Warning: this is a very long blog post, but it’s worth reading:) I wrote this originally as my Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis paper when I was at BYU, but the subject matter is timeless, and I think it will be useful to everyone, not just other artists and designers. Conformity vs. Revolution is a subject that had interested me throughout my lifelong education in art. The concept of completely new ideas and ways of doing things was what drove the art world forward. So it was only appropriate that I focus most of my senior year in BYU’s graphic design program studying it and writing about it. As I said it’s long, so get a snack and make yourself comfortable, enjoy:
I was studying Art at BYU Hawaii. While taking a contemporary art history class, I experienced one of the highest points of my educational career. The course followed the movements of modernism and postmodernism, from the works of Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp.
It was then I began to internalize this concept of the Avant Garde; the idea of those who pushed the limits of art and thought. I dug deeper into this realm of thought and applied these concepts to my day to day thought process. I looked at everything different from that point on. Each piece of architecture I passed on the street, every song I listened to, every t-shirt graphic I saw someone wearing, I thought to myself, “Is this modern? Is that post modern? Is this cutting edge? Is this innovative?” I began to wonder at every piece of culture I experienced, “Is this original? Is this the “next thing”?, Is this what comes after post modernism?”
The class went through the history of the 20th century, through each sequential art movement in chronological order, and when we came to the end of the semester we had a discussion of all we had covered up to that point. Our teacher posed the very question that had been on my mind the entire time, “Whats next?” He offered a few examples of current artists who were currently doing interesting work, but then he offered us a possibility of the next major direction the world of art and style could take. From the book, A Theory of Everything: “The Physical Universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order, just as when water chaotically washing down the drain in your bathroom sink suddenly organizes itself into a beautiful swirling whirlpool.”
Conformity and Revolution:
Conformity is defined by any action in accord with prevailing social standards, attitudes, practices, etc.
Revolution is defined as a sudden, complete or marked change in something.
-An overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.
-Radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence.
World culture is in a constant cycle between conformity and revolution. If the idea of conformity represents the x-axis on a graph, revolution represents the y-axis, then there must also exist a z-axis, represented in the form of what some say is Progression or digression.
A. REVOLUTION – Away from a certain standard
a. Political – America succeeds from Great Britain.
b. Style – Young men grow long hair in the 60’s, after the short hair 50’s.
c. Art – Jackson Pollock and avant garde action painting.
a. Political – The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
b. Religious – Martin Luther and the Reformation.
c. Technological – Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press.
a. Political – The end of Saddam Husein’s regime in Iraq (from U.S. invasion) leading to nationwide division of factions and chaos.
b. Economic – The Dot com business frenzy.
c. Social – The Dark ages.
B. CONFORMITY Toward a certain standard
a. Fashion – Masses wore Hush puppies in the mid 90’s
b. Political – Majority of the U.S. supported George W. after 9/11
c. Religious – Majority of Roman world essentially became Christian “Catholic” after
a. Economic – Strength of the U.S. during WWII domestic efforts.
b. Technology – The development of the internet (during a time of political stability in the country, creations flourish)
c. Religious – Spread of religions, conversions, power in numbers.
a. Fashion – homogenization of styles, leading to generic clothing for the masses.
b. Political – Bureaucracy administration and corruption.
c. Economic – Fast food corporations decline of quality.
*Z-axis: The greater good. or the greater evil; right and wrong; ; morality.
The cycle of conformity and revolution spirals through eternity on this endless Z-axis, everything affecting everything in a cosmic butterfly effect. This is the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, also sometimes referred to as the butterfly effect when discussing Chaos theory. The idea that one small event or group of people doing a certain thing in a certain place will eventually affect the entire world in some way shape or form. The fact that the human race affects nature, each other, and even the rest of the universe has become more apparent in the last 100 years of our history. We share our innovations and ideas with each other, force them on each other and nature, and whether we intend to or not, each action we take affects the rest of the world.
“Embedded in the Mud, glistening green, gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead. It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across time. -Ray Bradbury (1952)
THESIS STATEMENT: “Conformity and revolution within the realm of visual style and conceptual content follow a perpetual cycle of Social stagnation and renewal.”
What is Revolution?
Evolution Vs. Revolution:
•Evolution is a process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change or development, as in social or economic structure or institutions. While often developmental, evolution can sometimes mean stagnation, by this I mean it can simply be just the watering down or confusion of original strong concepts.
