Please Rewind

January 5, 2024

Waxing nostalgia on bygone tape sleeves.

Plastic clamshells lined rows of walls and corridors of stained carpet wove through them. Ribbed melamine cloistered the walls. Shelves jutted between the ribs of particleboard, each hoisting clamshells that clasped magnetic tapes.

The rows of shelves that striped the local video store were mineshafts that you dug through for gold. You directed your excursions by the increasingly gaudy box art vying for attention.

Planted deep in a southern patch of the US in the middle of nowhere — hours from any kind of “higher” culture — the video rental store was my art gallery. It was a threshold into something more lofty than my immediate surroundings.

Though the attraction of consumer attention was the end goal, many of these covers still had a heart and soul underneath them; they were crafted by human hands. Fine artists who could better make ends meet in commercial art were the ones regularly commissioned to create them.

To be candid, much of what graced the covers could be shlocky, surface-level stuff — but in its best moments, it could still inspire something. In our current era, the infinite list of uninspired thumbnails pasted on a browser list just doesn't have the same appeal. There is no passion in these images.

It’s low-hanging fruit to point out the lack of quality in these contemporary covers. It bears repeating though to highlight larger issues that the Arts faces, which is that it is being force-fed into a grinder, and blended into a slurry of easy-to-digest content. There will always be The Criterion Channel and bespoke one-off movie posters for films to keep good art alive. When we continue to devalue any baseline level of quality in mainstream commercial art though, we erode the merits of what art means to our culture. It sets a low bar for visual literacy.

Advertising art can still provide a gateway for anyone to get more interested in other art. We often begin finding a road to an art life through more commercial, mainstream avenues. Someone latches onto something they saw on a poster, in a record store, or on TV, then keeps digging. They find out who inspired that artist — and who inspired that artist. That’s how the artists who don’t have easy access to a space ordained for art begin to build their passion — like me.

Financial gain and art made with passion don’t have to be exclusive to one another. Many pieces of art that we love, whether music, film, art, or literature, are probably loved by many others willing to pay for it. The issue arises when financial gain is placed before all else. You create a pattern of entropy. You continue making something with diminishing returns and little emotional nutrition. You get yet another lifeless film, with an even more lifeless cover to accompany it. It follows the formula arbitrated by a focus group, rather than someone with a really good idea they’re excited about.

The glory days of Drew Struzan illustrations and blood-splattered horror sleeves will probably never come back, but people will always want to see something that moves them. Despite what the grand arbiters of content creation want us to think people will always crave good stories and art with heart and passion behind it.

Focus groups and AI don’t dictate good art.  The mental junk food it produces — the sickly-sweet art-as-content doesn’t sustain us.

Things can never really go back to what they were. Nostalgia can be a powerful thing that distorts how we see the past. It’s easy to consider that all this waxing nostalgia might just be me staring all glossy-eyed and rose-colored at a time that wasn’t all that much better.

Yet I do believe that commercial art and the film industry are in danger of degrading into a much shallower version of themselves. But, I do think there are glimmers of hope. People will always want good stories. Good art always breaks through somehow — sometimes it just needs to break through many strata of junk to get there first.

What matters and is meaningful always finds its way back to us.  

Regards,

Ethan

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