It's Revolting

In the art museum, in Denver, in the portrait section, there is a painting of a Spanish grandee, ambassador to some court or other, Lord High This and That, Keeper Of The Royal Watchmacallit. (Give me a break, I barely remember names for people who are alive!)

I like to linger in front of that portrait - very well executed as far as that goes, with a sort of photo-realism that's more real than mere photographs - because it is an example of rebellion; of speaking truth to power, to repeat a very old phrase.

Because I'm that sort of mother and they're that sort of kids, I asked my sons why this portrait is highly subversive. It took them a while. Well, it would. I mean, there's the miles and miles of satin, the lace, the sparkly noblesse-oblige bling.

But the shocking part of the portrait is in the face of the gentleman painted. It's nothing overt, of course. True rocking of social conventions rarely is - think about it. But if you look in the man's eyes, you catch a glimpse of fear, a suggestion of cringing, the certainty that the man trapped within the satin, the lace and the diamonds feels less than equal to his positions, and perhaps dwarfed by his resounding titles. You expect his tongue to come out and lick his lips. You expect him to duck his head.

Did the artist capture that on purpose? Almost certainly. Given his skill with portraiture, I have trouble believing he could have done it by accident. Now, it might be a matter of his beliefs leaking onto the paper without his conscious knowledge - that's part of creating art. But at some point he had to realize what he was doing. Did it take courage? Almost for sure, given the time. I mean, killing artists might be a terrible social faux-pas at the time for all I know, but the imbalance of power was such that it could probably be managed quietly and behind the scenes. Or perhaps the artist could just be quietly ruined till he died of hunger in some garret.

So, why am I concerned with portraiture at five am on this lovely Thursday morning when temperatures are projected to go into the positive side of the Fahrenheit scale for the first time in days? (Oooh. Twenties. T-shirt weather.)

Because an exchange of emails with a friend late last night made me realize we live in very odd times. Drive by the local highschool sometime at school's end, and look at the kids. If you squint and tilt your head sideways, it's like being in a time machine. Faded Jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts. At most you'll think you're back in the seventies without the 'fros. (Hey, I had one.)

And if you are the thinking kind you'll realize our entire picture of society is wrong. Tilted to one side. Or perhaps like one of those snow globes, but one which some joker filled with the resin they used to make bartops from in the seventies (remember? With coins in them? Perfectly transparent?) so that the flakes are frozen mid-fall and won't move no matter how much you shake the globe.

This might be a little harder for you, if you are of the generation that first wore faded jeans to school, who first let your hair grow (if you are male) or your skirts climb (if you're female.) You'll look at that highschool picture and see... rebellion. And you'll shrug and tell me "Kids rebel, so what, big deal."

But no. As Terry Pratchett says, "open your eyes. Then open your eyes again."

Remember wearing those clothes to school? Remember the look of disappointment in your parents' eyes when you refused to wear nice pants? Remember the rulers measuring skirts? The girls sent home for being indecently clad? REMEMBER?

Do you think that will happen to any of these kids? Oh, look, there's a teacher going in, dressed in exactly the same way.

Now look at that picture again and realize what you're looking at is NOT rebellion. Oh, it looks like your rebellious years all right - preserved in amber.

What you are looking at in fact - with the exception of some goth kids and others who do get treated like pariahs - are not the rebels but the good kids. They are doing what mommy and daddy want. They are dressing as their teachers expect them to. They are repeating the opinions and thoughts that are approved of.

Of course, realizing this requires awareness on the part of the older generation. It requires realizing you've grown older. You're the parents now. And both of these are hampered by the fact that the generation that came of age in the sixties was such a massive demographic lump it distorted everyone's perception and also by the fact we're a commercial society (not that there is anything wrong with that. No, really.) Catering to such a large demographic group changed the culture as all the advertisers tried to appeal to it, at each of its milestones. (I swear if I see one more add for a retirement program of some sort starting with 'we're the most important generation', I'm going to be violently sick.)

This means the culture froze several concepts, like "behaving like the young people of the sixties is what being young means", like "speaking truth to power", like "not selling out to the man."

Only, to quote the cell phone commercial - at some point you have to realize you ARE the man. And that everyone you think is speaking truth to power is - in fact - appeasing you and catering to your need to feel young and relevant. (Oh, don't feel bad. It is a perfectly normal reaction to growing older. Fifty is getting close enough for me to eyeball - only two years away - and it's forcing me to realize that not only am I not going to live forever, but that I'm the grown up, now.)

Of course most of your kids are going to do what you want. Most kids are good kids and well behaved. Outliers are called so because they are. It was arguably easier for the boomers to rebel because their demographic was so vast. And because - I've been listening to Heinlein from the time - everyone expected the demographic explosion to continue, so the older people were trying to position themselves on the "winning" side. This is no longer true and the smaller generations that followed yours (starting with mine. No, we're not boomers, sorry. Not in experience, not in behavior, not in thought. Half of us - most of those in public life - are second generation flower children. We're YOUR children. The others... The others have spent most of their lives being mildly annoyed at the fact we didn't exist. We were in our early twenties when the hot series on TV was Thirty Something. 'nough said.)

More importantly, commercial and demographic pressures have enshrined your values as part of the mainstream culture - parroting your values and aping your style is the way to be and the way to climb in the world. Yes, even your bad ideas.