•Revolution is an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed, or, a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, esp. one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence. Revolution comes from nothing, it is a radical new thing that nobody has heard of. It can be a good thing or a bad thing. But in the world of creativity, visual style, and conceptual content, it is indeed a good thing.
New ideas are often formed by creating combinations of different existing concepts. When the brain is filled with plenty of stimuli, these items rattle around and interact with one another. New combinations are formed when the brain is presented with a problem-solving challenge. Faced with an obstacle and determination, the mind thus “creates” a new idea.
In his book “A technique for producing Ideas”, James Webb Young illustrates this concept with a comparison to the kaleidoscope:
“The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometric designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it, the greater become the possibilities of new and striking combinations.”
Conversely, some new ideas can possibly come, “from thin air”, meaning, something entirely new came literally from nothing. These are often the most influential in guiding the course of human history. The most ground breaking, earth-shattering ideas are these. They are what R. Buckminster Fuller refers to as catching a “Cosmic Fish”.
“Look closely and comprehensively at these pictures. Integrate your reactions with all your spontaneous recalls of the other experiential information of your life as well as of other lives as reported to you. Think and think some more. From time to time, humans are endowed with the capacity to discover just a little more regarding their role in the cosmic scenario. You too might catch one of these “Cosmic Fish”.” – R Buckminster Fuller
(Perkins, Sean, Ardill, and Caddy 4)
More often than not, those who present these cosmic fish to the world are rejected or shunned by society, and historically, in the more barbaric and violent eras of the world, those who presented cosmic fish were even killed.
In visual style:
The Bauhaus school in Germany pioneered many of the concepts of modernist design and architecture. Many of their ideas were revolutionary and unheard of at the time, possibly cosmic fish. Designers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe began in the early days, and eventually these concepts were passed on to the next generation of designers and architects like Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Lawrence Halprin, and Paul Rudolph. The Bauhaus style then spread throughout western Europe and the United States.
Moses and the Israelites were persecuted for their following of the 10 commandments at a time when the world at large had no grip on these social concepts. To the Egyptians and Israelites alike, the 10 commandments were a cosmic fish, a radical new idea.
Later, after hundreds of years of social and moral stagnation, the Israelites had grown accustomed to the 10 commandments. At times like these, society takes valuable core concepts for granted, interest wanes, and the people develop amendments to the core concepts. while these conceptual amendments are often considered creative ideas, they are not cosmic fish, and classified as lesser to the original core concepts.
Thus in the times and seasons of the Earth, following the natural order of the universe, a new cosmic fish appears, presenting its ground breaking concepts to the world. Jesus Christ lived at this time when idea had stagnated in Israel and the world at large. He taught people radical new simple ideas, using metaphors and allegories, methods that were previously unheard of and unused by society.
In this example, his radical concepts outraged many of the people, and he was officially rejected by the ruling body of the people. But select few identified with his teachings, then more and more became open to the concepts, and eventually his words spread like conceptual wildfire throughout the earth. Now looking back, he is considered by many to have affected the secular world and world culture more than any other single living person in history.
Again, this brings me to the point that one person or one group of people and their ideas can have an immense effect on the course the world takes, the z-axis of the conformity-revolution cycle. One seed planted can grow a gigantic tree:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
and for want of a horse the rider was lost,
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
-Benjamin Franklin Poor Richard’s Almanac (1758)
The Methods of Revolutionary innovation:
1. Reverting to Dated, unconventional, or generally unwanted technologies or styles.
“Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was only the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential.”
“Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
Craig Stecyk 1976
Example: In his book, “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell describes the story of Hush puppies return to everyday American fashion. It began with a small group of Manhattan hipsters going into small ma and pa stores and buying them up specifically because they weren’t cool. They wore them to the coolest clubs and eventually there was a movement around the hush puppies. Everyone who was cool in Manhattan simply had to have them. Then eventually, fashion designers were using them in shoots and celebrities were buying them as well.
I would like to point out the fact that the fashion designers themselves did not concoct this phenomenon, they simply had the cultural insight to jump on the momentum train at the precise moment to cash in. This shows another point I would like to illustrate; the fashion industry at large does not innovate, but rather, many designers have the ability to watch and wait for “the catching of cosmic fish”, at which point they take the catch from the original fisherman and gobble it up for themselves, followed by other fashion designers and brands, jumping on the train at the right moment as well, thus leading to the homogenization and stagnation of fashion styles.
