PRINT January 1988


I GREW UP HAUNTED BY BANALITY. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant: to be banal was to live in the suburbs; to carry the attaché and wear the necktie of conformity; to meet the 5:15, inhabit the bar car, and, when the conductor called out “Plasticville,” to be whisked past premeditated lawns to a split-level ranch; then into slippers and a pipe, and a night before the Dumont with the wife and kids. It was to dive dutifully into her crinolines as the moon set and to sip the coffee she had dutifully risen with the sun to brew; to die young of a punishing heart attack, and to realize, in those final moments, that I had never . . . really . . . lived.

For all I've done to escape that fate, to free myself from the tyranny of role, to be unique, I have only managed to avoid being typical. Steeped in selfhood, I am just as vulnerable to mediocre living and even more vulnerable to a punishing death. Worse still, I'm attracted to the very thing I abhor.

I long to be swept from the landscape of my ego and transported to the ether of a Doublemint ad, where two girls with perfectly bobbed hair and breasts have missed the ball. Two guys in BanLon polos that match the girls' sweaters step forward out of nowhere. They are a perfect two inches taller than the girls. Their forearms rise to generous necks and chins. Their faces are set in a smile. One retrieves the ball, and then, with a wink, gives it back. In gratitude, tribute, or perhaps anticipation, the girls offer identical sticks of chewing gum.

Doublemint ads are as richly reductive as stained glass. Time stands still. The men appear as in a visitation—sent to court the twinlike ladies. Gazing on these countenances from the prime-time pew, it is possible to imagine ecstasy as supernaturally simple: the ladies on their backs looking up, the gents hovering, serene. Life could be like that, night after night: a font of matching orgasms.

But there's more here than myth. There's also form—what we might call deep surface. The look of an ad is as distinct as its message. That flat terrain of processed tints—which has so much to do with the palettes of David Hockney and Alex Katz—is no cheapo production technique, but an elaborate stylization calculated to induce suspension of disbelief. The power of an ad to unleash fantasy resides in its paradoxical surface. Here is hectic, often hebephrenic, editing, typically set against snatches of dialogue recited at a stately pace, as in one of Robert Wilson's processionals. Slogans, jingles, corny product shots—all signal insignificance; but the real mood is immanence. Whatever a commercial seems to be about, it is also an incitement to smash the ego's power over pleasure/consumption. This is a temptation we're taught to both embrace and resist. Overcoming the ambivalence requires a form that can tap the dream-life unobserved—a narrative of radical brevity with the power to subvert logical discourse and the capacity to disarm us with deceptive modesty. A successful 30-second ad is the haiku of cinema.

It's no news that advertising is an esthetic loose in the culture. We sense its encroachment on fine-art and mass-culture, its intersection with politics and style. The half-sneered epithet we use to describe its effect is: banal. That label is always around us, and always applied derisively. Because the poetics of advertising serves a notoriously vile master—corporate capitalism—we generally dismiss anything that looks banal with an attitude of superiority, occasionally with faint amusement, often with contempt. That is a mistake, for banality can set us free.

Advertising is the venue by which banality has shifted from the suburbs of sensibility to its hub. The landscape of advertising has expanded to determine the sensibility of television itself, and the reach of television has also expanded, so that it now seems far more potent to many of us than any other discourse. To say that television dominates our politics is unsettling enough, but to acknowledge that TV also casts its influence over art is to call in the culture police. Like it or not, though, the formal values of a Doublemint ad are found more and more frequently in work that has nothing to do with selling chewing gum. All post-Modern culture is in some sense a response to the triumph of television. The schizoid demands that the mass media make leave an artist torn between mockery and envy, and much of the work that ensues tries fretfully to engage the esthetic of banality without embodying it.

But no downtown diva with a grant from the de Menils could have invented Vanna White. She is an emblem of tubic glamor, as exalted (while she lasts) as any goddess of the silver screen, and her emergence signals a shift, not just in the authority of television in relation to cinema, but in the ideology of allure. If her name does not roll trippingly off the tongue, if it sits there and melts like a lozenge, so much the better: the culture won't support a Greta Garbo in the mall or a Marilyn Monroe in the home entertainment center. These women were unusual, exotic, faceted—they elevated individuality to the realm of archetype. Vanna has no type at all. Looks alone cannot account for her appeal. She is neither plain nor sensational, neither wholesome nor knowing. Her mien is a balletic courtesy. Vanna takes the rules of decorum in the service industries—the rules that much of her audience must abide by in their working lives—and transforms them into spectacle. So the mystery of her success is solved. What does Vanna do? She is a metahostess.

