PRINT Summer 1987


Tinkering with toys.

IT'S PRETTY HARD NOT to take toys seriously these days. Toys are the second things we experience in life that are set in our path for no other purpose than to deceive us. They first appear as surrogate buffers, handy helpers for those in charge of picking us up and putting us down. As manufactured vessels designed according to their makers’ sense of the desires of those who play with them, they may be read as imperfect vehicles for the collective psyche’s reflection on the collective psyche. They are also woeful reminders of the current state of American symbolism (and I don’t mean painting).

That some parents, teachers, and alert Upper West Siders complain about the current state of toy production seems a perennial issue. Judging from earlier models, it’s inevitable that someone would have gotten around eventually to manufacturing Rambo dolls, Transformers, Pound Puppies, and Rainbow Brite and her friends—futuristic Pippi Longstockings-gone-punk who come in several different hair colors. During the ’70s most of the conscientious objections were aimed at toys with sharp edges, or bite-sized parts, and at gender-typed dolls whose clothes caught fire too easily. After some minor reforms and major technical innovations, the key issues have now become content-oriented: is there anything to bring home from the store today that does not seem to be honing the instincts or imagination of one’s offspring for the quintessential mid-’90s career—insider trading on intergalactic takeover bids?

As if to endorse both careerist attitudes and changing courtship patterns, Barbie’s designers have recently deemphasized peer equality in favor of the status-based hierarchies implicit in Barbie and the Rockers, wherein Barbie has the job of star while Dee Dee, Dana, and Diva sing backup vocals and Ken has recently joined the band on piano and guitar. Group-based board games are a steadily shrinking piece of the market, while computer games—almost none of which require a second player—are nearly as popular as when they were first released (despite a slip in sales two years ago). Among the latest entries in a series of high-tech toys designed to lure kids out from behind their computer terminals while maintaining their indoctrination into Star Wars consciousness is Lazer Tag. Old-fashioned in its simplicity, Lazer Tag replaces the quaint “bang” of cap guns with a clean, noiseless beam of amplified light that temporarily brands its victims (as in freeze tag) until the next round begins.

A toy is a first experience of ownership and control. It is a chance to create a surrogate self that receives the affection or punishment that the “parent” dishes out. It is a dress rehearsal for the object-accumulation that makes modern life worth living, especially for boys—Matchbox cars, soldiers, Transformers, and marbles are marketed as an endless series, ten of which might be too many, or a hundred of which may not be enough. Small wonder, then, that the war motif comes into play at this stage of development, and enters the repertory of human behavior, since fighting to protect one’s own (or the group’s) interests is still the way nations respond when they lose their marbles.

But no well-adjusted member of society is supposed to lose his or her marbles. This controlling factor is the straitjacket that lets the “individuation process” go only so far. Kids are not meant to be equipped with the necessary tools for turning themselves into nonconformist adults, a piece of logic that loomed large over the recent Cabbage Patch Kids/Garbage Pail Kids saga.

Everyone remembers the original Cabbage Patch dolls, one-of-a-kind plug-uglies (their uniqueness a mark of their “human potential”) that kids could adopt and care for—provided parents were able to locate (and pay for) one. Three years later, with mass-produced Cabbage Patch dolls flooding the market, a trademark-infringement suit was brought against Topps Chewing Gum for marketing bubble gum cards of the parodistic Garbage Pail Kids—a forlorn group of moppets, slightly older, but with more pronounced (and humorous) defects, some of which verged on the sociopathological. Although the suit had nothing to do with the social contract, it is worth noting that the plaintiffs had piety and “experts” on their side. Sales of these Art Spiegelman–designed cards to a much broader spectrum than the age-7-to-12 target group did not mute the outcry over Garbage Pail Kids as a possible forerunner to juvenile delinquency. . . which in turn signals a latent predisposition toward the Beastie Boys, followed by heavy metal, drugs, and then art school.

Which brings us to the pleasures of adult life. Artists have always been attracted to toys, from Leonardo’s inventions to the more recent interest of the Surrealists in the imagery of childhood as a point of entry to the unconscious, and countless other examples. Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch made use of toy and game fragments within their assemblages, and the smell of childhood wafts out of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, touchstones to a poetic consciousness that was as apolitical as the Surrealists had been provocational.

One might have expected more engagement with toys on the part of the Pop generation, but comics stole the show. Even when the subject of playthings did come up, formal preoccupations and means of transformation such as greatness of scale were seized upon to affirm the subversive or serious intentions of the artists, thereby denaturing the found object. The most conceptually radical members of the Pop generation seemed more engaged by grown-up toys (Marilyn Monroe) than by the Betty Boop dolls from whence they sprang.

In the late ’80s Modernism’s prolonged case of “the latest,” combined with the voracious appetite of the contemporary art market, has restored toy motifs to the frontal lobe of the face of art, provoking such excesses that the walls of SoHo galleries and uptown collectors’ homes are beginning to rival the suburban driveways of baby-boom America. The implicit notion of early childhood as a battleground on which the parent fights the state for control of the child’s spirit becomes an all-too-appropriate metaphor for what some people see as the uphill struggle for truth and beauty in the cultural marketplace of the mid ’80s. That Jeff Koons has constructed a multifaceted symbol for this moment—the choo-choo, the liquor decanter, the collectible, the high-tech fabrication and durability of stainless steel, the expensive artwork, the train tracks leading nowhere—can be read equally as an exposure of art’s collusion with the toy-acquiring mentality that often accompanies money and power, and as the artist’s refusal to hide behind a veneer of moral superiority.

Is it fair—or, more to the point, is it moot—to go ahead and extrapolate a vision of art and the art world as an overpriced toy bazaar plunged into speculators’ delirium? We read this unpleasant version of love at first sight (or rumor) penned by hacks or overarching muckrakers almost as often lately as we wash our hands to remove the dirty print. Of course artworks are baubles of a sort, coveted, collected, and traded with a zeal that confounds noninitiates. Yet while the poetic justice in this construction of art as toys for the big boys may be obvious, its logic is not.

Toys, unlike their “simulacra,” are in some ways the purest of commodities, because they are rarely if ever bought for investment purposes (Cabbage Patch excluded). When you outgrow an artwork you don’t hand it over to the poor kid on the block, you put it on the block and become richer in pocket and poorer in spirit. An artwork may change in context and meaning, just as its creator, patrons, and admirers may pass into dust, but it can most often be referred to as a thing that continues to exist in roughly the same form in which it was made. In fact, since most other definitions have fallen away, and notwithstanding all this century’s experiments with transience, one can usually define art as “that which is made by someone in order to be preserved.” This description, which implies its own concomitant set of values, is intended as an antidote to the set of values that encourages contemporary audiences automatically to place the label “hype” on every new manifestation of art’s critique of culture.

Tom Otterness has recently tapped into this toying minefield in his epic story of Western civilization as lived by the placid Ur-citizens of his picnic-table-top world. The state’s dissolution of the individual, the giddiness of torture and war, the portrayal of usury as fecal worship—these are all featured as part of a somnambulistic carnival of doom, and nobody seems to mind too terribly much if they or their neighbors undergo a little garroting or disembowelment for the sake of progress. The piece is bound to disturb a number of art-world parents, and authority figures of all persuasions, on both contextual and formal levels: perhaps for its ham-handed Marxism, or its open disregard for sculptural politesse.

Fortunately for those offended, the world of ideas continues to possess a mechanism almost as ingenious as that furry marsupial Popples. Whenever you tire of Popples’ sluggish grin, you tuck it inside of itself, pull the pouch over the head, and voilà!—abstraction.

Dan Cameron is a writer and musician who lives in New York.