commented that “It used to be that if you wore thrift store clothes it was because you were poor and the other kids would say something negative about it, but now everyone shops at these stores.” In regards to brand name fashions one would find at a mall, one teenager said it was “You know, Daddy's little girl with the credit card.”6 Fashion shows featuring thrift store fashions began becoming popular, as well. One was held in North Dakota in 1996 beckoning people to attend and purchase fashions afterwards with the tagline, “Thrify, nifty, and it‟s free.”7 In Los Angeles in September 1994, an “Ultimate Thrift Shop Luncheon and Fashion Show” was planned in conjunction with local charity organizations.8 Top designers began to understand the changing mentality in consumerism, as well. They knew that the public was no longer interested in status displayed on a tag or insignia. Casual and affordable was the new game and some designers stepped up to the plate. For example, Kenneth Cole remained a popular choice in the decade because of his line that was of comparable style
4 5

Kurtzman Colin Harrison. 2010. American Culture in the 1990s. n.p.: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost. 1. 6 Jennifer C. O'Donnell. "Cover Story: Frugal Fashions While Teenagers from Past Generations Would Have Scoffed at the Thought of Wearing Second-Hand Clothing, Many Chesapeake Teens Relish the Thought of Shopping at Thrift Stores for Unusual Outfits.." The Virginian-Pilot, Final edition, sec. Chesapeake Clipper, August 18, 1995. 7 Kristen Nicholas. "Fashion A Look Back Thrift-Store Show Proves Everything Old is New Again."Grand Forks Herald, Final edition, sec. Heartland, May 19, 1996. 8 Martha Desch. "Thrift Shop Fashion Show, Luncheon Planned." Daily News of Los Angeles, Conejo edition, sec. Editorial, September 15, 1994.

Hernandez 3 and quality to designers like Prada but with prices that an average middle to upper-middle class man or woman could afford. Teri Agins of the Wall Street Journal reported that fans of his brand began likening the popularity of his $495 three-button men‟s wool suit among men to the popularity of the “little black dress” among women. Because of its price as well as its style, it became popular amongst wealthy business men, average middle class men, and even hip hop artists. A senior vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co., Michael Sullivan, said that he couldn‟t afford the average expensive suit. “There's no point to paying more „just because you make money. Nowadays there are so many alternatives to make you look good.‟”9 In the art world, the task of creating masterpieces also became thriftier. Artists experimented with recycled art projects and developed economical paintings and sculptures. Gabriel Orozco has been considered a classic example of 1990‟s artwork and followed in this model.10 His 1993 sculpture, La DS, essentially recycled a car to yield the final product. It features a blue French Citrus DS car, which was cut through on both sides to eliminate the center and bring together the sides. The steering wheel lies now in the middle of the car and almost appears as though someone was holding a large mirror up to it. Using one pre-existing object, Orozco created a new object.11 His 1998 exhibition titled Penske Work Project featured pieces made of salvaged materials from trash found in Manhattan. Open Door was one piece in the exhibition made simply of fiberboard and wood. The sculpture is a colossal abstract representation of an open door that looks like pieces of wood that were put together haphazardly

9

Teri Agins. 1999. "Kenneth Cole Firms Up Position as Top Fashion Brand --- Appeal to the Affluent Who Like to Pay Less Makes for Envious Competitors." Wall Street Journal, Feb 10, 1-B4. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/398763583?accountid=2694. 10 Douglas Eklund. "Art and Photography: 1990s–Present". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ap90/hd_ap90.htm (October 2004) 11 Gabriel Orozco. La DS, modified Citron DS, 1993 (Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris). http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/gabrielorozco/#39

Hernandez 4 and are just as carelessly being peeled apart at one end.12 But thrift was not the only signifier of the nineties‟ pessimistic cultural climate. Colin Harrison discussed the “anxieties about…a declining ability to imagine the world to come” amongst United States citizens in the 1990‟s.13 Technology‟s rapid development was not just life-changing, it was also confusing and, at times, frightening. In 1997, scientists successfully cloned a sheep in Scotland. The same year, the United States put the pathfinder on Mars.14 Not long before these events actually happened, they would have been considered science fiction. Lawyers were left baffled, corporations were left culpable, and internet users become more wary as new classes of libel lawsuits were developing around the unfamiliar boundaries, or lack thereof, on the fast-growing worldwide web. One member of a group concerned with the civil liberties of computer users, Gerard Van der Leun admitted, "There's just a huge number of legal and ethical questions that come up with the new information technology."15 (FEDER) In 1998, even our precious histories were being tampered with as DNA tests were run on our founding father, Thomas Jefferson, to prove his fathering of an illegitimate child.16 (HARRISON, ix-xx) Douglas Eklund of the Metropolitan Museum of Art asserts that art of the nineties had an “increasingly blurred line between the real and the virtual.”17 Art galleries were now featuring sculptures cast in ABS plastic (the same plastic used in Barbie dolls)18, photos printed on

