For several hundred years, like a defiant adolescent, America has rebelled against the Old World – economically, politically, and culturally. Accounts of this departure from time honored standards have not always been equitable, especially when penned by cultivated Europeans. Descriptions of modern America have tended to be harsh especially the pronouncements of leftist intellectuals.
HYPERREAL, and even SURREAL, have been pasted on contemporary pop culture puzzlements. The stick-um doesn’t hold. We prefer to attach a word we coined – HYPERCOMMON.
HYPER-anxious, unstable, edgy, histrionic. COMMON-familiar, stereotypical, conventional, mediocre. America as paradox.
This is not deep theory. We will rarely evoke Jean Baudrillard, Karl Marx, Rowland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, or Jacques Lacan. These cultural cartographers produce maps that lead nowhere. If we do name drop it will be usually to ridicule their inaccurate charts of the positions of ordinary people. Or display our ignorance – take your pick.
Travel was once an activity engaged in exclusively by the upper classes. In the past, the masses took long trips, but not of their own volition. War, persecutions, crop failures, or volcanoes displaced whole populations but their search for a new home was no vacation. When, as a result of democracy and industrial technology, ordinary people began to wander about seeking divertissement, the refined found the need to abandon their haunts and range farther and farther away to avoid contact with the new, rude traveling public, who were dismissively called ‘tourists.’
As Mark Twain discovered at the beginning of his career the behavior of this new class of tourist could be a rich source of literary material. One hundred forty-five years after the publication of The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim’s Progress an even larger segment of the populace has the funds to go somewhere to look for cheap fun. They are no less interesting than the nascent American middle class of the 1860s.
Many of the current crop of innocents go to Branson, Missouri, which is a 45-minute drive south of our rented duplex. We find them and the place endlessly fascinating. We wish Mark Twain could join us in one of our Branson jaunts. We would much prefer his company to Jean Baudrillard. Twain would find the newest pilgrims have made little progress in discerning the authentic from the fabricated, but he wouldn’t be so harshly unforgiving as the intellectual Frenchman who coined “hyperreal” to describe the public’s inability to tell the real from the fictional. Is it possible then and now a lot of naives actually could and can tell the difference between so-called reality and simulacrum, but just don’t care?
The masses that flock to Branson are not so brainwashed by media or so corrupted by capitalism as to be considered hyperreal. For all its monumental unsubtlety and overstatement of product Branson isn’t hyperreal either. Hypercommon describes them better. Tourism will feature roadside architecture, entertainment, and recreation. Elsewhere we examine what tourists bring back from their travels in the Souvenirs category.
If you want to open a business on the square around Buffalo, Missouri’s courthouse there are plenty of storefronts for rent. As the town of 3,000 is only thirty-seven miles north of Springfield, a mini-city of 160,000, Buffalo has fared better than many small towns. As a bedroom community, the county seat of Dallas County has advantages that isolated agricultural trade centers don’t have. Not all the villages in America have kept the business district’s roofs repaired. Even the unoccupied spaces in Buffalo are optimistically kept up.
Most businesses however have migrated out to the highway that connects it with Springfield. A new venture on Highway 65 is a flea market in a corrugated metal building. One of our early posts will be a photo essay by Crystal of an eye-catching mural of a herd of buffalo painted on this emporium of crafts and collectibles.
We’ve been interested in small towns for a while. The Ozark-Prairie Border is a 176-page book of Leland Payton photographs that mixes bucolic scenery with hamlets in a late stage of decay. The cover shows a flaking bas-relief sculpture on an abandoned school near Sylvania, Missouri. An 1888 booklet hyping the natural resources of the region provides a counterpoint to the observable abandonment.
HYPERCOMMON was a gimmick that we came up with after three weekend photo safaris to Branson in August 2014. The contrast of the 1888 tract that oversold the prairie border’s economic possibilities with the ruins of small farms and villages started wheels turning. In spite of the apparent decline, this countryside is attractive. Assertions made by unforgiving critics that advertising and media permanently distort life is refuted by this landscape of fields, tree-lined muddy streams, oxidized iron bridges and photogenic ruins. In time, the pernicious effects of duplicity die down and reality assets itself, even if temporarily we are unable to tell the difference between the fake and the actual.
To those with good taste the god-awful things one can purchase while on vacation suggests that democracy may not have been such a good idea as it gave the masses disposable income and mobility. Schlock and souvenirs are near synonyms in the thesaurus of the refined. Sometimes the public may be in on the joke, but in the case of excessively sentimental trinkets they may not be. The snobs who cry ‘kitsch’ at the stuff your Aunt Flo brought back from her trip to Atlantic City have ignored the fact that wonderful stuff has sometimes been offered at roadside stands.