Examples of stagnation within the fashion world:
a. Fashion magazines today continue the feature spread graphic design style pioneered by Fabian Baron,
b. When one new color or style comes into fashion, all the designers jump on it.
C. Many fashion labels use the exact same Italian bodoni looking typographic logo treatments.
2. Doing exactly what YOU want, and not what they want you to do.
“Today the difference between a good and poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it.” -Wittgenstein
(Perkins, Sean, Ardill, and Caddy 4)
In the late 1960’s early 70’s, the world of skateboarding was deeply affected by a small group who did exactly what they wanted to do, and not what they were told.
Skateboarding was at a stagnant state. The popularity it had amassed in the 50’s was deteriorating, the sport often seen as a childish novelty, like the yo yo or the hula hoop. Skate contests were dated, often displaying skill sets like cheap circus acts.
But the world of skateboarding was about to experience a major paradigm shift. In the Early 1970’s, a group of unknown inner city kids took their experience surfing and brought it to skateboarding. They skated the run-down urban streets of Santa Monica; “Dogtown” to them. They rode with an unheard of and a previously unseen style. This was new. One by one they earned sponsorships at the local surf/skate shop, Zephyr, and soon became known as “The Z-Boys”. They took control of the skate world and proceeded on a ten year wild ride, during which they pioneered previously unimaginable physical feats on their skateboards; sidewalk surfing style, riding pools, and the first ever vertical aerial maneuvers. As well as off their skateboards; starting businesses, traveling the world, and spreading their art, style, and attitude around the globe.
The Z-boys of Dogtown were another cosmic fish. Their main method was simply doing precisely whatever they wanted, when they wanted, and how they wanted. Had they been restricted by parents, had they listened to authority, or had they obeyed the laws, they would never have reached the heights they did.
At the time, they never saw the future potential of what they were doing. They did it simply for fun, because it was what they loved. It was never about becoming rich or famous, it was about skateboarding, it was about being a skateboarder, and having fun.
“By doing something that everyone said was a waste of time we ended up affecting kids all over the world.” -Stacy Peralta
3. Co-creation, Co-idea spreading, or User-generated idea collaboration or idea sharing.
In “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell describes three factors that contribute to the spread of epidemics. He calls them the three rules of the tipping point. Each of these rules help us understand social phenomena and explain why things spread from person to person the way they do. These principles are important to my thesis because without them, revolution cannot spread from the mind of the creator to his audience. Further, I include the following descriptions because I intend to employ them later in the creation of my project. They are:
A. The law of the few – This rule describes the type of people who are the primary “spreaders” of information or styles. The first are connectors.
Connectors are people who are essentially friends with everybody they meet. They make and retain friendships easily. An example the author gives of one historic connector is Paul Revere. Famous primarily for his night ride announcing the attack of the British, Revere was a well connected person, he participated in so many social, political, religious networks, that virtually everyone in the community knew or knew of him. He was likeable, and trustworthy. The same night of Paul Reveres ride, another patriot, by the name of William Dawes went on his own quest to spread the word, but was far less successful. This man did not have the rapport of Paul revere, and his message was not received in the same way.
The next type of personality is the Maven. A Maven is someone who is a specialist of the message he is spreading. Mavens are consumer report junkies, they know everything there is to know about a specific type of new car or TV set coming out. They are key to the spreading of knowledge because people come to them for advice on things like where to get a gym membership, what school to enrol your kid in, what kind of car to buy and why. Mavens will give you their opinion on things weather you ask for it or not.
And the last personality type, and perhaps the most powerful, is the Salesman. Salesmen personalities are often the alpha personality of the group. They may or may not have rapport similar to the connector, but a with strong overwhelming desire to convince others of their opinions and information they present. The salesman has an innate sense of what convinces people. They are often successful in business and relationships because people are convinced that they need what the Salesman is conveying to them.
B. The stickiness factor – This describes how certain aspects of the message itself must contain a deep conceptual content to successfully transfer from one person to another. When packaged in a simple, effective way, this conceptual content can become irresistible. Gladwell mentions the example of the children’s TV show Sesame Street. Never before had an educational television show for kids been fully effective and there were many skeptical parents and teachers. But the show packaged the simple educational concepts together with Jim Henson’s Muppet characters in a streamlined way that kids were drawn to without turning them off with heavy educational content. This fusion was very sticky, and sesame street was a success for many years.
C. The power of context – This rule means that the message plays off an already established concept in the mind of the receiver, or that the context under which the message is to be received is again, fully familiar to the receiver. Almost like the perfect answer to a question
the receiver has already been thinking about.