12

Gabriel Orozco. Penske Work Project: Open Door, fiberboard and wood, 1998 (Museum of Modern Art, NY). http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/gabrielorozco/#84 13 Harrison, 3. 14 Ibid., ix-xx. 15 Barnaby J. Feder. "Toward Defining Free Speech in The Computer Age." The New York Times, Late EditionFinal edition, sec. Section 4, November 3, 1991. 16 Harrison, ix-xx. 17 Eklund 18 Karin Sander. Gordon Tapper 1:10, ABS plastic (acryl-nitryl-butadien-styrol) from three-dimensional scan; applied color, 1999 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.411,4

Hernandez 5 Plexiglas19, and video installations20. Such crossing of boundaries and technologizing of art in this decade of installation art was controversial and often grotesque and unsettling to the viewer. Just as people were confused about where technology was taking us in computers, medicine, and science, artists wished to convey the same feelings. Just as one side of fashion from the nineties took on thrift as a reaction to economic wariness, there was another side of fashion which sought out a futuristic look in response to what some were called, “future shock.” As a new millennium was nearing, fashion designers realized that the future was “now” and discarded the overly science fiction style that Barbarella sported in the sixties. The ultimate model for this fashion movement became the 1982 film Blade Runner about a battle between humans and “replicants” (a sort of humanoid robot). Designers such as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan created dystopian futuristic runway styles. In a 1998 article of The Guardian, the look is described with eerie adjectives like sharp, sharply-cut, razorsharp, flat, grey, dangerous, space-age, and extreme.21 Both designers and consumers alike seemed to believe this style was appropriate for the social climate of the decade: But with the world gearing up for an angst-ridden millennium, the Blade Runner look might now be such a daft one to adopt. Global recession? Millennium bugs? Fashion is all about reflecting the times, after all, and right now there‟s nothing more typical than a little dystopian doom and gloom.22

This “doom and gloom” is not confined to fashion and art, though. These themes were present in music from every genre at the top of the Rolling Stones charts for the 1990‟s.
19

Doug Aitken. Passenger, chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas, 1999 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2004.223 20 Bill Viola. The Quintet of Rememberance,Video installation; color video rear-projected on large screen in darkened room, 2000 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-ofart/2001.395a-i 21 Susannah Barron. 1998. "Future Shock." The Guardian (1959-2003), Nov 21, 3. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/188236631?accountid=2694. 22 Ibid.

Hernandez 6 Notorious B.i.g.‟s rap album Ready to Die‟s title speaks for itself. Its contents feature the title song which is exactly what it sounds like along with other depressing tracks such as Suicidal Thoughts (“I swear to God I just want to slit my wrists and end this bullshit… When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell”) and Me & My Bitch (“I swear to God, I hope we fuckin‟ die together”).23 (CITATION) In the hip-hop scene, Lauryn Hill‟s top of the charts album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill‟s title song speaks to the internal struggle of the decade: “I look at my environment/ And wonder where the fire went/ What happened to everything we used to be/ I hear so many cry for help/ Searching outside of themselves.”24 Angst could not be overlooked in Nirvana‟s albums, either. Rolling Stone remarks of In Utero, that it reflects “oversize needs and diminished expectations for fulfillment.”25 Radiohead takes the pessimism and anxiety of the technology revolution to the forefront in their album OK Computer in which they sing about interstellar bursts, androids, aliens, politics, and paranoia. Most startling of all their songs, perhaps, is their track, Fitter Happier which expresses how throwing away everything that makes someone human in exchange for what makes you “calm, fitter, healthier, and more productive,” in the modern sense also makes you a “pig in a cage on antibiotics.” The lyrics are dystopian and existential and the singing has been replaced by a monotone droning of a computerized voice with some bland instrumentals in the background.26 Although the nineties may have seemed to be a largely pessimistic decade, it cannot be denied that all decades are both good and bad- none can be solely one. One could argue that the

23

Notorious B.I.G., (Musician). 2004. Ready to die [sound recording] n.p.: New York : Bad Boy Records, p2004., 2004. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. 24 Lauryn Hill. 1998. The miseducation of Lauryn Hill [sound recording]. n.p.: New York, NY : Ruff House : Manufactured and distributed by Columbia Records, p1998., 1998. 25 Brian Hiatt. Rolling Stone, "100 Best Albums of the Nineties." Last modified 2010. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-best-albums-of-the-nineties-20110427. 26 Radiohead. OK computer [sound recording]. n.p.: Hollywood, Calif. : Capitol Records, p1997., 1997. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset.

