There is a highly sensuous quality to the American retail experience, whether easing a toasty warm Potbellian sandwich or a Culver’s fudge pecan frozen custard sundae into your mouth, navigating the wide aisles of a Walmart (designed for people hooked up to oxygen canisters in their mobility carts), or perusing the apparel and guns at an outdoor recreation chain such as Gander Mountain. The latter’s elegant gun displays behind glass cabinets are laid out with the patient precision of a history museum curator. The hushed church-like atmosphere of the store, the combat green industrial carpeting, the wide wiggle room between the clothing carousels (reducing your risk of bumping into a customer with a concealed weapon), the durable feel of the fabrics’ weave in the fingers, the astonishing variety of pockets, the stylish camouflage patterns on everything from rifles to sunglasses, and the great deals ($5 for a genuine Australian Akubra hat) – all conspire to make shopping intensely satisfying, even for types who don’t normally enjoy shopping like myself.
For a culture that prides itself on individualism, American design is surprisingly uniform throughout the country. The straight lines and perpendiculars, the strongly balanced symmetries, the calibrated surfaces from shiny to rough and textured, the broad space surrounding buildings emphatically demarcated by manicured landscaping and freshly mowed lawns, and the extraordinarily large shopping mall parking lots, enable everything to be properly placed by being put in its proper place (and is the correlative of Americans’ need for ample personal space). We also have the regulation cinderblocks coated in thick semigloss paint holding together the prisons, schools, medical centers and government buildings and designed to survive tornadoes; the white semigloss stucco ceilings of motel rooms and inevitable quilted floral bedspreads in golds and browns; the surprisingly sturdy tubular aluminum door handles of commercial shops polished to matte silver and their black aluminum door frames that open and close with ease; the unobstructed residential sidewalks so satisfying to the feet and the eyes with their sloping curbs and tiny rainwater troughs (and the special affection we feel for their crumbling counterparts in depressed neighborhoods); the solidly constructed tables and chairs in diners that never wobble and the equal reliability of the blueberry and lemon meringue pies; the tried-and-true appropriateness of every commercial shop sign’s typeface and design; the lonely beauty of the American stop sign (unaccountably invisible to foreign newcomers who drive right past it).
Everything in its proper place. Yet what often fills this all-American space is the most unseemly and improper of sights. Until on my latest trip back to my homeland when I had a revelation. The sight had grown more startling with each trip back. I finally needed to rationalize it, and I succeeded in doing so by a mental 180-degree reversal of perspective.
You may have heard of the “People of Walmart,” pictures of whom circulate on the web. A demeaning phrase, to be sure, but I’ll use it as my starting point. We refer to the loudly or obscenely dressed, often overweight folk you see in Walmarts, supermarkets and other venues where everyone can be seen passing through, but above all Walmart because its size ensures the largest audience for these lovable harlequins to parade their inimitable fashions: tranvestites or transsexuals of indeterminate age and sex, cosmetics so thickly applied you wonder if it’s not Halloween; grannies in garishly dyed hair and miniskirts; dazed people with meth-ravaged faces; fat middle-aged dudes showing off their thong underwear when they bend over, and the like.
But it’s mostly the sight of the obese that shocks and awes – and impresses. What’s impressive is not how obese they are but how shameless and confident they appear in their obesity. They stand or sit there in their mobility carts – examining the goods on store shelves or waiting in line at the cashier – with expressions of perfect calm and equipoise, as if they were not in fact distressing to the eye, as if they couldn’t give a damn and they don’t, even as their gutsack spills out like some massive scrotum because their shirt isn’t long enough to contain it. And that, to me, is really cool. As soon as I realize this, I see their beauty, their peculiarly American beauty, their rococo beauty.
The clean facades of contemporary US design in fact constitutes an unbroken tradition going back through 19th-century Colonial Revivalist, 18th-century Neoclassical and Georgian, and ultimately the plain facades of 17th-century Colonialist architectures, but stripped down and streamlined into an equally plain Modernist uniformity. What these styles all have in common is a rigorous prioritizing of balance and space over plasticity and ornament. The pendulum of the Western aesthetic has regularly swung back and forth between these two poles since Greek and Roman antiquity, that of purity and symmetry on the one hand, and complexity and extravagance on the other. In reaction to austere Renaissance Classicism, the Baroque countered with asymmetry, curvature and play. Ultimately this tendency descended into ornamentation and filigree – frivolity for its own sake, the kitsch of the 18th century – which defined the Rococo period. Though dismissed at the time by the refined and discerning as vulgar and distasteful, the fashion for Rococo spread until the pendulum swung back to the Neoclassicism of the mid-1700s and the Apollonian principle of simplicity of form and function. Romanticism represented the next swing to Dionysian excess, before Modernism returned once again to severity and functionality.
Every nation has its defining features. The United States has always had a soft spot, indeed a powerful bias, for Classicism, apparent as much today as in the past in the spare lines and symmetries of American design. There is little space for play and riot, except within the tame confines of certain restaurant and hotel signboards employing antique-style typefaces with rococoesque curlicues (e.g. Edwardian Script and Bickham Script Pro), conjuring up the calligraphy of the Declaration of Independence – and conservative American values. There is also the cartoony type of commercial logo such as the Potbelly sign pictured above, whose irregular script also has a rococo feel. Beyond the shop sign, however, the true rococo spirit – spontaneity, elaboration, ornamentation – must find alternative outlets for expression. In the contemporary American city, the only really genuine example is the gorgeous and brilliant “balloon”-style graffiti art that originated in New York City in the 1970s.
