Diner Dogma 6: The Window of Ugliness
Note: This Diner Dogma was recorded in the winter of 2004, but wasn't transcribed until January 2005 due to the indolence of the ArtLexis staff.
K: We're back after one of our periodic multi-month absences from Diner Dogma to drive out our winter doldrums and enjoy periodic torrential downpours. We're sitting in the noisy and crowded Washington Square Diner, my favorite haunt, and really the only remaining diner in this part of Greenwich Village.
Given the recent near extinction of diners in the vicinity, perhaps it's an appropriate time to discuss what I like to call "The Window of Ugliness." This is my pet theory which supposes that the ugliness of certain human artifacts is entirely temporary, and that everything that seems ugly today will wind up looking beautiful in the future, will actually enter into a kind of Valhalla of beauty, an everlasting eternal beauty. Say something.
L: (laughs) So we started to have this conversation this morning and it came up in the context of architecture first, but I can see how it definitely carries over into other areas.
K: I think it carries over into every part of the culture. I mean, look at the whole phenomenon of the "diner", for example, which had a lifecycle starting around, oh I don't know, the first World War when they evolved out of lunch carts, and then a period of ascendancy where they spread all over. Then diners peaked some time in the late 50's, and then they became less popular and went into a decline.
At that point, people started to see them as ugly, no longer fitting their contemporary standards of beauty, and they entered a period which I would call their Window of Ugliness. And then eventually, lo and behold, this sense of ugliness began to wane, and they came to be seen as beautiful, as "classic" - and by that point the Window of Ugliness for diners was shut.
And then you even had this phenomenon of the "neo-diner," so around Times Square for example, there are a few of these classic 50's-style diners which are actually brand new, and you walk in and everything is faux 50's, everything is chrome, the waitresses are dressed in mini skirts and it's clearly understood to be a classicist revival of the "idea" of a diner.
L: That's a phenomenon that I've noticed since the mid-80's, would that be the indicator of when the Window of Ugliness for diners closed?
K: I think it really closed in the mid-70's, when the Window of Ugliness for all sorts of things from the 50's closed. I can remember as a small child in the mid-60's, sitting in the back of my parents' car and seeing cars from the mid-1950's, ten year-old cars driving by and thinking that their huge tailfins were the most hideous thing I had ever seen in my young life. I couldn't even bear to look at them; they burned my eyes with their ugliness.
And then in 1973 the movie American Graffiti came out. Now, American Graffiti was actually set in 1962 but really, in terms of the popular perception it was seen as being about the 1950's. At that point you had had about a decade since the Window of Ugliness for stuff from the 50's opened, and now it closes. And suddenly those cars were beautiful. And I remember being surprised by that realization as a kid, "Oh, cars from the 50's are beautiful after all!"
Anyway, I started thinking about this idea about the Window of Ugliness when I was a young punk rocker, when without even realizing what we were doing we were developing kind of a revival of 50's style, 50's classicism. A striking thing about punk was how much it was an echo of the 50's - although in its defense it wasn't just revivalism, because it was post-modern in the sense that it knowledgably and self-consciously incorporated those styles into new kinds of cultural productions that used them ironically, not uncritically.
So in reaction to the loose colorful clothing of the 1960's and early 70's, you suddenly had this idea of tight clothing and dark clothing, leather jackets, black pants. I remember that you couldn't buy black jeans in Winnipeg in 1980 so we used to buy blue jeans and dye them black. And you couldn't buy skinny legged jeans so we would turn our jeans inside out - and I remember I had my mother's sewing machine which I learned to use very well - and we would sew new, tighter seams on the inside of the pants.
And you would make the pants so tight that you literally couldn't squat in them, you couldn't cross your legs, and if you were lucky enough to have sex with a young punk girl you had to go through the ordeal of peeling them off slowly, turning them inside out and trying to pull them over your heels while she squealed with laughter at the sight of you.
So there we were, in these tight, dark clothes, and this lasted for several years, some might say twenty years later I'm still wearing that type of thing...
L: Well they're not quite as tight anymore.
K: No, not quite as tight. So there we were until around 1984, when it started changing. We were at this one punk gig, and I was surveying this scene of people all dressed in this punk way with my friend Ralph Allen, and an acquaintance of ours, Curtis Austin walked up dressed for all the world like one of the Beatles from 1965. In other words, he was starting to move out of that 50's and very early 60's style (or a version of it, a post-modern adaptation of it) and he was starting to move into a style that was more influenced by and indicative of the mid-1960's, a little more colorful, a little looser.
