Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis
The overture of Wim Wenders’s 1989 documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes is accompanied by the director’s voiceover on the concept of identity:
The word itself gives me shivers. It rings of calm, comfort, contentedness. What is it, identity? To know where you belong? To know your self worth? To know who you are? How do you recognize identity?
The film surveys the ubiquity of the electronic and digital image, and particularly how it has changed how people define themselves. Two decades later, authors Aaron Rose and Mandy Kahn explore the same relationship in their study of the aughts, Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis.
Comprised of two essays by the authors and a section of computer-generated collages by designer Brian Roettinger, Collage Culture focuses on the prevalence of appropriation in today’s cultural landscape in everything from musical composition to interior decoration, and makes the claim that artistic production is overly, and wrongly, concerned with extracting material from the past. According to the authors, our culture is now a patchwork of the “already extant,” and therefore our era’s identity is at stake since nothing is original. While part of their claim is legitimate, it is hard to accept that such thinking is enough to warrant an “identity crisis.” What Wenders understands about the concept of identity, Rose and Kahn do not: Identity is always a composite. He suggests that such a construct is even false, or at least deceptive, when it comes to reality, since it does not denote the truth of something, but merely what we imagine to be the truth. Such ontological concerns oddly do not come under scrutiny in Collage Culture.
Nonetheless, Collage Culture is a noteworthy volume. It speaks to a certain uneasiness that many have felt about the creative sphere for some time: There isn’t much contemporary artistic material that really feels unfamiliar, a point that is exacerbated by creative culture’s infatuation with the self-consciously referential. Generally the only work that characterizes the past decade is indeed that of the collagist, “for whom the creative act is not invention from scratch but rather the collecting, cutting and pasting of the already extant.” (Though the fact that art has never been made in a vacuum is another point that the authors don’t consider.) In her essay“Living in the Mess,” Kahn introduces an important perspective that guides the rest of the book: Society’s definition of “new” work is material that only references the past. She makes a good claim using the example of the “mash-up artist” musician Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, whose songs consist almost entirely of unauthorized samples from other music. Girl Talk is an extreme case of the collagist tendency, particularly one that dismisses contemporary music that is expanding its field without relying solely on references to past material, but Kahn does manage to place a finger on the pulse of a hot topic in creative culture. At no other point in history have we been as forced as we are now to consider just what “original” means, even if only for financial purposes. The debates over the SOPA bill and the recent lawsuit against Richard Prince over appropriated images are examples of the floundering attempts to protect and define an idea whose boundaries have been rapidly dissolving since the birth of the electronic and digital image. But even this consideration begs the question: When has appropriation not been a part of the creative process? Collage is not the antithesis of originality—rather, it is often its cornerstone.
The book’s preoccupation with the idea of originality reveals a much larger picture about our expectations for new material, new gadgets, and new dogmas. Herein lies another concept that the authors are quick to define: the “new.” They postulate that if material is to be new and original, it must be devoid of references to movements, ideas, or images from the past. Parts of Rose’s essay, “The Death of Subculture,” read like a manifesto: The next era of creative output should create work that contains no references at all and strives to be original. His focus betrays a desire for novelty, instead of an impartial exploration of the current state of creative culture (an exploration, one might add, which would hardly yield as uncomplicated a remedy as he puts forth, if any remedy at all). As a result, his conclusion sounds out of touch with the reality of artistic production: In order to create this new, non-referential material, we must adopt a “philosophy of innovation” wherein “creating new things becomes almost second nature.” By simplifying the 21st century’s collage tendency down to an error of overly retrospective thinking, Rose only scratches at the surface.
The problem with such a heightened concern over the apparent lack of “original” work today is that we run the risk of overlooking artistic content that is actually evolving its field. Perhaps the best demonstration of the authors’ concern over the stunted nature of creative culture would have been to refrain from pointing a finger at such a deficit, thereby (ironically) entrenching our gaze in the past. The idea of “identity” seems to make the most sense when it is left undefined. Wenders’s hands-off approach is best: “you are whoever you are.”