I lived there in the final years of that decade and remember the graffiti onslaught well. The walls lining the subway and railroad tracks formed an ideal, infinitely unfurling canvass. It was the sardonic answer to the niggardly spots on museum walls doled out to the artistic elite. The walls of buildings in depressed urban neighborhoods offered more extensive and unlimited canvass. The only fee for the use of these huge gallery spaces was the cost of spray paint, usually stolen. Then they grew brazen and took over the subway cars themselves, both the inside and the outside, every square inch, until you couldn’t make out what station you were in because the windows were completely spray-painted over. The city clamped down and eventually got the graffiti out of the subway cars, but by then the virus had spread to virtually every city in the world.
Most maddening of all to the Establishment and everyone else hostile to graffiti (both the elaborate artistic variety and the “tags” squiggled on building walls by gangs to mark territory), is its illegibility. Though formed of letters and words, there is no message. Language dissolves into lace writ large. The refusal to be coherent, to clearly state one’s point and reveal one’s purpose, one’s logos, one’s Word, is a refusal, above all, to be Christian. It represents a mockery of all that’s civilized, legitimate, proper and productive. Arabesques are not only anti-American, they are suspiciously Arabic (and in fact are Arabic in origin). Yet the big irony is that graffiti art, finally, is nothing other than an example of contemporary American rococo at its finest.
Meanwhile, where graffiti art languishes, nature is happy to take over, to take up the virus and carry on the invasion of arabesques, wherever and whenever it can. This is no better exemplified than by ruins, the ruined city.
Consider a city with the reputation for being the most unloved in the land, Gary, Indiana. It had something of a heyday in the decades after it was founded in 1906 to house US Steel employees. But with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1960s, the city has hemorrhaged over a 100,000 residents, or around 60% of its peak population. Long seen as the source of the odors of rotten eggs and burning plastic that creep over Chicago (actually they originate from the industrial belt around Gary and not the city itself), it has earned the moniker the “armpit of America.” The city is now so forlorn and forgotten you can’t even find graffiti on its buildings since the gangs too are spooked by the place, though it has turned into a hot destination for producers of horror movies (seriously). Venture down the ghost city’s tattered streets, west of Broadway in particular, and note the ample spaces between houses. The wealthy residents of yore owned large plots, now overgrown with weeds, the former buildings crumbling or long gone. A 1997 fire gutted many more houses in the rotting neighborhood; their charred remains are still standing.
A closer look and you then discover something most extraordinary: trees emerging from inside long-abandoned homes. Some of them have grown so big they are starting to protrude from living room windows. Ruined cities restore the rococo in their curly outgrowths and curved sprays of vegetation, but it’s crucial that nature’s revenge originates from within the ruined structures themselves, where they are most improper and their significance most telling, their insult most profound – barging in like that. Ruined buildings are hairy. They grow beards as it were, not trimmed and domesticated like vines but unkempt and scruffy, nature’s incontinence obscuring their aspect until they are lost to view altogether. J. G. Ballard celebrated this in his novel The Crystal World, as did Alan Weisman in his The World Without Us, another great paean to the city reclaimed by a vengeful nature. It’s why the most beautiful cities in the world are ruined cities. Or if not the most beautiful then the most sublime, and this makes Gary the most sublime city in America north of the Yucatan. Give its saplings a few more centuries to catch up to the towering silk-cotton and strangler-fig trees that have burrowed their way out of the ruins of Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Let’s return to the Rococo era and the irreducibles of the design. The original Rococo is in fact based on patterns and shapes found in nature, the supreme fount of abundance and richest source of elements to elaborate upon through infinite replication: plants with curling and intertwining tendrils and foliage, but also the seashell with its strange giggle. The word rococo is thought to be a combination of the French words for stone or pebble, rocaille, and shell, coquilles (or, alternatively, the Italian word for pearl, barocco). Many early Rococo artworks featured shells and stones as their decorative material, particularly seashells of all shapes and sizes.
The seashell’s tight swirls and replicant folds that culminate in a tiny vortex is one of the most perfectly realized shapes in all of nature. Open voluptuousness twirling in upon itself into a sweet little rotundity, obsessive-compulsiveness stopping itself up by its own self-reflexive logic, finds its analogue in the twists and folds of heavy people, except that human fat rotates outward rather than inward, with the potential to unspool to infinity.
It is as if seashells could grow into the size of elephants or dinosaurs, or merely the size of people. In this respect we have to admit the possibility that the human obese are impressive in direct proportion to their size. Not only are fat people attractive, but it’s only when they really start to take on weight, when the flesh begins to roll and cascade and thereby gain proportionate beauty that the body realizes its full potential as a vessel of rococo splendor.
I have now begun to understand why the obese tend not to seem to mind being obese, and why it is they can spill out their flesh in public without much apparent concern. With their body free and unencumbered and allowed to assume its proper shape, when it is given full play to extravagate, they can relax. For when they assume the aspect of a sculpture or a giant seashell, or some other unique structure, they have something you don’t, something striking and magnificent. You are stuck in your measly little stick-figure condition, each one of you the same as the next in your cookie-cutter predictability. You fail to stand out. The obese do stand out, quite memorably so and distinguish themselves through this. Why should they be shy or embarrassed about it? I think deep down most of them realize their worth and this shows in their supreme contentedness.
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Like this post? Buy the book, coming January 2017:
American Rococo: Essays on the Edge