IDENTITY AND CULTURE
So far I have discussed the inter-relationship of narrative and the psychology of memory, and the importance of understanding the influences on those by dominant cultural trends and events from our pasts. I have reviewed the construction of identity as an on-going process from a post-structuralist and a posivistist viewpoint, and have concluded that recall is a constructive process and that my beliefs affect that process. I have also asserted that the photographic records I keep strongly influence beliefs I carry, and shift with the sampling ritual as I look at the photographs. In this way, the construction of identity is a self-reflexive and continous event. Lastly, I have examined the objectification of these issues in my art practice.
I would like to now look at the concept of a family identity in the 1960's and the function of culture and specific sub-cultures, and mediated products as another layer in the archaeology of the narrative structure.
In exploring family history as subject matter for a series of work, I initially found myself depicting symbolic icons of a past that was disconnected, fragmented and highly clichéd. Examples of this include Chevrolets, a Route 66 sign and various hairstyles and clothing of the '60s era in America. I found that these images did not challenge the viewer to explore deeper psychological strata in the work, but conjured stereotypical responses to the iconographic symbols. In addition, my geographic dislocation from my cultural homeland placed these artworks in an arena that was naturally predisposed to a mis-reading of the images as stereotypes. My challenge was to present my childhood memories; the meaningful snapshots, family moments, the important items and environments, in a manner that inspired the viewer to look beyond the surface of the image to the colour and texture of the memories themselves.
My studio practice also led me to investigate collective notions of what defines family identity, and indeed, if such a concept or definition exists. The use of the family album as source material in the screenprinted elements in my paintings kept reasserting the collective representation of my identity through my family. It was pointing me towards the examination of the cultural context of my childhood, such as the Vietnam war, and the J.F. Kennedy years, and looking even further back to the principles of the Founding Fathers of America. I also found feminist readings useful that have helped me interrogate my paradigms about the construction of family and my current role in my own family as wife and mother. The cumulative response to these inquiries are presented in this chapter, together with the analysis of my artworks that developed during this line of research.
I have already defined family as comprising an individual's historical primary relationships, while acknowledging non-traditional and non-nuclear families as valid and fulfilling contemporary social units. I have also described identity as a constructive process influenced by cultural tropes and products. . I would like to now deepen this dialogue by making new connections that will allow me to enrich my studio practice with a deeper understanding about my cultural and familial heritage It will be necessary to look at historical analysis from a variety of viewpoints in order to do this.
I began my life in the last months of 1959. The family snapshots taken when my parents first married are stereotypical images of a young, happy couple buying their first car, home and boat, and going on their first cross-country American holiday, camping, and exploring the byroads and back roads (Fig. 8). When I walk into a Burger King? restaurant in my small provincial town in New Zealand, I find that the walls are decorated with posters displaying the cars and songs of that era. I am surrounded with the cultural iconography of the '50s in America. Iconography is defined as "the study through art of 'the basic attitude' of 'a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion', i.e. the history of mentalities from visual sources." (Trombley & Bullock, 2000, p. 411). I believe that the concept of "American identity" can be explored through the images projected at the public through the mass media, which echoes the cultural mentality, during a particular era.
I believe that in the process of observing and interacting with the mass media, a person constructs a sensation not only of their culture and personal identity, but of their family and social units. These sensations lead to and culminate in the formation of a concept of family identity by the self. I also believe that media projections provide a platform for comparison for children that is "a convenient source of cultural options" (Brown et al., cited in Hamley, 2001). Brown states that "individuals actively and creatively sample available cultural symbols, myths, and rituals as they produce their identities" (ibid.). It is a natural extension of this concept for children to also construct perceptions about themselves in a familial context. Memory is an essential tool in the excavation of personal history, as is the examination of mass media, and in particular, the television programs of my childhood that focussed on everyday familial dramas (Fig. 9).
