Toy art. Trash art. GenX art.

10 Nov

This question was in my email inbox today. I’m going to answer it publicly:

The Q:
Jessie, I came across your post looking for context for an art review I’m working on. I’m writing about an artist my age (mid 30s) who, like a remarkable number of GenX artists, fills his paintings with toys, cartoons, video game motifs, etc. I can’t think of anything comparable in the artwork and pop culture of the boomers. Is it possible that ours is a more nostalgic generation- and why? Your thoughts would be very welcome!


barbie art

The A. Well, My A:
Interesting question. I think what you’re observing has less to do with nostalgia and more to do with the desire to express oneself by making use of what is considered useless, i.e. trashed toys. That said, well, one could argue that using scrap metal or found wood is the same phenomenon of using existing “leftover” resources. So, let’s look a little deeper as to why using toys from childhood  seems to resonate with GenXers and GenX artists.

To start, Genxers have a different understanding of environmental destruction than Boomers do. There are a few basic reasons for this:  1) Genxers grew up in an era where environmental issues and Save Mother Earth was a louder issue than it was during Boomers’ childhoods. 2) More importantly, GenXers tend to orient intuitively toward a world view of systems, complexities and intricacies, while Boomers orient toward values. So GenXers have a different relationship to each toy that got thrown away as playing an intricate role in a bigger scheme, whereas Boomers typically would orient toward a desire to make a BIG change with environmental issues. And 3), the archetypal role that GenXers play in the four-part cycle is to hit each phase of life at “the worst” time. While GenXers were in childhood and hearing about pollution and environmental problems, their experience of adults was that adults didn’t have their hands on the wheels. And that things were falling apart pretty quickly. So their “uh-oh” feeling about the destruction of environmental systems registers in a different part of their psyches than for other generations.

See, even if Boomers had been exposed in childhood to the same level of bad The Earth is Going to Die news, they wouldn’t process it the same and form the same world view. Why? Because Boomer children grew up in a world where adults were very much in charge. And Millennials, well, they expect to be The Heroes who will solve big problems — regardless of the severity, and to do so with a smile and lots of support (and money) from adults/government/systems. So, they’re probably a little excited about yet-another big problem to solve. (They don’t know how they’ll do it, per se, but goldangit, if, in their midlife years, they rally their troops — and they will — they can solve, or at least alter the the course of, a situation.)

Boomers, while most would argue passionately that they care even more about the environment — tend to orient more toward a world of values, vision and spiritual awareness. So the Boomer view of environmental issues sounds more like “Save the Whales.” A big value, a big vision and heck, a whole lot of big spirituality, if you know much about whales and cetaceans. GenXers tend to orient toward small-gap solutions that require little external support (because GenXers generally don’t expect support from adults/government/Society). GenXers orient more toward personal style and expressing their values through functional choice, with less emphasis on Big Vision.

I also think that GenXers using childhood toys in their art is more therapeutic than nostalgic. While this is a guess, it makes sense inside of generational theory.GenXers experience childhood in an era (the Summer Era, or The Unraveling, using generational theory terms) when adults are rather care-free (read: negligent) toward children. So, perhaps using toys as a base material in their now-that-I’m-an-adult art is therapeutic: A way to go back in time and be in relationship to a childhood that was hurried, hurried, hurried toward adulthood.

And while there may be some political statement in terms of expressing an anti-consumerism of sorts, I do believe that using toys in art is fundamentally a desire to re-use materials otherwise considered trash; this is a high value for many GenXers. Not that Boomers and other generations can’t care about and be sincerely engaged and effective in environmental issues/protection/betterment/etc., but it’s more that the thing to look for is the GenXer desire to re-use that which is considered waste. (Think Burning Man and the costumes/art there!)


Barbie Death Camp at Burning Man.

Also, the phenomenon of “nostalgia for one’s childhood” — if I understand it — doesn’t really emerge until one has crossed into midlife. Of course, anyone can have nostalgia for a time and era passed, but, to me, the concept of using childhood toys in art for nostalgia’s sake isn’t the root of the desire. A piece, a branch, but not the root. This using of toys in art was a phenomenon, if I’ve got my cultural pulse right, that ascended in frequency in the last 20 years or so. Which means, it’s likely about to fade, as cultural preferences shift in a very big way about every 20 years.

