As a member of the Transformers fandom, there’s an ongoing debate in the community. And it is by no means isolated to this community, but it is the debate of inherent quality versus nostalgic quality. That is, is a given work of art (show, comic, toy, etc) good on its own merits or good merely as an artifact of nostalgia.
If we compare the original 1984 cartoon (‘Generation One’) to most of the modern shows, G1 pales in comparison. If we compare animation quality, the modern shows are vastly superior excepting a few episodes (and usually then, just specific sequences). Narrative, plot, and character elements are invariably subpar in the older works. Acting can go either way, depending on the show, the episode, the character, etc. This leads people to say things like ‘Gen-1 isn’t that good except for the nostalgia’.
Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing. It isn’t just some rosy-colored glasses through which we view an idealized time. Nostalgia is the ability for us to travel back in time, to return to a time and a place in our past. It allows us to not just enjoy a given product of art, but it allows us to re-immerse ourselves in the sensations and world of who we were in that moment when that art was first enjoyed.
The context for art is always critical. To watch a movie intended for release in theaters on a small screen changes the experience considerably (try watching Twister or ID4 on your cell phone). Looking at an advertisement meant for a wall poster that’s been repurposed for a magazine ad shows something lacking. Even art that is kept its size and proportions but viewed wrongly can kill the experience (ever seen the art for a book cover without the title and author name? It just looks weird!). This is where classic art often awes. People are so used to seeing classical art in text books and computer screens, when they see Rembrandt’s Night Watch and realize it’s twelve goddamn feet tall, they lose their mind.
Nostalgia can become toxic, though. Like most emotions, something powerful and wonderful can become dangerous. People can often mistake the nostalgia for the art itself. My beloved Transformers is a fine example of this. Many fans mistake their treasured memory of Saturday morning cartoons, bowls of cereal, and a childhood that seemed free of burdens and strife, for their favorite cartoon of that time. Transformers then becomes a sacred vestige of a life they desperately want back because they want that sense of safety and security and they have projected that sensation not on the moment, but on what they were watching at that time. They begin guarding Transformers jealously, gatekeeping new fans and insisting the fandom never ever change. And even when they are accommodated, they at least partially reject everything that isn’t their hazy recollection of an entire experience, not merely a cartoon.
When we think of nostalgia and inherent quality, we tend to focus on pop culture and fandoms, but all life suffers from nostalgia. However toxic comic book fans and cartoon nuts can get, it pales to cultural nostalgia. The longing to return to ‘the good old days’. The yearning for ‘a simpler time’ is often a worrisome warning to anyone who hears. The good old days for one person were a nightmare for others. Usually the days of yore when someone wished they could return to are days when they felt they (or someone like them) could behave how they sought fit without consequences. Looking to a personal past can be beautiful, but looking to a cultural past can often be blinding.
What makes art so powerful is not in its inherent quality but also in its anchoring to a time and a place. Art exists with a person, in a moment of time that is powerful. Many children have Christmas gifts that defined an entire year for them. Music lovers recall shows where a band played a particular cover. Fashion fans still smile as they think of a bold outfit that came down the runway.
Art is a time machine that allows to reconnect with the past. It allows us to see for a brief instant where we were, who we were. And the exploration of art, the evaluation and assessment of art, is about better understanding that. I said earlier that cultural nostalgia can be blinding. But with an assessment of it, we can also use it for staggering clarity.
Part of my affection for toys is that they are magical tools that begin a child’s exploration of their own imagination. They teach children to play. As children grow, play with toys turns into more advanced forms of play. You get all the toys in a line and recreate adventures from the show. Then you imagine new adventures. Then you imagine new adventures without the toys. You imagine new characters, new settings, new rules of the universe. In time, your imagination is honed into something powerful, capable of creating its own stories, capable of creating its own art.
Social media is performance art. As are podcasts. Cosplay. Camming. We live in an age of new art, art that didn’t exist like this thirty years ago, twenty years ago. And the old forms are still there. Theater endures as it always has, an always will. Knitting and quilting and sewing and singing and poetry. The world of art grows wider and broader, as far as the imagination can go.
Art roots us where we are. It shows us where we want to be. It helps us see who we were. All at the same time.
Few of us will ever turn a profit. Fewer still were become professional. A very rare few will become ‘famous’ (whatever the hell that means). But we can all contribute to the world by creating art, by creating beauty, by producing something for the here and now, to lead us forward and to guide us back.
I meant to talk about nostalgia, and how it was just a component of art, a form of context in which art needed to be viewed. But art is also where we go, and where we come from.
Writing, for me, can be a performance art, which is an odd thing to realize. It’s not just a literary form, as set in stone. It’s a thing that exists that I am capturing with the keyboard. I’m freezing these moments and sending them out into the world.
I want you to read them.
And I want you to benefit from them.
The art you make matters.
Even if no one sees it. Even if no one sees it, that art matters.
Because you made it, here and now. It is a part of you.
And you matter.
Make art. Share it if you can, don’t if you choose not to.
But make the art that matters to you.
Make art that doesn’t matter, that you just choose to make.
Art isn’t a product, it is an expression.
The art isn’t the picture you draw; it is the image you are trying to reproduce on the page.
The picture you draw, the words you write, the podcast you record, is just a reflection, a shadow cast by the true work of art: you.