Hernandez 7 simplification of women‟s fashion, for instance, had a positive cause. One could point to a rebirth of feminism with the Anita Hill case, the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 or pivotal Supreme Court cases such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, United States v. Virginia in 1996, and Kolstad v. American Dental Association in 1999.27 Likewise, fashion, art, and music could have been a result of a common generational rebellion or a generational need to create an identity in an age of fragmented culture. It could also have been influenced by America‟s then increasingly more diversified ethnic composition.28 Throughout the final decade of the twentieth century in America, pessimism, dystopian sentiments, and anxiety ran deep. An eerie brave new world awaited citizens of the nineties who playacted their present and future in costumes, artwork, and music influenced by technology and economy.

27

Ann Medina. University of Illinois, "A Timeline of the Women's Liberations Movement." Last modified 2004. Accessed December 3, 2012. 28 Harrison, 2.

Hernandez 8 Works Cited Agins, Teri. 1999. "Kenneth Cole Firms Up Position as Top Fashion Brand --- Appeal to the Affluent Who Like to Pay Less Makes for Envious Competitors." Wall Street Journal, Feb 10, 1-B4. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/398763583?accountid=2694. Aitken, Doug. Passenger, chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas, 1999 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2004.223 Barron, Susannah. 1998. "Future Shock." The Guardian (1959-2003), Nov 21, 3. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/188236631?accountid=2694. Berman, Milton and Tracy Irons-Georges. Nineties in America. n.p.: Salem Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost. 453-456. Cotter, Holland. 1999. "Berlin's Art since the Wall." New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 12, 2-E35. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/110009195?accountid=2694. Desch, Martha. "Thrift Shop Fashion Show, Luncheon Planned." Daily News of Los Angeles, Conejo edition, sec. Editorial, September 15, 1994. Eklund, Douglas. "Art and Photography: 1990s–Present". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ap90/hd_ap90.htm (October 2004) Feder, Barnaby J. "Toward Defining Free Speech in The Computer Age." The New York Times, Late Edition- Final edition, sec. Section 4, November 3, 1991.

Hernandez 9 Harrison, Colin. 2010. American Culture in the 1990s. n.p.: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost. 1. Hiatt, Brian. Rolling Stone, "100 Best Albums of the Nineties." Last modified 2010. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-best-albums-of-the-nineties-20110427. Hill, Lauryn. 1998. The miseducation of Lauryn Hill [sound recording]. n.p.: New York, NY : Ruff House : Manufactured and distributed by Columbia Records, p1998., 1998. Kurtzman, Joel. 1991. "Will the Aura of Recession always be with Us?" New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 24, 1. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/docview/108765435?accountid=2694. Medina, Ann. University of Illinois, "A Timeline of the Women's Liberations Movement." Last modified 2004. Accessed December 3, 2012. Nicholas, Kristen. "Fashion A Look Back Thrift-Store Show Proves Everything Old is New Again."Grand Forks Herald, Final edition, sec. Heartland, May 19, 1996. Notorious B.I.G., (Musician). 2004. Ready to die [sound recording] n.p.: New York : Bad Boy Records, p2004., 2004. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. O'Donnell, Jennifer C. "Cover Story: Frugal Fashions While Teenagers from Past Generations Would Have Scoffed at the Thought of Wearing Second-Hand Clothing, Many Chesapeake Teens Relish the Thought of Shopping at Thrift Stores for Unusual Outfits.." The Virginian-Pilot, Final edition, sec. Chesapeake Clipper, August 18, 1995. Orozco, Gabriel. La DS, modified Citron DS, 1993 (Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris). http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/gabrielorozco/#39

Hernandez 10 Orozco, Gabriel. Penske Work Project: Open Door, fiberboard and wood, 1998 (Museum of Modern Art, NY). http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/gabrielorozco/#84 Radiohead. OK computer [sound recording]. n.p.: Hollywood, Calif. : Capitol Records, p1997., 1997. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. Sander, Karin. Gordon Tapper 1:10, ABS plastic (acryl-nitryl-butadien-styrol) from three-dimensional scan; applied color, 1999 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.411,4 Viola, Bill. The Quintet of Rememberance,Video installation; color video rear-projected on large screen in darkened room, 2000 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2001.395a-i

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