All societies have their norms. Also, their abnorms -- things that are considered avant-garde, ahead of their time. While some of these eventually proved to be just plain genius (say, Vincent van Gogh's masterpieces) others eventually proved to be just plain stupid (say, fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth's "bustle").
For what they are worth, here were some of our cutting edges at the turn of the millennium:
. . . In Art
The edgiest art exhibit in the last year of the last millennium featured this piece, by Britain's Damien Hirst. It was titled "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home." It was no more or less than an adult swine, sliced top to bottom, bilateral symmetry displayed in two plexiglass tanks. Yin and yang. Id and ego. Spleen and pancreas.
. . . In Fashion
Looking for cutting-edge in the field of high fashion was like looking for hay in a haystack. Everything was cutting-edge. We finally settled on the piece at left, from the Comme des Garcons "bump collection" by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. Of this piece, Kawakubo said: "The body becomes dress and dress becomes the body and they become one." But was it becoming?
Ms. Quasimodo -- er, Ms. Kawakubo -- said yes, definitely.
. . . In Furniture
In 1999, the U.S. government sought furniture for the yet-to-be-completed International Space Station, a weightless tin can in low Earth orbit, with no floor or ceiling, no fixed up or down. Architecture students and professors at the University of Arkansas came up with this modular conference table: Your portion straps to your waist, and others belly up with their portions and execute a sort of docking maneuver. Why was this necessary? "If two people talk while one is upside down," explained one of the designers, "both parties can miss nonverbal cues."
. . . In Architecture
Should an art museum be built modestly, deferential to the works it displays? Most architects thought so. Of course most architects also stuck pretty much to right angles and perpendicular walls. This was Frank O. Gehry's impertinent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened as the millennium was drawing to a close. It squatted over the city like surrealist trash pile. Reviewers liked it, and some of them even eventually got around to reviewing the artwork inside.
. . . In Best Friends
Developed by the Sony Corp. in Japan, this toy behaved like your average small dog. It yipped, wagged its tail, obeyed basic commands, played with a ball. It cost $2,500, roughly five times what a pedigreed pup cost, but it sold off the shelves. That's because it was better than a real dog. It lifted its leg and made a tinkling sound, but without an attendant mess. It betrayed no embarrassingly indiscriminate sexual urges. It was odorless. It did not gnaw furniture or drink from toilets. It also did not inconvenience its owner with gauche displays of love. Very modern.
. . . And
in Cutting Edges
In the 1950s children had a toy called Hairy Harry, a crude device that used a magnet to manipulate metal filings over a cartoon face, creating a beard or mustache. That's the principle behind this medical device, developed in 1999 by Stereotaxis Inc. of St. Louis. A patient donned a helmet containing six electromagnets, which steered a little metal bead through his brain. (A neurosurgeon held the wand.) The bead, about the size of a grain of rice, was the leading edge of a slender, flexible catheter. When it came to rest against a tumor, surgeons inserted a cutting device through the catheter and snipped off some flesh. (A tumor was a potentially deadly lump of tissue that grew out of control for reasons we in the 20th century did not entirely understand.)
As this goes to press, this brain slicer was still experimental, and still had no name. We'll call it Harry Kiri.