Vanna certainly recalls the '50s, the last time congeniality reigned supreme in public life. But her mandarin insouciance seems less a celebration of traditional gender roles than a representation of their last stand. We can see how tenuous the old hegemony has become in Vanna's twist on the reflexive assertion that she's the latest incarnation of the dumb blonde: “You have to be able to read the letters.” She puts a bow on categorization that highlights its critique. Ann Magnuson is the theory; Vanna is the practice.

In the '80s, it's not privileged knowledge that gender roles are culturally assigned. Much of mass culture today is imbued with cryptofeminist perceptions about power and sexuality. But shattering libidinal orthodoxies is a painful business, and it has left us with a terrible burden of residual desire. Sometimes, when doubt and guilt and longing set in, it seems as if the incomplete process of liberation hasn't brought us closer to our “real” selves, but only to another construction, in some ways as arbitrary as the personality left behind. The dirtiest secret of all is how eager we are to escape from this provisional identity, which, in its precariousness, dictates everything from our politics to our haberdashery, not to mention what we do, and with whom, in bed.

How different this is from the '50s, when the ostensible aim of mass culture was to achieve something called “conformity,” a word usually applied by those who intended to deride the process it describes. In the long run, these rebels succeeded in setting the agenda for my generation. For us, conformity was a signpost of “the American celebration,” as the Eisenhower years are often called. We yearned for a very different culture, and created a new kind of hero to herald it. In Marlon Brando and James Dean, not to mention Elvis Presley and Alfred E. Neuman, we found an antinomianism both traditionally American and radically un-American. Their celebrity transformed the celebration into a combat between two very different concepts of individuality, one located in the bow ties and bodices of network television, the other—skirting the standards of propriety—in the movies, on the radio, on the closed shelves of libraries, and in certain quasi-licit comic books. Television won, but the hipster (via its homunculus, the hippy) prevailed.

Still, mass bohemianism created its own inexorable bind. For one thing, this was a male adventure; women could be damned, but not dharmic. And it depended on a devotion to orgasm that seemed tyrannical, even before it became dangerous. The current dilemma stems, in part, from a realization that we cannot return to the old hipster imperatives, since they are as corrupt as the system they rebelled against. Nor can we return to the politics of ecstasy that glimmered in the ‘60s and putrefied in the '70s. Invoking the power of desire also unleashed its materialization in the yuppie, and its remystification in the right-wing politics of fundamentalism. Though the forms of cultural dissent remain intact, their credibility is compromised. The rock 'n’ roll animal has been tamed and groomed for show. And in the febrile maunderings of retrocool, we can see how ironic a construction individuality has become. Only in the relatively unregulated realm of stand-up does the imperative of self-expressive rage persist, but these rebels with a contract are prone to blame women, blacks, and gays for their impotence. The hipster saw those groups as allies, or at least no threat.

The postmodern stance is to wallow in parody and irony that only succeed in perpetuating the status quo. There is an alternative to disengagement—but it involves confronting what we yearn for, no matter how degrading that may seem. In esthetic terms this means paying attention to what we trash. It means examining our fixation on emblems of banality for what they reveal about the way we long to be. For reasons that have everything to do with the bruising politics of identity, Vanna and the denizens of Doublemint seem profoundly satisfying now. To glide through the karma of sex and death—that is what banality offers. What was once regarded as an abnegation of individuality has become a discipline by which the self can navigate the shoals of circumstance. No wonder we love so many stars who are banal: they represent the commodity we covet—a luminescent emptiness. In our time, banality is the mark of grace.

Tom Cruise is banal butch, or so he became somewhere between his second and third movies. Before that he was a plump, passionate, thoroughly ordinary bag of meat and misgivings. Then he enlisted in the Nautilus Nation, and endured long lessons on the Tao of maintaining a low, furrowed brow. He emerged with a face “rinsed of meaning,” as Roland Barthes would say. Tom's archetype: the worker/warrior. He can stand in the company of Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sly Stallone, but unlike those mythic mesomorphs he has a televisual personality. As with Vanna, we can't tell from his accent where he came from, or from his affect where he's at; there's no odyssey beyond the role. Tom could star in a commercial if he had to. He's that banal.

