The value of nostalgia



THE film and television business is making a killing with a trend that returns Generation X and some of Y (Millennials) back to the 1980s, rekindling the spirit and excitement of their youth with television shows like Stranger Things, Glow, The Americans and many other 21st Century programs set in the 1980s.

The list of 1980s remake movies from Hollywood is even longer and would fill this column with an ever growing list soon to include rebooted versions of Scarface and Top Gun.

The trends are notable and usually obvious. In the 1970s and 80s Baby Boomers watched Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Grease, American Graffiti, all set in the1950s and 60s, revealing that trends returning entire generations to the past is nothing new. Not so obvious are the numerous 1980s phrases, songs, fashion styles and suchlike that photo-bomb many shows, movies and shows set not only in our time but in science fiction films as well. These nostalgic nods to the past capitalize on the 1980s reset trend.

The contemporary art world is quite different because it is not controlled by public taste. The success of any new contemporary works of art is controlled primarily by the taste of the wealthy one percent and by a continuing ideology of disguised modernism taught in most university fine art departments that work hard to avoid a wholesale return to the past.

Yet nods to the past can be very important in contemporary art circles. They show an adherence to the underlying modernist ideology by paying homage to great modernists.

When you see some drips, there’s Jackson Pollack. When you see some dots, there’s George Seurat, or with bigger dots, Roy Lichtenstein. When you see two eyes on the side of portrait profile, there’s Picasso. Anything melting or bending, there’s Salvador Dali. Even when you see flat, colourful collages and patterning in children’s books, there can be Matisse.

The art field is filled with these nods. However because the general public has virtually no influence in the art world of big galleries and museums, many artists are confused about what sells and who they should aim to sell their art work to. Without a big new movement forming in New York City, many artists aren’t sure what art is for or what it is about. Many of us hedge our bets and flail around for a while before settling on a style that either sells or gets praise from an authority, maybe a professor, curator, critic or gallery director. Anyone else, we’ve been taught, isn’t much of an authority - including our mothers.

What is rarely taught or understood is how art has a direct influence on the civic world. Art is all around us and if artists took the time to think outside the gallery and not disdain anything that benefits the public as a commercial exercise, they would see that not only is there money to be made, but status and the ability to experiment with aesthetics on a larger scale that would benefit all of us.

The stand-alone painting or sculpture is meant to be an obvious work of art, but imagine if you could have your art in plain sight. Hide it and make artistic statements with signage, graffiti, store front window dressing, a contemporary mosaic within sidewalk tiles, or creative use of lamp posts. Opportunities abound for the progressive artist in the civic world which is slow to progress.

The blend of contemporary art and its use of new materials within the civic and commercial world of the general public could be amazing and could reignite the past trends of artistic movements. A new contemporary art that removes the influence of the wealthy one percent and the oligarchy of the art world could be one that is truly modern and progressive, even with - and maybe more so with - nostalgic nods to the past.

Duncan Weller is a writer and visual artist. His work can be seen Saturday mornings at the Country Market and at his gallery and studio at 118 Cumberland St. You can write to him at

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