From the 1930s to the 1960s concrete pots decorated by dripped oil paint were made and sold in the Missouri Ozarks. Costing 25 cents to several dollars thousands were picked up and taken home to be used as flowerpots. A great many deteriorated after being left outside for decades. Recently, a few collectors have boosted the price for nice ones that had been used inside. In spite of a stunning abstract expressionist patterns museums and the art world have not recognized them.
Even souvenirs without redeeming artistic merit can chart the changing perceptions of the public. At one time gift shop gewgaws referenced the geographic and historical distinctions of vacation localities. Such specifics are minimal these days. Favorite beers, athletic teams, or smart alecky slogans have replaced the iconography of place. There are a lot of self consciously retro bad taste souvenirs these days as well.
The souvenir business poses a challenge for those who make and sell them. They are useless consumer goods that have only a few, seasonal retail outlets. So their design needs to be hyped to attract the attention of an unfocused vacationers. Only recently have academics noticed souvenirs. Their esoteric explanations can be difficult to understand. Souvenirs are definitely a HYPERCOMMON phenomenon.
We became aware of the complicated aspects of souvenirs when we did a book titled See the Ozarks. The plates, postcards and trinkets didn’t only illustrate historical text they contributed an added dimension to the project.
On the left is the cover for a book project we’ve been working on for several years. At four hundred pages Hillbillies: Rustics to Rednecks is, we figure, two-thirds done. Naturally we’ve left the most difficult chapters for the last. That writing involves reading books and trying to relate other people’s theories to our own prejudices. While there are excellent accounts of this American marginal, Anthony Harkins’ Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon being perhaps the most comprehensive, none are profusely illustrated.
Our two-volume study is full of color photographs. We are astounded by the enormous energy that has gone into producing hillbilly themed products. This amazing graphic narrative should be factored into an evaluation of the role in American culture of this often-disparaged rustic. Given this long commercial acceptance perhaps hillbillies should not be considered “others” but merely disreputable, unacknowledged country cousins.
Organized under various subjects is some content from our forthcoming book. The text hasn’t been closely proofed.
When we are close to completion we’ll be offering on Kickstarter an opportunity to acquire this study at a discount. This should take about another year, “gasp!!!”
Please let us know if you would like to be emailed when we put it on Kickstarter or when it is available on Amazon and Lens & Pen Press by signing up with our email list, at the bottom of the page.
Upon finishing a 304-page book on the water resource development of the Osage River, we became aware that dam building was an exceedingly common global activity. We also found parallels to the mythologies used to justify unwise projects in dams elsewhere. So we expanded our collecting activities to include projects all over the planet.
Government multipurpose dams are monuments of overpromising. Cost/benefit projections calculated by the Army Corps of Engineers, builders of most of these multimillion dollar, environment-altering hunks of concrete, have the same sanguine flavor as political, entertainment and product promotion. Many have noted political and media distortions in those realms, but the way dams are portrayed hasn’t gotten much attention. Each project deserves honest economic and environmental consideration. Such individual evaluations are obscured by hyper promotion.
Dams and canals are proposed and defended as utilitarian contributions to the public good. Yet, stamps, bank notes, and commemorative medals suggest some projects are driven by greed and vanity. On some dam themed memorabilia, the prideful countenance of dictators are posed beside awe inspiring monuments of river subjugation whose proposed merits will later be found absent or inflated.
Picture postcards and gewgaws don’t always, or only, depict specific defects of excessive river development. Such ephemera records and documents a project’s existence and commonplace realities. Our contention is that dams, locks, and canals have an unappreciated significance. All are worth study and reevaluation. Mementos help to envision their social and political context. An appraisal of these products of popular culture and official propaganda does not replace scientific analysis, but it can enhance understanding of how hidden agendas operate and how the public is misled.
Once we made a living buying and selling pieced quilts made by farm and small town ladies in the Midwest. Our familiarity with rural life comes from driving thousands and thousands of miles on black top roads looking for unused, hand quilted Wedding Rings from the 1930s and an occasional applique from the 1880s without double-dye green fading. One year we took in $175,000.
We tried to combine this hardcore capitalist venture with Leland’s idealistic environmental and regionalist photography. Moving antique quilts worked out better. Sam Pennington, editor of the Maine Antique Digest, OK’d an article we proposed titled “Confessions of a Quilt Hustler,” but we never got around to writing it.
When eBay was young we hopped on it and for a few years grossed $5,000 to $7,000 a month picking junk shops and going to auctions. We bought the Edgar Brandt iron lamp at a household auction for $1,050 and sold it a month later on eBay for $10,200.
Killer deals in old textiles or Art Deco are but a memory. Flea markets today are full of early Hobby Lobby, not early Americana. Few household sales contain multi-generational accumulations these days. Remembering when it was possible to make a profit picking and attempting to understand how and why the business of dealing in antiquarian objects has changed is what Confessions will be about.
This is a place where we will discuss various things that don’t neatly fall into the categories we’ve listed above.