At this point I would like to add the term "history of mentalities", or "psychohistory" to my discussion. These terms were initially developed and coined by Arthur Lovejoy, an American sociologist and historian in the 1920s, and were developed further in France in the 1930s by Lucien Febvre and Georges Lefebvre. Febvre and Marc Bloch initiated a group called the Annales School; they believed that the historian should place less emphasis on the political narrative and consider structures and trends in economic, social and cultural history as well. It is also useful to place this definition next to that of the "history of material culture", which art historians, archaeologists, social historians, anthropologists and economists use to examine a particular culture. These scholars pay attention to the symbolism inherent in the usage of particular items in certain eras, for example the "preference for white rather than brown bread in early modern Europe symbolized the status (or even the purity) of those who could afford to eat it, or that a particular choice of clothing or housing expressed or helped to create a particular social identity" (Trombley & Bullock, 2000, pp. 398 -399). These two forms of historical examination are usually seen as contrary, but I will utilise both of these forms of historical analysis for the purposes of this work, and contextualising my familial history and identity. For example, I examine both the ideas projected by the mass media during the 1960s and the objects and housing in common use at that time, and that are included in my works of art.
During the examination of family identity it became clear that, if I were dealing with cultural symbols, a definition and discussion of the word "culture" would be necessary as a starting point for further discussion on American and family identity.
In Raymond William's text Keywords (1983, pp. 87 - 93), he gives an extensive historical analysis of the word across English, French and German languages. In England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, references are made to culture as "a social process" that acquires "definite class associations" (ibid., p. 88). This implies that persons with wealth or correct breeding could acquire the state of being cultured, and there are definite connections made to "civilisation" in the French and German sources of around the same time. In his 1958 text, Culture is Ordinary, Williams eloquently describes culture in the following way:
A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life-the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning-the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind."
Family life is ordinary, and families are in every society, and certainly for my purposes this application of the concept of culture fits my line of investigation. .I am concerned with the modern history of the word culture, where the "process of change [in the meaning of the word] is so intricate and the latencies of meaning are at times so close" (Williams, 1983, p. 87) where culture is defined as an "independent noun, an abstract process or the product of such a process" (ibid). In more recent times, there have been two main definitions put forward by anthropologists and sociologists respectively. In anthropological usage, culture is defined as "that aspect of social behaviour which can be recognized in the archaeological record. More often it is the material culture that is defined" (Bullock and Trombley, 2000, p. 191). Material culture is "the history of material objects, including the analysis of their various uses in a given society" (ibid., p. 398).
In sociological terms culture is the:
"social heritage of a community: the total body of material artefacts, of collective mental and spiritual 'artefacts' (systems of symbols, ideas, beliefs, aesthetic perceptions, values, etc.), and of distinctive forms of behaviour (institutions, groupings, rituals, modes of organization, etc.) created by a people (sometimes deliberately, sometimes through unforeseen interconnections and consequences in their ongoing activities within their particular life-conditions, and transmitted from generation to generation."
In the second definition there is a blend of the history of mentalities and material culture. Including these definitions broadens my discussion and allows me to explore any number of historical avenues that may lead to the core of my personal experience of my formative childhood years, which I am mining for inspiration in the creation of artworks.
Although there are some material objects that persist from my childhood that I include in my paintings such as toys, shoes, mobile homes, and cars, (Fig. 10), I do not still possess a broad enough spectrum of objects on which to base a discussion of American culture. I include these objects in my artworks to heighten the viewers' awareness of the objects as historical and documentary within my experience of remembering. Using the sepia tones in the realistically rendered paintings of the objects sets the objects in the past, not present, and contrasts with the brighter saturated hues of the gesturally painted stencils. There is a symbolic purpose in using the shoes, as they are metaphors for the large amount of travel and transience that was a normal part of my family's way of life. This lack of stability, and its effect on my personality and habits as an adult, is a theme which runs through my current artworks.
Other objects are included through the observation of photographs from the family album,such as details in the environments I lived in, although the majority of photos are focussed primarily on the people in the family (Fig. 11), and the objects are coincidental and peripheral. However, a deeper understanding of the history of material culture has led to new insights about these objects and their cultural symbolism as my studio work and research has developed.