Train car Masterpieces
Another case study of this ongoing cycle between conformity and revolution comes from New York subways, ghettos, and streets. The early Graffiti artists unknowingly followed suit with Malcom Gladwell’s theories of social epidemics. They started a cultural movement that some would consider a cosmic fish.
“New York City’s subways became the canvas of a new art form in the early 1970’s. Although Norman Mailer and a handful of journalists and photographers celebrated the phenomenon, others saw it as an attack on society. By the late 1970’s New York City’s “guerilla artists” had developed their craft to produce whole-car murals that became a tourist attraction to visitors from around the world. To regain visual control over the subways, New York Mayors waged multimillion dollar campaigns to erase the paintings and arrest the painters. Today, although the passionate and bold murals have been suppressed from New York subways, the art form has become a worldwide phenomenon with adherents in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, and all major U.S. cities. Through films like Wild Style, Style wars, and Beat Street, the art became known around the world as the visual element of Hip Hop culture.”
The mainstream stereotype of the average graffiti artist is that they are gang members and street hoodlums, But a great number of them were legitimate citizens who led double lives, in which they were straight A students by day, and revolutionary artists by night. One of these, by the nickname VULCAN said of his situation:
“The trains were like my friends, more than just subway trains, you know, because I spent so much time on them. When I was a little kid I used to ride the trains every day for two hours, just going and coming from school. And then I rode them five, six hours, five days a week, just writing in them, doing insides, you know. I knew the trains, I knew each line. I spent more time on the trains than in school, and I was a straight A student who went to school every day.
The trains were a big part of my life. I used to sit in the train station every day, just watching the trains for hours, watching the pieces go by. The kids knew the trains better than some of the MTA people, because you had to know the trains to get over, to do pieces, to do them well, to get a lot of pieces up. You have to know what you’re doing. You talk to some guys that had thousands of pieces up, and they have never been busted, because they know the trains, they do the research and they know what to look out for.”
Cosmic fish becomes gradual development.
New York subway graffiti is said to hold roots in Caribbean and African culture. And because of the fact that New York itself is such a melting pot, different people’s religious and cultural influences mingled, married, and fought against each other. One of the most influential early graffiti artists known simply as “DOZE” said this of his family heritage:
“My background is Bahamian and Haitian Creole. My grandparents moved from Miami to Harlem in the ‘30s. My mom is black, my father was from British Guyana, he was light skinned. Even though I have Caribbean heritage, my parents were brought up in New York. I’ve always considered myself a New Yorker in terms of heritage. This is where my parents and I are from.”
Out of this came a new art form. A revolutionary movement, a cry for social reform from the under class of the city. They crossed cultural borders that were traditionally handled with caution, edginess, racism, and violence.
“It is not clear wether this integration was influenced by the consciousness created by the civil rights movement with its integrationist ideals, by the spontaneous and natural result of the desire to express a shared urban experience, or by the common desire to rebel. It is clear that youth from a broad spectrum of cultural heritages came together to form a complex rite of passage. Growing up in segregated neighborhoods, these innovative artists acted on their visions on an integrated society, and many had to struggle against the long standing prejudices of their society to do so.”
Their neighborhoods were surrounded by urban decay, and a constant visual in their world was the sight of train cars. All around were the el trains, tracks, cars, and even subways. “Everything was just the tracks. The trains were always within a hundred yards of my window. Everywhere I lived, I could always see the trains. I grew up right near them, and spent hours on the trains just riding back and forth from school, and riding the trains with my mother… But when I was 14, I went down into the underworld, [the tunnels]. The enhancement was there, people had already started writing all over the city.”
The idea was tangible to the urban youth, the context under which they created was appropriate to the participants. They easily got the message from each other, the movement would spread. They would meet together:
“Originally, groups of writers met at certain train stations to watch the latest style innovations and to form painting crews. Many passionately recall the individual creativity that was encouraged within the group context. One dramatic aspect of the writing movement was its creation of an interracial, ethnic, gendered youth culture at grass roots levels. As writing groups formed, each painter brought his or her own cultural style and perspective to the art. When a new piece rode by on the rails, other writers would study it, incorporating the styles or images they liked the best into their own work, and a fresh style would be born soon after in the train yard. In this way the complex layers of the creative process continued to intertwine.”
