It seems that the further in the past an event or person or place occurred, the more affection it is regarded with. This is how we service our ghosts, how we gently lie to ourselves to pretend that what came before was better, sweeter, more valuable, or somehow more worthy.
Of course, this is bullshit. The “Good Old Days”? They sucked. I often get accused of sentimentality or nostalgia because I reference the past -- but this is not out of longing. It is about remembering, making notice of what was and was not there.
Some years ago, I had a show of a different body of work at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was from a three-volume set of books I'd made about Chicago -- specifically, about the Chicago of my childhood. A critic from the Tribune dismissed the work as “sentimental,” which could not have been further from the truth. In fact, some of the imagery was absolutely monstrous, remembering a city of thoughtless cruelty and punishing bigotry -- the city of Algren's perpetually rigged game.
Still, this hand-job -- who wrote badly for the Tribune for over 30 years and is now, thankfully for Chicago, unemployed -- made the cheap and easy assumption that my work was sentimental, all about nostalgia. When people tell me this is what they see in my work, I know they haven't really looked.
One of the good things about the discourse of the internet is that it has forever shit-canned the self-appointed aristocracy of art critics. It made the conversation bigger, with more voices, more choices and more democracy. And the imbecile who wrote for the Tribune all those years? He got kicked to the curb; with the advent of the web, art critics are either good, or they don't survive.
One notices that the great critics -- Smith, Schjeldahl, Saltz, Cotter, and my favorite, the one-man hurricane Charlie Finch -- had no job worries because of the 'net; mostly it was the bad ones that went up in flames, and it went that way for all of the other disciplines as well. The elite no longer holds sway: we all get to be part of this discourse.
I know artists who foolishly long for the art world of the ‘80s -- that decade of greed, Reagan, social indifference, AIDS, and stupid hair -- merely because of the booming art market. These morons were the “big whispers” of that ugly decade, the dwarves who were momentarily the tallest midgets in the circus. They never seem to get it. This thing is a marathon, not a sprint.
I don't know if we can trust what we choose to remember -- it seems that the longer a relative or friend has been dead, the more saintly they become in the rear-view mirror of memory. I call it the “High-School Reunion” version of remembering. My high-school teachers, with a few luminous exceptions, were mostly lazy, bumbling dolts, dullards, and douche-bags -- C-minus intellects who wanted nothing more than a job they only had to work eight months a year.
If you want education to get better, make teaching a meritocracy and make these fuckers take a test once a year. If I meet one more high school English teacher who has not read Wallace Stevens, I'll scream. Seriously -- fire half of the fucking teachers.
Both of my kids went to Chicago public schools. My son got a first rate education at a progressive, marvelous high school called Whitney Young; my daughter went to Lincoln Park High School and was taught by slack-jawed mouth-breathers. If these assholes could count to 11 without taking a shoe off, I wouldn't just be surprised -- I'd be amazed. Still, people I know look backward and think of these pukes with fondness.
I do not get it.
It is dangerous to romanticize the past, precisely because it can hobble our efforts to go forward into the future. I'm not really nostalgic for anything; I like the idea of tomorrow much more than yesterday. Too many people waste their lives trying to replay yesterday's box-score.
When I reference the past, I am remembering -- not longing.
Xerox this to your brain.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.