It’s interesting to me that you would ask this question now. A week or so ago, I was watching a video made from footage taken at Burning Man 2009. It featured a whole lot of Barbies (see the pic here). My mind scanned the image that I saw, and I felt that the massive Barbie art was a classic expression of GenX in young adults. And while the artist about whom you’re asking the question is a GenX who is still in young adulthood (the latter half of it, but still …), the generation of GenXers has crossed over into mid-life (which starts around age 42). It’s the early wavers of a generation who start to redefine how that generation will create its imprint on that phase of life.

You may find it worth a look to notice as Millennials replace GenXers in young adulthood and become the new and emerging artists, how they redefine the art scene and what is considered “fresh.” My guess: for Millennials, it won’t have much to do with toys from their childhood. They’re about public spaces, civil engineering, being out, peer connected, government structures, big business, big shows/performances/glamour. Big, glitzy and featuring THEM! 😉

Hope this helps.


6 Responses to “Toy art. Trash art. GenX art.”

  1. Michelle Dunn November 11, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    Hi Jessie,
    I think your response to that question is very insightful. I am also in my 30’s and do understand this connection to past imagery yet I do not use it in my own work. As a conceptual artist myself, artists have always questioned and challenged what we view as “art”. Typically society doesn’t understand it immediately. Art can usually be more fully appreciated when looking at an artists body of work, where you can get a broader understanding of the artist’s perspective. To view one image without even additional information from the artist, it is left up to the individual to ponder.

    After looking through google images, I found the artist and it appears that this was an art project from high school, she is a jewelry artist now,

  2. Dave Grossman November 12, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Wow, what a terrific piece! I basically straddle the boomer/genx line and after reading this post I can see that my work in style, composition, and medium choice reveals the conflicting nature of the two generations. Fascinating. Really enjoy your writing, Jessie…looking forward to following your posts (your RSS feed goes right to the top of my Google Reader!).


    • JessieX November 13, 2009 at 9:24 am #

      Thanks, Dave, That’s kind of you to comment as you did. And, as I poke around on your own link, I’m reminded to turn my attention to Amplify and start using it more. Thanks for that, too!

  3. cmb November 28, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Here’s another take from a Boomer parent. The childhood of most Gen X’ers was a time when the toy companies figured out how to turn a single toy craze to a collecting frenzy. The first one I remember having to buy into for the sake of my step-daughter’s social standing (in 2nd grade no-less!) was My Little Pony. She was barely able to maintain face amongst her peers having only 8 ponies when most of her friends had 20 or more. And certainly we all remember the pervasive obsession of collecting mass quantities of Pokemon cards and Beanie Babies.

    As a result, many Gen X’ers childhoods were literally littered with massive amounts of toys showered upon them by indulgent Boomer parents (something that some of us resisted mightily). Also, let’s not forget the influence of the rise in excessive consumer spending on non-essentials in the 80’s promoted by politicians and big corporations as a means of recession recovery. This was also the time that children’s clothes became brand-driven fashion (remember Benetton?).

    So, I’m not that surprised that some of the current generation of artists are commenting on our throw-away culture, and the empty promise of happiness from acquiring must-have consumer brands, by including multiple copies of one toy to illustrate their point.

    • JessieX November 28, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

      Thanks for your comment and perspective, cmb. I think you’re quite on target with speaking to the fact that companies were really getting their groove on with marketing and advertising during GenX child years. But you have your generations mixed up a bit. Beanie Babies(introduced in 1993) and Pokemon cards (introduced in 1996) were *what Boomer parents gave Millennial kids*, not GenXers. Also, the predominant parental cultural influence on the GenX gen is the last Artist generation, what is known as today’s Silent Gen, or as they are more popularly known: Depression Era babies. Boomers are the predominant parental cultural influencers of Millennials.

      • cmb November 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm #

        I’m glad I got some of it right. As you know from some of our off-line conversations, I still find some of the Gen stuff difficult to keep track of. Interesting post by the way. What’s up with HoCo BlogTales?

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