The earliest paintings were literally designed by each artist to leave an impression on the average citizen. They wanted people to see them and either be confused by them or identify with them. They wanted people to know their struggle, and incite others to do the same type of acts. It was as much a political, social statement as it was an art statement.
Another way this art form developed and spread was through competition. In order to complete huge murals quickly as to avoid attention from the authorities, artists would often form themselves into “crews”. This way, they could each put in labor on the piece, all together at once, get it done quickly, and “flee the scene of the crime” before getting caught. Beforehand they would each contribute the creative direction of the piece, make a master sketch, and then get to work.
Apprenticeships – “Writers learned through practice. Many early masters began as boys by observing the work on the trains, emulating it, and then joining a crew and apprenticing with a master painter. Through apprenticeships, painting techniques are learned and pieces are collectively painted.”
This aspect of having crews work together brought a team pride element. Different crews were known in the underground community and around the city. Word of mouth rumors would spread as soon as one crew successfully completed a new style, and then a competing crew would paint on a new car in response. This element of the whole community collectively pushing each other caused the quality of the work to go up, and the creative conceptual content would also soon flourish.
Transition to the mainstream
Eventually, The world of Graffiti would gain pop-culture recognition for its artistic merit. As Hip Hop music and culture received exposure in mainstream markets, Graffiti came with it. New York City became the Mecca for aspiring “writers” to come to learn the style. Many actually traveled to New York to ride the trains, absorb the sights of the different pieces moving across the city, and meet in person the pioneers of the movement.
Today, Graffiti is at a somewhat stagnant state. One can enter a department store in any major U.S. city and, in the children’s clothing section, find T-shirts with knock-off graffiti-themed graphics on them, television graphics influenced by the style, and general mass acceptance of the stylistic influence. The art form has roots in revolution, but currently remains conformist. But their history shows that they followed my aforementioned, 2nd method of revolutionary innovation; Doing exactly what YOU want, and not what they want you to do.
“Writing emerged as an art form done by and for members of a community. It was not done by crafts people paid to perform or to produce objects for consumption; writers performed for each other for the development of their form, and their painting performances produced a living, functioning art.”
Technology as innovation
In our modern world, conceptual and stylistic innovation come from a variety of places. Cosmic fish are caught through a number of processes. Now and in the future, stylistic trends and movements will not only come from reverting to dated, unwanted styles and technologies, but they will be entirely new technologies, completely new styles, and unheard of concepts. On the forefront of this technological and stylistic future, is the Apple Computer company. Company CEO Steve Jobs says:
“Innovation has no limits. The only limit is your imagination. It’s time for you to begin thinking out of the box. If you are involved in a growing industry, think of ways to become more efficient; more customer friendly; and easier to do business with. If you are involved in a shrinking industry – get out of it quick and change before you become obsolete; out of work; or out of business. And remember that procrastination is not an option here. Start innovating now;
We were all born with a gift to give in life, one which informs all of our desires, interests, passions and curiosities. This gift is, in fact, our purpose. And you don’t need permission to decide your own purpose. No boss, teacher, parent, priest or other authority can decide this for you. Just find that unique purpose.” -Steve Jobs,
In between the world wars, the Bauhaus school emerged in Germany. They began a revolutionary movement in the world of design and architecture in response to industrialism. Their creed was to embrace the machine, for it was here to stay. But it was now time for the artist and craftsman to breathe life and soul into the industrial world. Mies van der Rohe, the great Bauhaus architect said,
“Technology is far more than a method; it is a word in itself. As a method it is superior in almost every respect. But only where it is left to itself as in the construction of machinery, or as in the gigantic structures of engineering, there technology reveals its true nature. There it is evident that it is not only a useful means, that it is something, in itself, something that has a meaning and a powerful form — so powerful in fact, that it is not easy to name it. Is that still technology or is it architecture? And that may be the reason why some people are convinced that architecture will be outmoded and replaced by technology. Such a conviction is not based on clear thinking. Wherever technology reaches its real fulfillment, it transcends into architecture.” -Mies van der Rohe,
Riding the wave
Again we have another example of a small group who pushed limits, did what they wanted, and started a revolution, which became a worldwide norm. To further establish my point, I include the example of the original wave riders, the early surfers of the mid 20th century.
The end of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s were a time of immense conformism. The ideals of the era were socially strict, people were concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses” (the desire to be seen as being as good as one’s neighbors or contemporaries using the comparative benchmarks of social caste or the accumulation of material goods. Failing to “keep up with the Joneses” was demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.)
