On nostalgia in art

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a short series of essays about the role of nostalgia in art.

It can be difficult to find stability amidst the cacophony of input we face. The influx of digital images, advertisements of every kind and even product placement within film and television shows can leave one feeling disenfranchised. It can be easier to look back to a time before all this media saturation was the norm and pine for it. However, even reminiscence has fallen victim to the same driving machination that has crowded our eyes in the first place. Now it is no longer safe to reminisce — nostalgia has been taken hostage.

Initially that may not be a concern; after all, what is nostalgia anyway? Dictionary.com defines it as: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.

This may not sound like something that you do often, but you know that there’s something that you used to do or have that you miss now. It could be as simple as a place you went as a child or an old pet or a show that you used to watch. We can fall into revere at the slightest push, before long we’re thinking back to “the good old days.”

This is not to be confused with remembering the past. Nostalgia is something more immersive, something escapist. It’s where someone insists on believing that things were different (read: better) than they are now and somehow it’s possible to return to that way of life. The broadest draw would be confusing your own childhood with a good experience you had as a child. If you turned on Fraggle Rock or Teddy Ruxpin and thought “Boy, things sure were better when I was a kid,” stop. You’re remembering the enjoyment given to you from a television show, which you then translate and apply to your entire childhood. Not only is this delusional, it is also terribly easy to do.

When nostalgia is used to evoke memories of the past, real or imagined, it can put you in a very vulnerable spot. Think of the technological arms race that has escalated since the invention of the microchip. The faster the processor; the smaller the computer; it’s the shortening the time between you and your next generation iPod. The rate of change will continue to advance. Author Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock describes this rate:

If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, 650 were spent in caves. Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another — as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of man ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we used in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th lifetime.

Since we are experiencing an unprecedented amount of change within our own lives (back in my day I bought cassette tapes), there is no doubt emotional unrest in adapting to change. So when you see “classic” looks in fashion or read of a “vintage” feel in rental guides, your unease is being manipulated. No matter how neat it could be, re-making a film shows signs of mental laziness. Someone else is reusing a memory for profit.

We’re aware that our displacement is happening. Imagine a future where there is no antique furniture, since people buy particleboard desks and dressers every three years. Think of how long it takes before you’re left in a social vacuum because everyone else has stopped using a telephone to call and speak to someone. This agitation is happening and nostalgia for things past can be a dangerous refuge. When someone is offering you that feeling of home — for a price — then you know you’re being manipulated.

Your past is not a commodity; don’t let yourself be treated as though it were. Don’t let your memories be reformatted and sold back to you in a deluxe package, just so you think that you can relive your past. There is a value to understanding one’s own past and our collective past (just because Canada is well-liked internationally, doesn’t mean we don’t have skeletons in our closets). Being honest about that discomfort to change need not lead to false memories or spending money. Change happens. Just plan on adapting to it, not escaping from it.