By now it seems to be a 70s esthetic. And detecting it is easy - we hear it in the music, we see it in the movies, in the paintings, on the television. Its mood is retrospective, it deals with remembering, recollection and review. It ought to have a name. Call it Retro Art.
The religion of the new is losing its adherents. Future shock is fading, revolution dimming. Where artists used to prophesy, today they tend to quote. Retro Art is everywhere, in the antique flash of "Star Wars," in the songs of Linda Ronstadt, in Trinity and Tut and the homage paid to Elvis. Americans, it sometimes seems, have all become historians. We no longer seek our pleasure in the present only. We fuel our fun with memory and meditate on history. Our culture is pervaded by the past.
TV has become an electronic library. Instead of showing just the new, it broadcasts its own yesterdays. When the Honeymooners feud, when George and Gracie charm us, we receive more than laughs. The camera work, the references, the width of the lapels, are drenched in historicity, in time-machine delight. One-third of a second, one glimpse of Grouccho's duck, is all that is required to transport us 20 years. TV, as it grows older, more and more resembles a densely stocked museum. The 60s are behind us, but the walk of JFK, the music of the Beatles, Henry Aaron's swing, survive on bits of tape. Retrieving them is easy. The TV of the present, and the TV of the past, intertwine with one another. Lucy and the Fonz are allies of a sort. In the evening, on the tube, the phony '50s coexist with the real thing.
Pop music, too, increasingly resembles Retro Art. We used to expect break-throughs from each new Beatlles record. When they borrowed from '50s rock and roll, or 19th-century music halls, or Elizabethean ballads, we overlooked such references. Today we try to hear them. What is new about new music is that it sounds so recollectives, so intentionally learned. Its quotes aren't accidental.
When a blues guitarist nowadays decorates a song with riffs from Robert Johnson, Henry Thomas or Chuck Berry, he expects his audience to recognize his sources. Performers once intent on doing their own thing now present themselevs as synthesists of history, as archivists and scholars. Ray Charles sings Mario Lanza, performers juggle genres. The music we grew up with has not been superseded. Instead it's being mined.
Pop Art used to blast us and we learned to see it everywhere, in the markets and on the tube. Retro Art, though milder, is equally pervasive. Tens of thousands stand in line to see a pharaoh's treasures. "Shogun" shows us old Japan, "Trinity" old Ireland. "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Roots," and countries other artifacts reconstruct the past.
So does modern painting. The painters of the '60s, who emptied art to cleanse it, are filling it again with references, allusions. When Rockne Krebs combines boats and hot dogs with his lasers, when Frank Stella places huge French curves in his paintings, when Robert Morris or Carl Andre imitate neolithic standing stones, we are being told that To See Is To Remember.
The Renaissance painters discovering perspective, took great delight in placing their saints and their madonnas, their marching colonnades, their black and white floor tiles, in measurable space. The artists of the '70s, not all of them, but many, are as fond of specificity. The vast and airy emptiness that the field painters opened is being filled with history, references, quotations, with coordinates that function in time instead of space.
Perhaps it is not surprising that history is a hit. The blossoming of Retro Art may have a demographic explanation. The '60s generation, the kids who gave us all that newness, grass and rock and revolution, are no longer kids. The babies of the baby bulge have passed through adolescence, accumulating history, both ours and their own.
T.S. Eliot wrote:
As we grow older
The wrold becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after
But a lifetime burning in every moment.
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is, of course, in Retro Art something retrogressive, some sense of progress held in check, of the calm before the storm. The pendulum is bound to swing, there is no doubt of that. But when innovation blooms again, perhpas in the '80s, the retrechment of the '70s will have left a mark. The minimalists of the '60s, who discarded almost everything, who tried to start from scratch, have foreclosed that austere option. Painters and performers, writes and musicians, high artists and low ones, will innovate again, but they will not soon cease summoning the past.