At this point, surfing was nothing more than a leisure activity for Hawaiian natives. Travelers and tourists visiting the islands would see the Hawaiians doing it, and they knew of it, but upon their return to the mainland, it was frivolous, you returned to your job at the office and your life. It was not until champion swimmer, lifeguard, and surfer, the Great Duke Kahanamoku would bring the sport to the mainland by holding exhibitions and competitions in southern California, that national awareness of the sport would be spread. But it was still seen as a frivolous, summertime diversion.
But slowly, southern California youth began to identify with this model of the Hawaiian lifestyle. It was attractive; you lived a simple life on the beach, you ate fish that you caught yourself, you spent a lot of time with your friends, and, you surfed.
It was sticky.
Small groups of surfers began forming, and though many of them had never actually been to Hawaii, they started echoing the romanticized island life. They spent all their time at the beach, they played Ukuleles, made their own surfboards, and built grass huts and lived in them at beaches like La Jolla’s Windansea. They turned their backs on things like getting prestigious jobs, buying respectable homes, and advancing their social status. They did what they wanted, and not what society told them to. This was rebellious. It was revolutionary. It was not cool. Parents looked down on it. If you were a surfer, you were a bum. Since then, surfing has seen rises and falls of mass popularity. But throughout its history, it has never seen anything like what it has now become.
Today, to surf is to be cool. Surfing is status, and surfing is business. The “surf industry”, which consists of many corporations, is the darling of the teenage clothing market. In 2004, the surf and skate apparel/hard goods reported earnings of 6.52 billion dollars… in the US alone.
Conformist and mainstream, the surfing world, industry, and lifestyle is the complete opposite of what it started out as; rebellious and revolutionary. Chris Cutri directed the film Riding the Wave, which addresses this issue. The film takes a look at the social effect this whole thing is having on the entire country. It features commentary by top industry gurus, the CEO’s of companies like Quiksilver, Billabong, Hurley, as well as purists, writers, historians, and contemporary youth; the target market, those who buy into the trends.
One of the most interesting social aspects shown in the film explains perhaps why people are so eager to jump on to the surfing conformity train. Not only is it the sticky and attractive, romanticized lure of the surf culture, but their target market is perhaps the most unstable, vulnerable market in the world; teenagers. This audience has a constant need for self-validation, peer acceptance, and oftentimes a weak, unstable, constantly evolving sense of self identity. Though nobody wants to admit it, most people buy into the culture to fit in, to be cool.
“For me, its almost like rebellion or revolution at this point is almost impossible. The only thing left to rebel against at this point would be the corporate stuff. You can’t rebel when you’re on prime time TV or magazines everyday. Like if you walk across BYU campus now, almost all the students wear some kind of surf or skate related brands. The real rebellion now would be to wear Nascar stuff, [laughs] So why do all these kids from Orem Utah wear all the surf and skate stuff? They just wear it cause its cool, because of the hip/cool factor. Do they realize the whole history of surfing, or is it the draw of that beautiful ocean riding aesthetic? I wouldn’t give them that much credit.
But as for the current state, I don’t see this rise in popularity dying out, partly because of that history and partly because of that surreal beauty of surfing. It’s like Steve Pezman says at the end of the film. Its that whole feeling of the “packaged energy”, you get a little taste of the universe, you get to be in connection with the universe. That’s never gonna’ die out.” -Chris Cutri
And perhaps this unique cosmic connection with the universe is what makes surfing so sticky. Many surfers now a days learned to surf from a parent or even a grandparent. Its something people pass on to their family and friends. Things like this, that people feel most passionate about, are the most powerful driving forces of culture replication and survival. The valuable messages are passed on:
“Fourty-seven percent of the readers of Surfing magazine say that the biggest influences on their decisions about where to surf and what to purchase come from a friend.”
“Friends and relatives are the number-one source for information about places to visit or about flights, hotels, or rental cars, according to the Travel Industry Association. Of people they surveyed, fourty-three percent cited friends and family as a source for information.”
“Fifty-seven percent of customers of one car dealership in California learned about the dealership by word of mouth. “This is not unusual,” says Jim Callahan of the Dohring Company, which conducts surveys for about five hundred car dealerships around the country every year.”
“Seventy percent of Americans rely on the advice of others when selecting a new doctor, according to the same study. Sixty-three percent of women surveyed for Self magazine cited “friend, family or co-worker referral” as one of the factors influencing over-the-counter drug purchases.”