The crafting of self-hood and identity has complex historical roots in America, that date back to notions of self-determination and a quest for freedom from political, religious and class restrictions suffered by early immigrants from Europe, Ireland and England (Lindof & Grodin, 1996). One of the Founding Fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, advocated the ideology of autonomy and self-help to create a better life for oneself and one's kinfolk. My own father, Joseph Patrick Carlan, himself a descendant of early pilgrims, lived and breathed these philosophies, as he loaded up his 1956 Chevy Bel-Air with his belongings and his new bride, and headed west to California in the hope of bettering himself and making a break from the restrictions of his uneducated and impoverished background in Boston. I remember Dad talking throughout my childhood about the values fought for by our political ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence, and the importance of bringing them forward into our current lives. He also said, "You can be and do whatever you want, the only limit is your imagination". Clearly this belief in self-determination was a dominant value in my family identity. I even remember him reading reprints of the historic Poor Richard's Almanacs written by Benjamin Franklin, treasure troves of "wisecracks" and "practical advice for the self-made man" (Johnson, 1997, p.113), that my father said were timeless. In Franklin's time, his Almanacs were only outsold in the American Colonies by the Bible, and extracts from The Way to Wealth (1748) and "have gone through over 1,200 editions since" (ibid., p.113). The influence of his thinking is part of the foundation of a mind-set in both America and myself, an ex-patriot, some 254 years after its writing. This is an excellent example of the importance of the study of the history of mentalities.
This premise of self-determination is still a recognisable element of the American mentality, but one can mark a point in time when it lost its pervasiveness. Some might make the connection of this transition point as being parallel to the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism. The dominant definition of the modernist experience and notion of self was as "individualistic, autonomous and self-contained" (Lindof & Grodin, 1996, p. 7). When my parents were young adults, their experience would have been in concordance with this view. Historian, Paul Johnson noted the following about the years between 1948-58:
The Eisenhower decade was the last of the century in which the traditional elements in American society held the cultural upper hand. Eisenhower's America was still recognizably derived from the republic of the Founding Fathers. There were still thousands of small towns in the United States where the world of Norman Rockwell was intact and unselfconsciously confident in itself and its values. Patriotism was esteemed. The flag was saluted. The melting-pot was still at work, turning out unhyphenated Americans. Indeed the 'American Way of Life' was a term of praise, not abuse. Upward mobility was the aim (1997, p. 698).
My parents married in December 1952, in the "I like Ike" era, in which Americans held General Eisenhower (Fig. 12) in high regard for his part in the second World War as Supreme Allied Commander (Johnson, 1997, p. 691). His coming to office as President marked the country's new era of peace and prosperity, and returned servicemen, such as my father, enthusiastically supported him with their vote, with an "enormous margin of 33,936,234 to Adelai Stevenson's 27,314,999" (ibid., p. 690).
Another initiative that Eisenhower championed was the Interstate Highway system. In the post-war economic boom, there was an emphasis on mobility, and on getting an education. My father returned from serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during World War II with the intention of bettering himself. He finished high school and then a Bachelor of Arts in Commerce at Boston University (during which time, he met my mother). The returned servicemen were offered a government subsidy of $50.00 a month for living expenses, plus tuition fees and books for those who wished to continue or complete their university studies. My father and mother availed themselves of these opportunities and circumstances, and this eventually led him to applying to Law School at Stanford. My father's childhood and teen years in the 1930s and '40s, living through and rebounding from the Great Depression, and surviving the Second World War, galvanised his resolve to re-craft his identity and his circumstances, west of the Mississippi, in the "land of opportunities" - California.
The conformity of the 1950s may have been an illusion on the verge of disintegration, but it was an illusion my parents bought with enthusiasm. The photographs they took of their "trip out west" depict an idyllic adventure couched in the comfort of a huge, shiny convertible towing a self-sufficient, pop-out mini-trailer, with a little boat on top that Dad had made himself. While in the military, my parents had discovered a convenient form of housing for their new lifestyle, the "mobile home" or "trailer", and it was into a trailer park that my brother and I were born (Figure 13).
The material objects of this family narrative are significant. The "huge shiny convertible (Chevy)" (Fig. 14) and the millions of other models on the roads of America at this time were highly visible symbols of the prosperity of the 50s, and the accessibility of that prosperity to the masses. (An abundant and cheap supply of petroleum was also a foundation of this phenomena in the transport industry.) The pop-up trailer and mobile home were emblems of self-sufficiency and independence for my parents, and a badge of freedom and of the love of the "wide open spaces" of the American landscape. His little boat represented his self-reliance and craftsmanship, where the only limitation was his imagination. That these notions were held by the majority of Americans, that they were mainstream thinking, is reflected in the popularity of such objects during this era. I have included many of these objects in my paintings as metaphors and clues for the viewer to the cultural ideology on which I built my thought and value systems as a person.