So, what is this other than boomer bashing? (Oh, come on, man, speaking truth to power.)  And not even that, since they are what the size of their generation and the nature of society made them?

Just pointing out we live in a crazy time. With the rebels in power and rebellion the safely institutionalized - not to say fossilized - attitude, the artistic expression hailed as speaking truth to power, the pieces acclaimed as "daring", the ideas bruited as "revolutionary" are the ones that the old revolutionaries - now the establishment - approve of. They are the ones that all the critics will hail as amazing, that college professors will promote. The ones that will make the artist rich.

They are, if you will, the satin folds, the exquisitely rendered lace.

Your tell for this is the fact that these pieces are critically acclaimed and PUSHED and that they make the artist rich. Artists have to live after all. And for centuries artists have made a living by reflecting back at those in power what those in power wanted to see. In a way, we are all high-priced whores. (And those who get governmental subsides are, as Heinlein taught us, incompetent whores.)

But those artists who are real artists, those who are driven by something more than the desire to feed their families (of course that too, but look, guys, I could make more money sewing barbie doll clothes. With less headache. And I'm not saying I don't consider this twice a day) will still feel a need to put something of themselves in. The thing is, artists, the driven kind, are rarely conventional people.

The thing is, you have to look at the details. You have to examine the things that the artist is hoping will go unnoticed by the Grandee who is paying him. The interstitial spaces where truth is allowed to peep out.

Look carefully at the conventional work, the portrait of a rebellion frozen under resin fifty years ago now. Then look the establishment in the eyes and see the squint, the insecurity. You know the tongue is going to moisten the lips and there's going to be the smallest of cringes.

There you'll find the real art, the real revolt. There, you'll find truth.

Look at the truth and shake that snow globe.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

posted by Sarah on 02.03.11 at 07:42 AM


I've noticed at church that the males who habitually wear ties are usually over 65 or under 25. Perhaps the younger generation has its own rebel streak?

CBI   ·  February 3, 2011 12:35 PM

I think largely the clothes fashion change is the outcome of a practical pressure, not the cultural competition you write about. It seems to me (not original to me, but dunno who to credit) that clothes (and, similarly, cars) have changed their price-to-performance characteristics so much that old status tagging patterns were doomed to break down. Cars especially: the kinds of people who routinely bought Mercedes or Cadillac don't have any great way to make the same fashion/lifestyle/status statement now that Honda and Toyota make such good cars. (People who bought Porsche or BMW still have ways of making the same statement.)

Clothes have generally become cheaper, so it's harder to distinguish yourself by expensive dress. And while for a man, dressing in a stylish suit and dress shirt is still expensive enough to signal something, there's a serious problem that given the way that men's fashions have been frozen in since long before 1960, part of what it's signaling is that you are too frozen in time to wear high-performance synthetics where appropriate (esp. modern footwear and modern windbreakers, parkas, and fleecewear). Note how the tech industry was in the vanguard of business casual. I really doubt that was a case of nihilistic rebellion. It seems more likely to me that it can was more nearly a case of earnestly signalling other kinds of seriousness.

Of course, there are still plenty of ironic or clueless or aimlessly trendy clothing fashion statements, such as goofy damaged or ghetto clothing, or pants with a zillion pockets and pouches that are never used. I think much of such ironic fashion is indeed the kind of rebellion you wrote about. But I think competition from the ironic fashions is not central to the marginalization of Mercedes/Cadillac-like earnest un-ironic branding of clothes. The surviving clothes fashion statements are akin to a Honda Civic with elaborate spoilers, or to a huge 4WD pickup which never leaves the city except on an interstate-grade highway. It seems to me that Mercedes and Cadillac would have been marginalized even without such things; the old earnest fashions got hit so hard by technological and economic change that you needn't invoke cultural competition as a prime mover to explain them.

William Newman   ·  February 3, 2011 1:36 PM

The big worry among the "revolutionaries" in the 60's was that the Revolution would be coopted. Their fears were realized. Thankfully.

This video is apt:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

M. Simon   ·  February 3, 2011 2:03 PM

I felt somewhat rebellious during my freshman year in college when I voted for Ronald Reagan.

Bram   ·  February 3, 2011 4:32 PM


My older son figured out sometime in Junior year in highschool that his boomer teachers frothed at the mouth if he wore a tie -- he had worn one a couple of times because of choir. He now wears a tie everyday. The effect continues. He finds it amusing.

Of course, he has since added a fedora and a trenchcoat, leading me to saying "Have a good day in the nineteen thirties" as he leaves for college. BUT I think yeah, that's rebellion.

Sarah   ·  February 3, 2011 5:36 PM

As a (tail-end) baby boomer, I'd tell your son the tie works. The fedora and trench coat, otoh, would (for me, at least) negate the wince. That's just got too much style.

(Though it's still rebellion.)

Kathy Kinsley   ·  February 3, 2011 7:19 PM


The funny thing is how many people, at Science Fiction cons are convinced I make older kid wear ties and younger kid wear button downs. Me. I LIVE in sweatshirts and jeans. Sometimes I remember to have my hair styled. I mean, mostly I'm a mind attached to typing fingers.

Sarah   ·  February 3, 2011 10:57 PM

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