Some of the biggest mistakes of our time, that most companies not only make on a monthly basis, but collectively dump billions of dollars into, are modern advertising efforts. It makes sense to most business people with a practical, problem-solving mind set; question: “How do we raise awareness of our product or service?” Answer: “We throw money at the problem and it may go away, hire an advertising agency.” But advertising has always been difficult to quantify or qualify in terms of effectiveness, and so when corporate budgets drop, one of the first things to get cut is advertising. In advertising classes, this is taught generally as a mistake, but according to cold hard numbers and many professional opinions, this may not be such a mistake after all.
“The idea a critical part of marketing is word of mouth and validation from important personal relationships is absolutely key, and most marketers ignore it.” -Len Short, executive vice president of advertising and brand management at Charles Schwab.
Most of the time, most products and services need neither advertising, nor personal word-of-mouth pass-a longs. Most products and services sell themselves. If you need a plumber, you look through the phone book or search Google maps for a local plumber. If you need diapers for your baby, you look at the shelf selection at the grocery store and choose one of the brand options. You may have seen a TV commercial that morning about a brand new type of diapers that you may or may not remember, but because of your lifetime of watching TV and thumbing through magazines, your brain has trained itself to ignore such distractions. The chances that you will even remember having seen the commercial are slim. Now suppose that you do remember seeing it that morning, but all you may remember was the funny joke at the end of the commercial, you get to the grocery store and forget which brand the commercial was for since most of the name brands of diapers have similar packaging design. In the end, you buy the diapers because its a necessity, and when It comes down to it, you’re going to make a split-second decision, and either buy generic brand diaper to save money, or whatever big brand one is within easier reach than the rest.
This is not to say that advertising is completely useless. Its still necessary for many things, but in our evolving, globalized world, it will soon be seen as a secondary means of reaching the audience. The Primary means will be this phenomenon of word of mouth pass-alongs on huge and rapid scale, what Emanuel Rosen calls “Buzz”. Buzz works best for exciting products, innovative products, personal experience products, complex products (software or medical devices), expensive products, or observable products (cars, clothes, etc.). This not only applies to products, but more importantly, ideas. The products and services companies provide are but threads in the fabric of culture, or humanity in general. Greater than this push for trivial commercial word-of-mouth epidemics, is the search for new world culture, new knowledge, new science, and new opportunities for peace.
“The traits of American Character were fixed; the rate of physical and economical growth was established; and history, certain that a given distance of time the Union would contain so many millions of people, with wealth valued at so many millions dollars, became thenceforward, concerned chiefly to know what kind of people these millions were to be. They were intelligent, but what paths would their intelligence select? They were quick, but what solution of insoluble problems would quickness hurry? They were scientific, but what control would their science exercise over their destiny? They were mild, but what corruptions would their relaxations bring? They were peaceful, but by what machinery would their corruptions be purged? What interests were to vivify a society so vast and uniform? What ideals were to ennoble it? What object, besides physical content, must a democratic continent aspire to attain? For the treatment of such questions, history required another century of experience.”
Through my research, I am led back to my original question: What’s next? What comes after post-modern thought? What is the next major revolution and who will lead it? The purpose of this research was to hypothetically “Walk into a room where people are having a conversation on the topic, understand the conversation, and then somehow add to it, further it.” And now after my research, I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the conversation, and a plan to further it.
Who will participate:
The leaders of this unborn movement are unknown, and they may not yet realize the influence they will soon have on the rest of the world. My first objective in spreading my search is deciphering who these people are; who will be the generals of my revolutionary army. They will be one of two major categories:
A. The creatives; painters, sculptors, illustrators, musicians, poets, film makers, graphic designers, industrial designers, fashion designers, interior designers, and architects.
B. Captains of Industry; business leaders with real vision, capacity to contribute innovative culture back into society.
The message they will spread:
There are no boundaries, innovation has no limits. Create and share your wildest dreams with the world, and together bring the world further. Not all of the world is up to speed with the current state of conceptual thought and visual style. In fact, most of the world is left in darkness. The majority of the world’s population can’t yet read or write. Much of the world is left in archaic, superstitious thought; dominated by cruel dictators who prohibit modern concepts, keep their people in intellectual darkness, without opportunity. It may be safe to say that mainly the western world has the most advanced consciousness of the world. The future is: everything coming together. This future means not only the next big innovation, but continual efforts to bring the rest of the world up to speed with contemporary concepts. I return to Ken Wilbur’s M-theory; the master theory, or the mother theory:
“The Physical Universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order, just as when water chaotically washing down the drain in your bathroom sink suddenly organizes itself into a beautiful swirling whirlpool.”