It is at this point that I would like to introduce the concept of "sub-culture":
The location of a social group in relation to power, authority, status, its own sense of identity - ethnic, occupational or otherwise - leads to the development of a sub-culture whose function it is to maintain the security and identity of the group in question, and to regenerate a set of meanings that enable it to tolerate the exigencies of its situation. All recognizable sub-groupings in society have their own patois, hierarchy of values and characteristic modes of appearance and behaviour (Trombley & Bullock, 2000, p. 836).
My family's identity became inexorably tied into two sub-cultures: the "trailer park subculture" and "the military family" sub-culture. These subcultures were both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic, both normal and abnormal, and possessed dialects of living peculiar to them alone. They were normal because as a child growing up in these environments, I imagined nothing else, as all the families around us had similar lifestyles. It was not until I reached adolescence that I realised that there was another dominant way of living - the suburbs - and just how strange the transient lifestyle of my early years was. It is in the reflection, as an adult, upon these territorial differences between the mainstream suburbs and trailer park lifestyles that my artistic fascination resides. There is a blur of edges, a texture of attitude and judgement and an ambivalence of feeling about these subcultures that translates easily to the painted artwork in my studio practice. The compositions and layouts in the paintings I have created from my source material are complex, blurred and layered (Fig. 15). They reflect and illustrate a point of view that is multi-faceted, and fuelled by the intricate composite of societal ideas that found their way into my sphere of thought before the creation process began. This process was of course driven by the ideology that was prevalent during my childhood, adolescence, young and mature adult life, and primarily sculpted by my early years on the road. This ideology was a combination of the projection of my parents belief systems of self-determination and independence, and the popular culture via the media.
With the addition of a dominant and pervasive new medium, the television, the building of a concept of self became more complex. In the late 1950s and '60s, television served to package culture like never before in America. It was served up in convenient half-hour portions that enabled us to digest humour and moralistic storytelling, that not only entertained, but directed us to be better people (usually while eating a novel new food, the T.V. dinner). We were able to laugh at Lucille Ball and her Cuban husband, while relating their comedies to our own domestic miscommunications that led to familial dramas. These programs were necessarily built around the relationship of groups of people, and the media programs of the '50s centred on the traditional family units (Douglas, 1994). By exploring the realm of the popular media during my childhood I have discovered layers of meaning that can be mined for inspiration in my studio practice, as well as illuminate the sources of my understandings about family relationships and identity.
In her text, Hamley notes that popular music can concern itself "with the idea of identity and the self: self-preservation, self-understanding and self-celebration" (2001), and that sometimes a young person can "find a certain line of a song which completely sums up how they feel, and this can go towards making them feel more secure in themselves and therefore enable them to pursue a specific area of their personality further" (ibid.). A television drama or situation comedy can function in a parallel manner if viewers can identify with characters and storyline in the plot. Douglas Kellner, who writes about cultural studies, reinforces this view and states that "radio, television, film, and the other products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities; our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality; and of 'us' and 'them'" (2000, p. 1). Television is only one media source or "cultural product", or source of projection upon the public, and cannot be made responsible for the accumulation of ideas and beliefs we gathered as a nation. But because of the visual presentation as a cinematic experience in our homes, and the repetitive nature of the shows, television programmes had tremendous impact on our psyches.
It is useful to review the issue of family identity at this point. I believe that family identity can only be defined by the cultural products that were prevalent at the time the family was in existence. The more a family was exposed to the media, the more open they were to the influences of values, propaganda, and so on, projected at them. Mediated cultural products are interpreted by parents and passed to children through socialisation. The results, if widespread and popular enough, become accepted parts of our mentalities and are referred to as tropes, as children mature and adopt these products. These tropes begin as projections at children through media (for example, sitcoms) and are taken as instantaneous responses to stimuli, that later become tropes as they mature, or are dropped and replaced by more influential ones. However, the reception of cultural products is quite random and subject to cyclical repetition, often far outside what the creator intended (Crozier, 2002). This randomness allows for the replication of ideas and responses in the audience beyond the control of the originators of the product. A cultural product is only successful if it becomes dominant by finding enough resonance in the general population.
Archeologically, there will be many layers of tropes through our memories. Excavation through recollection of those tropes reveal many identity issues for both the adult rememberer and the family of the adult. My studio processes parallel the excavation through my historical American tropes. As well, my dislocation to a new culture allows scrutiny to be dispassionate and unsentimental, although the material objects presented in the artworks read as nostalgic reflecting the ambivalence of the artist.
