Solving mysteries is something many of us (to quote Jean-Luc Picard) find irresistible. It’s very satisfying to figure out riddles and puzzles. And they exist in art, of course, whether intentionally put there or not.
I just finished Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was good, especially for a first novel, I thought, and Hercule Poirot a compelling and endearing character. But most of the rest of the main characters were somewhat tiresome English aristocratic types, and even though I grew up watching these same types on BBC dramas my mom loved, pushing my nostalgia buttons, it was tough to care about them and their problems now. The tenor of our times is corruption, political and economic stratification, and toxicity in media, social and otherwise, and relying on parental favor for living the country club life is, well, quaint.
Additionally, the clues and facts of the case weren’t all in front of me. Poirot solves the case using facts Christie never allows him to reveal to the narrator, Hastings, and therefore to us. This is obviously my problematic penchant for the type of mysteries I like.
Art—the static, non-story-driven kind—is not so coy. Paintings and drawings are all there in front of the viewer. Nothing is hidden from view, it’s up to viewers to solve any puzzle that exists within. Sometimes, it is what it appears to be. But sometimes secrets are there to be found. And the possibility is irresistible.
I watched the Classic Albums mini-doc on the making of Peter Gabriel’s So, and yesterday spent some time on my day off watching interviews and clips of the remaining Pythons (Monty) preparing for their reunion tour and other various similar things. Terry Jones watching and commenting a bit on some Holy Grail outtakes was particularly poignant, having since lost his ability to speak.
It’s a bit of nostalgia, a bit of indulging in my past. But it’s also questioning what I think I know. It’s part of the overall attempt to figure out how things work in art, looking behind the curtain, opening the engine compartment to see the oily machinery.
We’re all getting older. There’s so much new work being made, it can feel like any time spent examining the past is a waste, or self-indulgent. But museums are shrines of the past. We remember it because we build on it, and it’s important to know where we came from.
And if there’s ever a How It’s Made for art, I’ll be watching every single episode.
Nostalgia can be good. I’ve written a bit about it before. It can drag you into rabbit holes, too. This is usually one of its aspects we’re warned about.
But it can help your present life. It just matters how much time and effort you put into it. You shouldn’t live in the past. It’s gone.
But neither should you disdain the wonderful things that got you where you are, any more than forgetting the painful things that shaped you. The important thing is that you keep moving forward. We live in the present, always, but it helps to look where we’re about to step, too.
It’s kind of a video version of comfort food. ST:TNG and Back to the Future have been mainstays. It’s strangely soothing to hear people talk about their respective franchises from both inside and outside.
I am exhausted, and this stuff is helping me cope while I settle into a new city attempting to tie up loose ends in the old.
Moving brings out all the emotions. For me, it’s not all stress, all the time. I’ve always brought a sense of melancholy as well, sorting old letters, books, photos, notes, objects long hidden in a box that never got unpacked from the last move.
I want it to be Vanpire Weekend’s “Cousins,” but of course it feels like (brilliant) Ethan Gruska’s remote-gas-station-lit “Teenage Drug.”
This is a useful, and I think harmless, if not even helpful, kind of nostalgia. Feeling the past while you actively head toward the future.
It comes out of nowhere, looming like a tidal wave. Or, less dramatically, the wistful reminiscences of your past. Either way, it’s only so good for so long. Too much nostalgia isn’t doing any of us any good.
It’s calming and sometimes inspirational to indulge our love of nostalgia. Memory is completely necessary to move forward in any way, not least of which is knowing your influences and which bits to steal from them. But keep turning to the past and it stalls us, makes us hesitate trying the new thing, because it’s not the way it was done. Indulgence in nostalgia is a bit of a sand pit.
Balance is the obvious key. Older and wiser, we can draw on a larger set of warm and influential memories to work with. It doesn’t matter that we feel nostalgic, but it does matter that we incorporate it into today.
There are limits that we should place on our own nostalgia. Referencing our past can be a powerful element of our current world view, and therefore, work. But indulge that natural desire too much and we lose the connection to the present that makes looking ahead effective.
And there’s nothing explicitly wrong about making one’s work an examination of nostalgia, but I think it’s limited, a narrower box. You need some spark of the future to kick the work above the memory exercise alone.
Returning to our own past tickles some powerful neurons. But I’ve noticed that I crave reliving the original experience, and that isn’t possible. I’m not the same person I was. I have more experience, more understanding. More life.
We need to move with life, not spend so much time in the past or future. Here is all we have.
On a recent podcast, we talked about our nostalgia for several cabinet/enclosed video games and the arcades we visited them in. The swelling wave of Generation X seems poised to roll over everyone, now that the Boomers are entering retirement. I wonder if it’s such a good thing.
No doubt, it’s unstoppable. Golden visions of the past will always out. And there are advantages to nostalgia, they’re described in research about it. It’s when it becomes more important than today that it matters.
In order to be the best makers and creators, we need to be present. We reflect the world both as it is and how we wish it were—or fear it could become.
It’s not living in or for the future. It’s not indulging in the past. It’s being and living now.
Part of the reason we feel so strongly about Christmas and similar winter solstice events is that they come with attendant decorations, music, and themes. They repeat every year, rituals that defy cynicism and modernity, sometimes reaching autonomic levels of response to them.
You may enjoy these effects. You may hate them. What matters is that they affect so many of us in this way.
What are ways we can incorporate these feelings into our work? What elements and themes might make a piece so strong it evokes something like winter holiday nostalgia in its audience? Solve that deep problem and make a thing that is powerful and irresistible. Well, given the proviso that Xmas music fatigue is the flip side of the seasonal coin, maybe sprinkle a bit of balance in with that solution.
The iconic moment brought to my mind the most this year is this quotation pair:
“Happy Christmas, Harry!”
“Happy Christmas, Ron.”
Simple is usually best.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.