Someday, Tom and Vanna will meet. The sky will be BanLon blue and the sea Doublemint green. He will open the bodice of her tapered white dress, careful not to catch the ruffles in his combat boots, and they will retire to the synthesized strains of a tune we cannot place.

This begins to sound like porn. And, in fact, pornography (at least in the West) always seems banal, even when it is “artistic.” Pornography describes the absence of ego, and the domain of an authoritarian id. But porn also betrays, in its reliance on domination and submission, the presence of a punishing superego—the hidden avenger. Pornography is a closed system. Every image is a collision between flat, foreshortened figures seemingly enraptured by physical pleasure, with no hope or aim beyond orgasm and the promise that, once release has been achieved, one can go on as before.

This is precisely the strategy of advertising—and maybe why it leaves us with the same vague regret. Like pornography, commercials construct a utopia of pure pleasure from which the facets of personality have been banished. Here, too, is a premise that inspires libidinal energy, here too is a highly stylized field of rhetoric, here too is a closed circuit—all in the service of a pared-down personality, that is to say, an obsession that organizes character. Both pornography and advertising flourish in the service of each other's imperatives: porn has a product—the commodification of sex—and advertising has an erotics— it stimulates the spending of desire and releases capital.

But this shared esthetic, with banality at its core, hardly ends at the juncture of advertising and pornography. The replacement of character and plot, as we once understood them, with broad, flat typologies from which endless “situations” can arise is a characteristic of more and more narrative that calls itself contemporary. We are becoming a sitcomic culture, in which the inevitable question is: how can consciousness arise from this corrupt matrix? The answer is that this is precisely how consciousness often does arise. It is a process of transformation in which nothing changes except perception. So banality means one thing when it is imbedded in Family Ties and quite another when it surfaces in art. Then the sensibility of “capitalist realism” can become transcendence—which is why banality is so potentially useful as a style. This is no capitulation to the forces of capital, but a camouflage that raises the odds of survival in the hvperfaceted American jungle.

As a culture, we are less wedded to Old Worlds than to an idea of what it means to have a dual identity, and these days it can be as much an experiential bond as an ethnic one that determines one's “origin.” But the image of American culture as a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting fragments persists. It means we are endlessly searching for the common touch, the shared values, the golden mean. And this search was going on long before the great waves of immigration. The essential aim of American culture—high, low, and in between—has been to cite the profound in the common. The same process is at work in the reclamation of banality, commerce and exploitation notwithstanding. This is an American Way—a Zen with its own vocabulary of democratic paradox.

When objects radiate—or when people project—banality, we can feel reassured. It's some sort of sublime comfort to lull in the divestiture of distinction they provide. Subject or object, the affect is pellucid; it offers the illusion of transparency. But it also possesses an enigmatic surface, a willed simplicity that generates contemplation of emptiness. Tom Cruise's hawklike countenance is a denial of any facet of character that might locate him in a place or a time. Like a Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn, he is simply. . . so. This is the contemporary American version of the void—the concept that has occurred so emphatically in Modern life and Modern art but also, under very different auspices, in the East.

Western quietists have often used the East to justify their own misgivings—but always with the assumption that we produce while they contemplate. The transmigration of ideologies seems more threatening as we are forced to acknowledge a robust Pacific rim. It's one thing to accept that this “Empire of Signs” exports the hardware our communications depend upon, quite another to admit that our culture is a by-product of this shift in economic power. That fusion seems as disquieting to the Japanese as it does to us. While Tokyo munches Chicken McNuggets, much of America walks and talks a kind of nativist Zen. The psychobabble and the cuisine, the music and magic that carry the prefix New Age—all are fruits of the highly mediated encounter between East and West: satori in the sun.

