Contemporary Culture from the Bottom Up


Carrie Keplinger has a post up that argues, “the antidote to consumerism isn’t minimalism, it’s art“. She makes the point that consumerism is a desire for beautiful things and minimalism develops out of a disgust with our excess purchasing that results from acting on this desire impulsively. But she notes that getting rid of everything we own is just as unhealthy and that we need to instead appreciate objects as pieces of art that give us meaning.

The sheer volume of stuff has made us lose our appreciation for it. We’ve lost our sense of wonder and attachment to stuff. We’ve lost the ability to connect with stuff on a deeper level. To form a relationship with an object. To understand the small miracle that has to happen for a truly extraordinary object to come into being.

Contemporary culture encourages us to consume and dispose of our belongings cyclically and rapidly. We’re supposed to open our wallets and own something long enough to know it on a superficial level but not to keep it around long enough for it to open our minds and hearts to new thoughts or old memories.

Mass produced name brands have replaced unique creations that express individuality. Everyone is taught to desire the same things at the same time. The economy depends to some degree on our loop of constant purchasing but we have not become more content as people due to our shopping sprees.

If hipster culture is synonymous with millennial culture (and I think at this point it is), then the current trend to idolize the obscure, old and abandoned may be a rebellion against the conformity of mass consumption and waste. Hipster culture is often criticized and mocked for being too obsessed with irony, snark, detachment and a fetish for authenticity.

But the obsession with retro culture, while pointing to one of the main problems, may also indicate how we can arrive at something deeper.

In a cosmopolitan, fast-paced city like New York, which people have migrated to for years to create the new, a current wave of transplants arrived with an almost perverse desire for what has already been done and no longer exists. Signs of grit and decay have become glamorized but the layers of wear and use have become completely fabricated or bought.

The popularity of the Iphone App Hipstamatic Prints followed by Instagram speaks to this. They gave users a pre-designed, one-click way to add a feel of longevity to pictures that are taken, edited, posted, shared and forgotten immediately. In the New Yorker, Ian Couch writes that, “we are creating a kind of instant nostalgia for moments that never quite were”.

In ‘The Way of Art’ by Joseph Campbell, he discusses the difference between art that is kinetic and art that is static in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:


Improper art is kinetic, it moves the observer to either desire or fear the object represented.Art that moves you to desire is pornography. You are not held in aesthetic arrest.

Most objects we own or want to own today would fall into this category. More than 460 billion dollars a year is spent by advertisers to fill us with desire for things we want (clothes, cars, toys) or fear for things we want to avoid (aging, death, loneliness). Psychologists are employed to help businesses understand the psyches of customers so that they can tap into these emotions strongly enough to make us react by buying so we can calm those anxious emotions they helped elicit.


“By love you mean big lightning bolts to the heart, where you can’t eat and you can’t work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.” ~Don Draper, Mad Men Pilot Episode


But buyer’s remorse is common and becoming more serious due to an economic climate that raises the stakes for people who are struggling to get by financially. Shopping under the manipulation of advertising and mass culture begins to more closely resemble an addiction. The initial high wears off and a person finds themselves surrounded by junk they never really needed or cared for.


If we move away from the kinetic category of objects, we may be able to move closer to the static category. Static generally has a negative connotation in modern times. We’re used to faster meaning better. We are accustomed to a hyper-caffeinated, type-A, 24-hour news cycle environment where what is up-and-coming, new and immediate is privileged and at times required just to keep floating enough not to sink. Static has become interchangeable with stagnant in our cultural lexicon. This is especially true among the young and most noticeable in places like New York City where that pornographic hipster nostalgia reigns supreme.


But Campbell reminds us of a different definition of static:

 Joyce says, all right to find out about the static go to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas defines beauty as that which pleases; that’s a very nice definition. There is another aspect, however, to art which is the sublime. And the sublime is that which simply shatters your whole ego system. In either case, we are over on the static side: one static held by fascination, the other static held by annihilation. The beautiful and the sublime. The sublime: enormous power, enormous space, to simply diminish and wipe out the ego. The sublime.

In his blog post, he compares art to meditation and a process of transcendence–something that is processed more slowly but that reaps longer lasting benefits. It’s a process of getting lost and finding yourself at the same time. Anxiety gets wiped out because the object is moving a different part of us, one that is not anxious about holding on to the disappearing past or yearning for some illusory idea of what would make us complete if we only had x, y or z.

New York University recently published a study that indicated a universal reaction to artwork in our brains and bodies:

 the most moving paintings produce a selective activation of a network of brain regions which is known to activate when we think about personally relevant matters such as our own personality traits and daydreams, or when we contemplate our future.

While the reaction to “highly moving” artwork was shared among diverse groups of people, the researchers note that:

 Aesthetic judgments for paintings are highly individual, in that the paintings experienced as moving differ widely across people.

Advertising is a successful industry because it has learned how to make us desire kinetic objects but it fails to account for what moves us all individually at our core–it doesn’t provide us with a feeling of the beautiful or sublime. It’s fleeting and it’s what causes an anxiety for things that are going and gone.

Two weeks ago, an event called Slow Art Day took place in various galleries around the world with the intent to bring groups of people together to look at pieces for a longer period of time than usual and then to discuss them collectively after.

 We don’t accept that there’s a hard division between the people who make art and the people who look at it. We believe that there is an art to seeing – and that it’s a creative act. We also believe that the artist, the viewer, and all the other players (curators, educators, security guards, reporters, buyers) are part of the collective act of creating art.

If we took the time to react more slowly to what’s around us, we would have an opportunity to begin having more fruitful relationships with the art in our own lives. And that anxious nostalgia that urges us to fabricate a faux-antique image of our lives could instead be replaced with real authenticity, the only thing that can ever lead us to experiencing the sublime. The key to meditation is clearing away enough mental clutter so that you can reach a state of total awareness. We may need to also clear away the physical clutter to experience art on that level.

When I say art, I’m not just talking about painting or sculpture. Any object that’s made, regardless of its purpose or function, has the potential to be art. Art isn’t a category. It’s a state of mind.

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Written by Nicole Casamento

Nicole Casamento is the founder of Culture Grinder.



  1. Alison says:

    Thanks so much Nicole for caring about Slow Art.

    I’ve cross referenced you on my blog. :-)

  2. Greg Amici says:

    Great essay. The sublime should overcome all trends historical and otherwise. I’m working on my thesis on Harold Bloom as progenitor of the Victorian Aesthetic. Curious to see what you’ll think of it.

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