At the end of the last episode of the long-running cable series “Mad Men,” Don Draper meditates, having transcended his life as an ad executive. He begins to smile and there is a cut to the classic commercial where people sing on a hilltop about finding world harmony by buying Coca-Cola.
I thought of this while viewing the DePaul Art Museum exhibition, “New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival,” where the New Age movement is both embraced and critiqued through twenty-seven artists’ navigation of race, gender, sexuality and spirituality.
New Age was a countercultural movement borne out of the social dissatisfaction and spiritual self-help movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But as Don Draper cynically exploits the zeitgeist of an era to sell products, the movement was commercialized to a point that it became a caricature of itself.
If the countercultural movement died with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, or at Altamont or in the hills of Benedict Canyon in 1969, or even at Kent State in 1970, New Age was left after the wave of peace and love broke and rolled back, the idealistic castoff after the battle seemed unwinnable.
To be New Age today is to have not realized the battle was over. To be New Age in the art world is to be kitsch, camp.
That, too, is a bastardization of the movement.
“The new New Age movement, as with elements of the historical new age movement, is rooted in healing, empowerment, feminism and the divine feminine as an alternative to white patriarchy, organized religion and capitalism,” says Julie Rodrigues-Widholm, director and chief curator of DPAM. “The need for connection and healing is dire at this time in our culture, when anxiety, depression and suicide are skyrocketing.”
Anxiety has always lay beneath the surface of our lives, but our insufficiencies are now broadcast in high-definition and via our smartphones. The exhibit seems to ask: What do we do now? How should we live?
Laura-Caroline Johnson, the museum’s collection and exhibition manager, says that the exhibit “hit home in so many ways in terms of how we handle our contemporary anxieties and stressors, both large and small. The work was a good daily reminder to be present in my own work at the museum and throughout my day in general.”
The works offer viewpoints on resistance, empowerment, community and healing, particularly for the marginalized. The world is conflicted, but still fluid, and there’s balance between comfort and discomfort, nature and technology, and knowledge and mystery.
“Fifty years later we are still fighting against racism, sexism, xenophobia, war, civil rights, violence, climate change.” But while ideas and practices upon which the New Age movement was founded are commoditized, they “are also increasingly being used as tools for connection in an increasingly disconnected technologically mediated world, specifically by LGBT communities and people of color.”
Especially intriguing is the inclusion of four Bob Ross paintings (“Black River,” “Reflections,” “Cactus at Sunset” and “Northern Lights”) that explore the natural world with a sense of curiosity. Ross is one of the most visible artists of the twentieth century, due to his PBS show “The Joy of Painting.” Ross is memorable for his mushroom-like perm, gentle voice, endless positivity and the happy little clouds and trees he painted. His democratization of craft led many to discount his work, and his paintings have never been on view in a museum before.
Ross died in 1995, yet his show repeats on public television; his Instagram account has over 40,000 followers. Most amazingly, his YouTube channel has nearly three-million subscribers.
“I’ve always been a fan in a way that many people are nostalgic for his TV show or enjoy his soothing voice, but I am also interested in artists who have been excluded from the art-historical canon,” Rodrigues-Widholm says.
Ross’ estate won’t sell his paintings, but there is plenty of Bob Ross merchandise sold, from magnets and socks to aprons and coffee cups. There are ornaments, puzzles, lunch boxes, and the Bob Ross Chia Pet. His image quite literally sells itself.
With his Zen-like instructions, his maxims about self-expression and creativity, and his love for the natural world, Ross has become a personification of the New Age movement, whether he intended to be or not. Perhaps he’s also a personification of how anything can be commodified, whether it wants to be or not.
The exhibit ultimately forces us to question the relationship between things that are popular and what we consider art, especially in an age of internet “likes,” those adult versions of stickers we wear so proudly. It also forces us to reckon with the nature of art, and asks salient questions about who has the right to be seen or heard, including the artists who live on the fringes of the “real” art world.
If the wave of the 1960s did break and roll back, we can take solace in knowing another wave will eventually follow. (Justin C. Staley)
“New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival,” at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton through August 11.