I’m responding here to an email from Marissa Crane, who is currently writing her third-year dissertation in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. It contains a few implicit questions but I’ll start by addressing the final one which I think kind of encapsulates them all, and asks what nostalgia brings to my work. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, so thank you Marissa. So, here goes….
I’m going to start with the concept of nostalgia, which to my mind carries negative connotations. It feels like the suggestion of something mawkish and retrogressive – a kind of wistful and pointless yearning for a past that has at its heart a desire to avoid the ‘march of progress’. I’ve had my work written off as ‘just nostalgia’. But this is to negate the importance of historical reflection in human progress and to assume that progress and time have some sort of teleological relationship; as time passes, so must humanity have advanced for the better.
Now without wanting to get into futile arguments about free will, if we assume that as human beings, consciousness has enabled us to take greater control over our environments and destinies than other players in the span of evolution, we can see that it’s the ability to look forward and backwards that is key to this control. It’s all tied up with language and memory, but at heart it’s straying outside of a present-focused, instinctual and reactive approach to the world that has enabled us to increase our chances of survival.
So first of all, looking backwards as well as forwards is the most natural thing a human being can do. Prior to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, looking backwards was more important as a tool for survival – the passing on of stories and wisdom and practical skills from previous generations. After this period, we’ve become ever focused on looking forward; considering the past as little but a quaint reminder of the progress that we’ve made (and of the evils of war). It’s heresy now to suggest that science and the capitalism that underpins it can’t perpetually improve our lot – perhaps climate change and species extinction might be the undoing of this arrogance and the Post-Enlightenment fallacy that later is always better.
Either way, this might explain why nostalgia as a term has become synonymous with looking backwards in a kind of silly, retrogressive way. But to reminisce and re-explore the past is a fundamental way of considering the merits of the present; what we might have lost or gained in the march for progress and how those lost elements might be re-integrated into our futures. It’s no secret that in the West we’ve become ever more disconnected from nature, or that our communities and families are less integrated than they once were. So in effect, to look back at a given time, and to be nostalgic for aspects of it, is to be forward-thinking.
Perhaps I’m broadening the term nostalgia into the simple study of history when it’s meaning should ultimately rest with feelings, emotions and intuition. Or a blind love for the past without consideration of its horrors. And of course, that kind of blind nostalgia does exist. But as an artist often working intuitively, I have to believe in the importance of that link between feelings and rational thought. I think at the heart of a nostalgic sense that isn’t consciously analytical still lies a deep-seated yearning for something. It’s a utopian spirit if you like; an imagining of potential that refuses to accept the present and its trajectory as the best that we can possibly do. Indeed, perhaps that’s what separates it as a concept from historical study – it’s appeal to conscious and unconscious thought. Of course, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and in my work, I explore what both ends of the spectrum mean to me.
What’s also interesting is that the term is often used to describe a yearning for something beyond one’s own past (which is how I’m using it). Most dictionaries seem to disagree but in common usage you can be nostalgic for a time period that you’ve never experienced first-hand. In this sense, perhaps the usage is moving more towards the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’, for which there’s no direct translation in English. It might be described as an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.
This returns me to the idea of nostalgia and potentiality; a mining of the past not simply from a desire to go back there, or to recreate it, but to pull out elements that are the most divine to you – to use them like the missing pieces in your life puzzle. I’ve never considered my work as historical recreation. The details are fun and interesting to get right, but I always talk of my artistic practise as ‘inspired by’ 1960s America. I research and delve into historical texts, but also play with myths and fictional reconstructions of the period, so I’m moving between what might be simplistically described as historical fact and fiction (I mean simplistically in the postmodern sense of the fragility of the subjective and objective, without discarding the terms facts and fiction entirely).
So, I’ve talked about the importance of history, and then talked about how as an artist I essentially negate it, and play with it, which seems contradictory. But that’s the freedom that’s required to make a piece of fiction, or a piece of art. It does not discount the inspiration that you might derive from that period of history but allows you to mould it into something new, which perhaps constitutes another definition of nostalgia, or the new word that I’m looking for.
As an endnote, it’s worth considering nostalgia in contemporary art in the context of the scientific revolution and industrialisation. In the past 150 years, people have experienced more change than in the past 10,000. The curve of development has rocketed to the extent that the technologies, fashions, and designs with which we become familiar might be replaced several times in our lifetimes. My great grandma, who died at 96, was born in 1900, grew up with horse and cart, and was still uncomfortable using the telephone before she died. But I grew up with her and have heard some of her histories, so have a link well beyond the period in which my fascination lies (despite me being born long after it).
And if you add in the sophisticated technologies and huge budgets of cinema and television for which the period piece is staple fodder, you realise that our connection to rapidly changing histories is imprinted firmly in our minds. The ground is ever shifting beneath our feet, and we’re being constantly reminded of the fact. This adds another historical layer to nostalgia, and there are countless other psychological explanations that explore death-anxiety and the construction of identity. I’ve started with an explanation mired in politics, history and potentiality. And this is the model that perhaps best explains my work.