And he was wearing this scarf and I remember that Ralph looked at it - and I had never even heard the word "paisley" in my life, but I recognized the pattern from my childhood as something associated with hippies, and therefore ugly - and Ralph said "wow, cool paisley!" and it was almost electrifying to me. I remember thinking "something is changing, something ugly that you could not have worn just became beautiful through no other action than the passage of time." The Window of Ugliness had closed, and suddenly paisley was beautiful again.
So I think that the Window of Ugliness for fashion starts when something is about ten years old, and then stays open for about ten years. So by the early 1980's the fashion of the early 1970's was almost too hideous to contemplate. And if you look back on contemporary accounts you'll see that people often talk in those terms about 70's fashion, about how much they reviled it and how incredibly horrible it was and nobody could believe that they would ever dress that way.
L: (laughs heartily)
K: And yet today we're very forgiving of 70's fashion because its Window of Ugliness closed in the mid-1990's when it was about 20 years old. And now, certainly in Manhattan, it's absolutely the height of style. I frequently see young men with moustaches and sideburns.
L: I'm not so sure I like that revival.
K: Maybe you and I are just too rooted in the past.
L: You could say that!
K: At any rate, I would compare that cycle, that period of ugliness starting ten years after the fact and lasting for ten years, to the Window of Ugliness for architecture, which I think starts about twenty-five years after the fact and lasts for maybe a little longer than for fashion, maybe another twenty-five years. So, for example the destruction of Penn Station took place right when it was about fifty years old, and really just before there was any sort of broadly-based appreciation for it architecturally. Right as its Window of Ugliness was about to close it was torn down, unfortunately.
I remember as a child looking at architecture from the 1950s, or "high modernist" architecture, and thinking that I had never seen anything so hideous in my entire life. And that was when it was about 25 years old, I suppose. And now high modernist design is the most fashionable design in the city. If you go around and look in the trendy stores selling used furniture in the East Village they're all selling high modern furniture.
L: Yeah, mid-century modern is definitely the hottest thing.
K: Yes, it's been fifty plus years and the Window of Ugliness has thoroughly closed. It was at its peak in the late 70's or early 80's. That's when Jonathan Richman sang: "the 50's apartment house looks bleak in the 1970's sun."
And the broader point that I would take from it is that the whole idea of beauty or quality in culture, in art, is absolutely contingent upon context. When you're immersed in a style, surrounded by it at all times, you eventually start differentiating between good examples of it and bad examples of it. You become hyper-sensitive and hyper-critical of subtle elements in the style, and after enough time and exposure almost every example of it starts to look ugly to your rarified tastes.
But after it stops being ubiquitous and enough time passes, people gets removed enough from it to stop being sick of it, they get a little perspective on it, and start seeing the samenesses in it, not the little differences. And after enough time, it just all looks beautiful.
Once the Window of Ugliness closes, you'd need to be a specialist, someone who deliberately surrounds themselves with a style in order to be able to still see the ugliness. Which is why you can have historians wandering around saying what types of 18th century Scandinavian architecture they find beautiful and what types of 18th century Scandinavian architecture they find ugly.
But to everybody else all 18th century Scandinavian architecture is beautiful. And I think we should remember that when we talk about art. And all shitty artists - especially shitty digital artists - should take great solace in this because 200 years from now even the shittiest digital art is going to look as good as - what's his fucking name - Matthew Barney.
L: (Laughs hysterically)
K: No one will be able to tell it apart. They'll say "I think that's some early 21st century digital art! It's beautiful! I'm going to hang it on my wall." And I don't offer this up as a defense of the horrible quality of work we present in ArtLexis, because of course I think that the work in ArtLexis is very beautiful and we deliberately eschew work that we find ugly. But I offer this up more in the sense of admitting to myself publicly, in a curatorial capacity, that ultimately there are no grounds, no firm grounds, on which I can base any of those decisions - they are being made in the full realization that they are completely temporary, contingent and subjective.
L: I anxiously await to see in which context all that horrific installation art in this year's Whitney Biennial becomes beautiful.
K: A devastating point.