Today the word banality may refer to a culmination of postindustrial thought. Transparency, objectivity, emptiness—none of these traits means the same thing that they did to the poet Basho. Yet Basho's assumptions about identity govern our conception of glamour. If banality seems banal, that may be because Buddhism—with its denial of an organizing ego, a supernatural “celebrity”—seems banal to us. The Judeo-Christian cosmology, with its elaborate system of hierarchy and duality (God versus man, immortality versus death), is an investment against the central esthetic principle of Zen, the blank that erases us. Yet only within that configuration can we grasp the liberating potential of advertising as a vast collective koan:

Your pleasure
Double your fun.

Banality is a dharma that uses commodification to empty the fetishized environment. Only those who swim in this sea can aspire to float on its surface. It helps to live where malls abound; these are shrines of banality. The rest of us, who are not situationally blessed—who are chronically urban and temperamentally doomed to be “interesting”—can seek the solace of museums and concert halls. But here we are bound to be disappointed.

Even a seminal influence on banalism like Andy Warhol rarely succeeded in emptying out imagery. The early masterpieces are too audacious and grand to be truly banal; they are brilliant transitional emblems—harbingers of televisual reality—but, like all Popism, their affect and energy depend upon the duality of high and low, upon transgression. Ultimately they belong to the tradition they deny. Later, Warhol came closer, in his choices of subject (extinct animals, parvenue princesses) and in his tubic palette. But his instinct remained iconic: always the object “captured” and upgraded; never a mistake about its identity—or value—as art. It's in his writing, which Warhol never regarded with an entrepreneurial eye, that the rudiments of an authentic banalism are found. And it's as a social critic that Warhol's impact is most enduring.

Certainly, there are artists who have ventured onto this uncertain terrain: hyperrealists, poolside figurists, barbecue expressionists, and the whole simulacrist megillah. But the entrepreneurial structure of fine-art and the weight of its association with value insulates this work from the rapture of banality. (In California, where the designation “banal” is almost unnecessary, the system aspires to install it as an official esthetic.) The tone of art—and of commentary—about the banal is most often contemptuous and bemused. This is the affect of most performance art, which is an elite vaudeville.

But the aim of banalism is not irony; it is embodiment of the ordinary—think of the seeds of Walker Evans and Nam June Paik germinating in a K-Mart, or of Bill Owens' evocation of suburbia as a greeting card. As a rule of thumb, the farther from the fine-art marketplace, the easier it is for art to achieve the antic serenity of banality. But true banalism—the exploration of America's Way—is hard to achieve, and harder to contain, in any gallery or nonprofit (i. e. sanctioned) space. In the cineplex, where moviegoing is embodied rather than exalted as it once was in the movie palaces, and in the ubiquitous racks of audio and visual cassettes—packaged to look like books but meant to be inserted rather than opened, watched rather than read: in these disposable venues the archetypes of banality are forged.

Even an art-schooled banalist like David Byrne must work the mall. Byrne serves all masters partly because he is vacant before them. The idiom he has evolved is remarkably plastic; but is it banal? Yes when it grooves, when the music rocks and images flow with the power and ease of advertising, when he's as impassive as a cheerio. No when it stands outside its subject, as Byrne's work often does when its secret theme is the maunderings of an alienated soul—Holden Caulfield at the donut den.

If there's a model for banalism, it's rock ‘n’ roll. Not the psychodrama of metal or rap—each of these idioms expresses the enormous insecurity that underlies masculinity these days—but American plainsong with its roots in the metaphysical poetry of blues. It remains for a banalist like Philip Glass, who devours musical traditions and strips them of particularity, to distill the discoveries of rock about repetition and reduction into a truly banal tonality. Add a shimmering chromaticism to his very Western sense of time and you've got the perfect score for a meditation on the mediated East.

Some artists don't succeed in representing the Zen of banality because they intrude too much. If John Waters let his interiors speak for themselves instead of apotheosizing them as a setting for Divine, his work would be completely banal. Some artists back away from the prospect of transparency and are still seducing us with technocratics; RoboCop's joints won't allow him to assume the Buddha posture. And some artists try too hard: Peter Gordon's mix-and-match tonalities have the feeling of a radio dial wavering madly between John Coltrane and Karen Carpenter. These artists may prefer to be judged by other criteria: they are minimalist or neo-futurist or camp. But they also flirt with banality, and if they can't go all the way with this elusive muse, that's because to do so is to risk the usual meaning of the term “banal.” Banality is so degraded that it seems to require mediation; otherwise what are we buying, where is the art? The answer won't be apparent until we come to value banality. Until we acknowledge its transformational power, we won't even know when banality has been achieved.

