This past Sunday, I spoke at Marbles Museum here in Raleigh. It was in conjunction with a showing of the new movie Ready Player One and it was in tandem with the esteemed Dr Cashman. We were both speaking about the themes in Ready Player One, a tale about a young hero raised on 1980s culture who has to fight to save his world.
Dr Cashman spoke about 1980s art and culture and what helped to make it so unique (and did a wonderful job, especially the Name-That-Tune sequence). From there, I dove into discussing just why corporate art exploded in the 1980s and how it helped to transform the world, but in very unexpected ways.
The 1980s were a singularity, meaning that life after the era could not meaningfully compare to life before it. Some might claim that is an exaggeration but I think many people underestimate just how different things were at the end of the 1970s.
One element I spoke about was the rise of cable television. The transformation from having three networks to dozens of television channels quite simply cannot be understated. Having 24 hours of television alone was transformative. Having channels marketed towards specific groups (MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, etc) was mind-blowing. In today’s world, where most every household with a television has at least a dozen channels if not hundreds (if not a thousand or more), it’s hard to appreciate just ho significant of a transformation this proved to be.
Another element – key to my presentation and I think also key to understanding 1980s art and the art it inspired like Ready Player One – was the deregulation of barriers between media companies and production companies. Principally was the removal of laws that allowed toy manufacturers to directly finance children’s entertainment. Prior to the 1980s, Hasbro (and their peers) couldn’t create a television show that would directly promote their toyline. But in the 1980s, that became possible. And not just possible, but thanks to all the new television channels with broadcast hours to fill, necessary.
The primary result was the cartoon boom of the 1980s. Transformers, GI Joe, Jem and the Holograms, MASK, He-Man, Thundercats, and that’s barely scratching the surface. The list goes on and on. These shows were created by toy manufacturers just throwing money at production studios to create 30 minute commercials for their toylines. Every episode introduced a new character, a new setting (for a playset), or in some way helped to grow the brand so that it was stuck in the minds of kids everywhere when birthdays and Christmas came ‘round.
But then a funny thing happened…
These shows were intended to move units and sell toys but they also needed to be at least halfway decent. Fans of the era remember names like GI Joe and Transformers; maybe a little less things like Centurians or Bravestar. Cartoon makers and their toy company overlords discovered really quickly that kids won’t just buy whatever you tell them to buy. The wheat gets cut from the chaff really quickly. Even a short spike in interest is no true indicator of long-term popularity. Kids quickly discarded shows that lacked cohesive stories, inconsistent narratives, poor characters, or lackluster art. Likewise would they eschew toys that were poorly built or failed to deliver on the promise of the show. Now, this led to some lines failing for reasons out of their control (I will go to my grave insisting Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors is one of the most underrated shows ever, undone by a craptastic toyline). But this meant that the shows and toylines that endured were often the ones with the strongest features and the best narratives.
At the end of the day, the toy companies were so busy trying to move units, they failed to realize that the best way to make something cool and desirable was to make it quality. And the ones that learned this quickly realized that while they were so busy counting sales, they had failed to realize that they had created art. Real, meaningful, lasting art. Art about lasers and aliens, fashion and ponies, but art no less.
Corporate art is an often-reviled field that rarely gets the respect it deserves (though it often at least gets a decent paycheck). And yet corporate art has in the last half-century produced much of modern concept of the world. And that isn’t automatically bad. Just because an artist works for a corporate group, just because they make art on behalf of a committee doesn’t mean it isn’t art and it doesn’t make it automatically any less valid. Nor does it automatically make it any less good. Need I remind you, art-by-committee gave us Force Awakens, Last Jedi, and Empire Strikes Back. The solitary vision of a single creator gave us the Prequel Trilogy and the Star Wars Christmas Special.
Corporate art has earned some of its black eyes, make no mistake. But it also gets flak it doesn’t deserve. Corporate art, like all art, must be weighed on its own merits and under its own circumstances. Art is a product coming out of a time and a place. No art is devoid of influences and the art born of corporate input is not automatically inferior to art born of personal inspiration.
Ready Player One, I would assert, finds this discussion at the very heart of its narrative. It’s hero is someone who grew up on corporate art (namely, entertainment of the 1980s) and it gave birth to the hero who rises to help protect it. It was a lot of fun speaking at Marbles this past Sunday. I hope to get the chance to do it again. If you get the chance, check out Marbles when you get the chance. They’ve got a lot of great exhibits and their film series is delightful.
I now turn my attention to RavenCon, next weekend (April 20th-22nd) in Williamsburg Virginia. I will have copies of all my books for sale (including my snazzy new RocKaiju hardcover!). I hope to see you there!