Mediated cultural products depend heavily on language for meaning to be derived. This language is variously based in many echelons of society, and the products are subjected to research that enables the promoter of the product to pitch the product in the correct or recognisable language system for the intended audience. The result is a culture industry that is finely tuned to the language systems and codes of the targeted echelon. This is a view that would be endorsed by structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) and the structuralist school of thought. In my studio practice, I am seeking a visual language system that can represent another type of language system, that of the mediated and experiential culture of my upbringing. The paintings become simulcra, Baudrillard's term (borrowed from Plato) for "copies without originals", or a representation "which bears no resemblance to reality" (Chandler, 2002, p. 57). This parallels the representations of families on sitcom shows, that are "not reflections of the world; they are careful, deliberate constructions", like "funhouse mirrors that warp reality, exaggerating some things and collapsing others" (Douglas, 1994, p. 16). As much as I watched television, I could not find any family that bore any resemblance to my family, and most in fact were extremely contradictory. Susan Douglas asserts however that "we must re-watch and re-listen ...because it is in these images of these women that we find the roots of who we are now", and a "collective female past" (ibid., p. 10). Although I could not find a "family like mine", it did not stop me from looking for instructions on how to be "normal". Douglas continues, saying that "little kids have all these cracks and crevices in their puttylike psychological edifices, and one relentless dispenser of psychic spackle is the mass media. They help fill in those holes marked 'What does it mean to be a girl?' or 'What is an American?' or 'What is happiness?'" (ibid., p.13). My paintings continue to ask these types of questions, and more, of myself, in an attempt to locate myself within a larger historical narrative, that is now global and not just American.
Many of these issues were being addressed in the television sitcoms of my childhood. There was an abundance of contradictions in these shows, that
"grew wider and more obvious, and messages of this period were obsessed with shifting gender codes, riven with generational antagonisms, schizophrenic about female sexuality, relentless in their assaults on the imperfections of the female face and body, and determined to straddle the widening gap between traditional womanhood and the young, hip, modern 'chick' (Douglas, 1994, p. 15).
I was fascinated by the dialogue in these shows in which the domestic challenges were presented. I watched for entertainment, the producers made the shows to make money from advertising, and somehow we got repackaged stories that "helped us make sense of the roles we assume in our families, our workplaces, and our society" (ibid., p. 15).
These stories communicated messages using complex language and signifiers such as costume, sets and body positioning, for example, Donna Reid vacuuming in her high heels with a perfectly coiffed hair-do. This language is "the site where subjectivity is constructed, and the place where social organization and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested" (Weedon, 1987, p. 21). There certainly were social and political consequences, both on and off screen, and fuelled in part by a reaction to the portrayals of women in the media, that did not match up with women's experiences in real life, or the promises of change in women's status. One such promise was J.F. Kennedy's "Presidential Commission on the Status of Women" with Eleanor Roosevelt at its head, to ascertain how to eradicate the "prejudices and outmoded customs [that] act as barriers to the full realization of women's basic rights" (Douglas, 1994, p. 124). These changes in women's status saw the creation of new sitcom characters with supernatural powers, like The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie (Fig. 16), and Bewitched (Fig. 17) (ibid., p. 126). These shows ran from 1964 to 1972, during the peak of my childhood viewing. These political messages were built into the comedies and connect to the language of sitcom, and became part of common family behavioural conversations.
Archetypal plots convert stories, via language, into meanings for the viewer. For example, the Beverly Hillbillies regenerated the age-old archetypal plot of "fish out of water" (de Moraes, 2002). Like Crocodile Dundee in New York, the Beverly Hillbillies communicated the fundamental human emotion of being "on the outside" among a peer group and the discomfort, humour and drama that resulted from those situations. The Clampett family multiplied the dramas and laughs because of the complex relationships that developed. Viewers related to those dramas because they all had their unique sub-cultures, and they identified with the discomforts of being misunderstood by another sub-culture group.
When my family made the transition from trailer to suburbs living, a big part of me wanted to deny my previous existence, and was ashamed of being a trailer park kid. Even now, the trailer park sub-culture carries trashy and negative allusions, although there was nothing sub-standard about my living conditions. On the contrary, they were considered quite fashionable and convenient, and had been in existence since the 1930s (personal communication, Sandra Carlan, July 12, 2002).
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