Which brings us to Michael Jackson, a superstar who emerges from the structures of advertising and merchandising that generate banality, but who summons up its transformational energy. In his latest production, Michael banalizes the very notion of “bad,” turning the leather and chains of the hard-X world, and even the youngblood ritual of grabbing one's crotch, into teddy-bear semiotics. But he also reclaims these symbols of resistance from commodification by rendering them childish. In Michael's hands, garment and gesture—race and gender—end up as a kind of interstitial drag. And so does the by-now tiresome androgyny of rock icons; by neotenizing the market strategy of pop-star sexuality, Michael banalizes it, but also makes it seem dangerous again. All this contradiction is summed up in the ultimate Noh creation: Michael's face. It is hardly the emblem of conventional beauty that plastic surgery promotes. Though he is often accused of denying his race and gender by wiping out the evidence of both, Michael's sculpted physiognomy has less to do with “passing” than with emptying. This is a mask of yearning for transcendence, etched in flesh and blood. Its transparency evokes the agony of struggling against real-world categories, but its mutability suggests that the struggle can be won. (Fame and fortune help.)

So much of what passes for cultural discourse is actually an attenuated debate about banality. But distancing ourselves from the banal only renders us helpless before it. Is banalism new, or merely the latest mutation of an old American strain? Can it be creative? Is it capable of a critique? Right now we are prone to answer these questions reflexively: we are either “elitist” or “populist” about such things. This duality is both typical and beside the point, for banality eludes the criteria of traditional high/low distinctions. It is a creation of macroeconomics—an art of the invisible hand. No wonder it's so easy to dismiss—or to fear.

My own trepidation stems from a much more fundamental worry: loss of status, loss of art. What would happen to my politics, my pleasure in personal creations, my personality, if I fully acknowledged my attraction to banality? How often I hum the jingles of favorite commercials and work their slogans into everyday conversation. How calming I find the hush that hovers over suburban supermarkets and motel rooms. How drawn I am to products that come in aqua—from mouthwash, to detergent, to swimming pools—though it's a color I would never wear. How I cherish certain useless, worthless objects, like the little blue Mickey Mouse that sits atop my television set, radiating a tender audacity that comforts me. The power of that blue Mickey has something to do with the richness of representation in an object of no inherent value. Fullness in emptiness.

You have to see my Mickey to understand why banality is not the same as kitsch. Kitsch can never be banal, though it often seems so to the elite eye, because kitsch cannot be empty. Here, fullness is the point. Try as we might, we cannot empty the huge crying eyes on a Keane painting, or pretend that an Oktoberfest beer mug has no historical meaning. These artifacts are intimately —if implicitly— connected to an invented sense of the Volk. Today, the process kitsch reinforces is the exalted sense of ownership that late capitalism promises to every mother's son. Kitsch locates the consumer on a hierarchy of prestige, in which the inherent worth of possessions is evident in their relationship to other possessions of even greater rarity. No wonder those who wish to improve their position are drawn to copies and derivations of certified works of art, and, if their funds permit, to the “real” thing. Banality, on the other hand, bears no relationship to any “original.” It is the antithesis of originality. Banal objects are unique only to their owners. Their power is that of a fetish— a device whose only value is the way we use it to generate consciousness. When we invest an ordinary object with transformational energy, we invest ourselves. And we come to understand how banality transforms the system that engenders it. Commodities can shatter commodification, and the most commonplace creations carry the potential for revolutionary change.

This is an old agenda in art. But banalism goes beyond what Duchamp had in mind when he shifted the context of ordinary objects, because the end result of his project was to reconfigure them as unique. Nor is banalism an apotheosis of pop art, which ultimately requires the artist to elevate mass culture into limited editions. Banalism is an open oeuvre, limited only by the inspiration we are willing to find in emptiness. It can't be located in life-style signifiers; it transcends caste and coterie. This is an esthetic without walls—as intangible as an obsession.

The question must finally be asked, in the form of a paradox: can art embody banality? Is that a question or a koan?

Richard Goldstein is a senior editor for The Village Voice.