Activist Imagination, Research

The Stone Age

“We’re in the Stone Age of environmental consciousness.”

That’s what I thought the other day when I saw a recent print advertisement for Chevrolet’s new hybrid vehicles. In the full-spread photo, a mean-looking concept car with oversized rims sits on a grassy meadow surrounded by rolling, tree-covered hills.

car ad

The ad rings false for me because American car manufacturers have been slow to release hybrid vehicles and adopt alternative technologies. The big 3 automakers are, as many others have pointed out, dinosaurs of the Industrial age, who ruled by the might of mass production. The sweet irony is that one can ‘buy American’ — and purchase a Toyota made in Fremont, CA. Dinosaurs, after all, are slow on the uptake of the ‘adapt or perish’ idea.

And so with the art direction here. Every element of this ad is a cliché. The message — “Chevy’s gone ‘green'” — has been clunkily literalized: Take a Chevy. Put it in a leafy locale.

What’s missing is a critical visual and conceptual analysis.

First, to point out the obvious: parking a car on a meadow isn’t environmentally friendly. Most meadows function as natural water filters for underground streams, so oil leaks are bad news blues. And driving on critters’ homes can’t be fair play.

Second, the grass’s cut tips give away that it’s not a meadow, but a lawn that was recently mowed. Since manicured lawns suck up water and pesticides, they don’t make good symbols for ecological health, either.

What makes it necessary to convey environmental soundness so literally? The car’s engine may be green, but that’s not reflected in its design. Outwards, it’s conventionally stylish. The bullish front-end and low-slung cab references the gas-guzzling muscle cars of yesteryear. In fact, for a futuristic prototype, it looks a lot like today’s Dodge Charger. Oversized rims and minimized tires give away Chevy’s conceit to style over function. I thought green meant you take only what you need, and you don’t need huge alloy rims.

The problem is that the fear of crunchy-granola designs has overshadowed the imaginative possibilities for what a green car could look like. And imagining change is the first step in making change, as Angela Davis recently discussed at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Arts (check out a podcast of Angela Davis’ lecture on contributions to feminism from theorists of color). Green can, and should, look different. I’m sure that environmental concerns will force the tide of mass opinion to turn towards an attitude that desires green inside and out. We won’t have a choice: either we choose green, or Mother Nature will choose it for us.

Of course, the ad itself is printed on paper, which is gloss-coated and therefore probably not recyclable. Worse, the ad appeared in a special supplement, of which this reader received two unsolicited copies. By extraction, I’d guess that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of these ad-revenue-driven publications have entered the waste stream, courtesy of a giant publishing house.

This ad reminds me of old advertisements with laughable premises — like the young actor Ronald Reagan endorsing smoking as healthful. I’m looking forward to the day when green visual literacy is so prevalent that corporations can no longer pass off half-hearted attempts at consciousness.

. . . . .

Similarly, I sometimes feel like we’re in the Stone Age when it comes to identity and art. The critique of formulaic Identity Art is that it operates on a one-plus-one equation, like the ad above:
green + car = green car

Its corrolary, so to speak:
identity + art = Identity Art

such as,
asian design motifs + painting
migration story + photo-collage

Thankfully, postcolonial theorists provide a critique of essentialism, the idea that certain groups carry innate characteristics, implying the inability to transcend one’s traits. In art, essentialism is when artists “get put in a box” or marginalized, and it feels like, well, being stuck in the Stone Age. There’s some validity to this feeling, considering that women and people of color have had a relatively short history of participating in “high” art discourses in the US (and we are still struggling for control over the modes of our self-representation). So in the US we are in an early era of art that can emcompass the voices of women, people of color, the working classes, immigrants, etc. I think the first task is to debunk the perception that art by certain groups should look a certain way. I was reminded of this earlier today.

In To Hedonopolis, From Melancolony, curator Rico Reyes explores the emergence of two thematic strains in art works by Filipino and Fil-Am contemporary artists. So the show brings light to two distinct perspectives. The works are in diverse styles and media, but the artists are uniformly confident and adept. Some, but not all, of the content transparently corresponds to aspects of Filipino identity.

I was admiring an abstract painting by Reanne Estrada, when an agitated stranger next to me asked aloud, “How is this Filipino?”

I wish I could say that I helped the young viewer critically engage with Reanne’s work (afterall, he’s an APA, I’m an APA, he’s a student, we were on a university campus), but I’d be lying. Instead, I was flabbergasted that an APA would suggest that art that isn’t overtly Filipino isn’t Filipino enough.

When I was in Manila, the question of “What is Filipino?” followed us Galleon Traders around like white on rice. I didn’t learn an answer so much as gain a comfort with the standing question (not unsimilar to an ‘intersectional’ position advanced by feminist theorists of color, described in Davis’ lecture). To leave the question unanswered acknowledged the Philippines’ complex history of colonization and its people’s ongoing perserverance and shifting identities. To attempt to answer it, and make “capital-F” Filipino art (i.e., as Carlos Celdran joked, nailing a bangus to a wall), would be to ascribe to an essentialist point of view.

Which relates to ideas I’m thinking about now for Activist Imagination. I think it’s time to start reimagining the blanket term “APA” (Asian Pacific American) for the future: APA can, and should, look different. But how?

And how will this change the function of an APA arts organization?


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