The words of Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, leader of the futurist movement in the early 1900’s: “We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be the essential elements of our poetry… we affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed… a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace… Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CUTRI:
ZB: Through the experience of making the film, you have become very well connected with the industry. Do you see the current state of the surfing world/industry as positive or negative, and Why?
CC: I’d have to say, when I first went into the whole thing, I had a negative slant; “This is not good.” For me it was almost like a spiritual perspective, kids [across the country] were trying to find identity through the clothing, and the less perspective or identity someone has, the more they grab on. I don’t see this problem as ever being fixed… until the Millennium or something. [laughs]
But as I got more into the whole thing, I realized that there is much more going on. Its a free-market economy, billion-dollar businesses are involved, its much more than just black and white. We do live in a capitalistic society, but I’m more interested in the whole kid’s identity issue, but they’re all connected. If a kid is looking at general surf media, its tough for a kid to look at it and say, “I’m cooler than that, I don’t need that.”
I definitely could have made the kids look more stupid. There was a lot of extra footage we never ended up using in the film, footage of interviews with some of the kids where they looked almost at a loss for words, you could see it in their eyes that the real reason they wanted to wear the clothes was to be cool.
Its really about you, your age generation. I always ask these questions in my class, and think, how many people are actually gonna’ raise their hands and say, “I’m wearing this stuff ‘cause I wanna be cool, or I ‘wanna get chicks.”
The film is critical of me and my generation, and you and your generation. I have to admit, I grew up loving surfing and body boarding and all, but the “cool factor” was definitely a huge draw, I wanted to be cool. We all do. But it is definitely possible to get into it for the wrong reasons, but still stay true to the pure, good reasons for doing it.
ZB: Of all the People you met and interviewed while making the film, who would you say is the most influential person in the surf industry today, and why? Is the future in good hands?
CC: Transworld Business recently said it was Bob McKnight, [Quiksilver CEO] and you can hear his point of view on the film of course, but you know, I think they all see this issue, all the CEO’s, they know in the back of their mind the conformity, the issues facing kid’s identities, but when running a business, its just impossible to ignore this huge business side of things. They run businesses, and that’s their job. Its hard for them to reconcile the two, there is a part of them that is a purist deep down inside, but when so much money is at stake, they start justifying.
ZB: Does revolution play any role in the current surf world?
CC: For me, its almost like rebellion or revolution at this point is almost impossible. The only thing left to rebel against at this point would be the corporate stuff. You can’t rebel when you’re on prime time TV or magazines everyday. Like if you walk across BYU campus now, almost all the students wear some kind of surf or skate related brands. The real rebellion now would be to wear Nascar stuff, [laughs] So why do all these kids from Orem Utah wear all the surf and skate stuff? They just wear it cause its cool, because of the hip/cool factor. Do they realize the whole history of surfing, or is it the draw of that beautiful ocean riding aesthetic? I wouldn’t give them that much credit.
ZB: The idea of the visual conformity of the culture is important to me as a designer. It seems like everyone copies one another, leading to a visually homogenized landscape of surfing. What would you say to the marketing director who says, “We need to look more like Volcom to sell more product.”?
CC: There does seem to be this current aesthetic of art in the surf world. In fact, I was with a graphic designer at Quiksilver a few months ago and he told me that Volcom is putting out the best stuff in the industry. A few years ago it was the same way, but with different styles. What was in were those plaid Bermuda shorts, and it seemed like every single company made them exactly the same to follow the trend. They all do it.
But again, I think the industry, now that I’ve gotten in with people, is a much smaller community than people think. Its like a tribe, they’re all watching each other, right next to each other down there in Irvine. And it is all the same. If you open up a surf magazine, almost all their ads look the same as well.
ZB: What’s next for the surf industry/world? Is this the cultural apex of its progression?
CC: You know, a recent study came out I read about that said more kids skateboard now in the US than play little league baseball. Its totally mainstream. Now, will it ever get to the mainstream consumer status of something like NFL football? Probably not. For people in the Midwest, core fads like these get big, and then die out… its like core hip hop, it started out as a core underground thing and now a lot of hip hop purists are not happy with the course its taken. But I don’t see that happening to surfing, because of the roots the industry in the history of surfing.
But as for the current state, I don’t see this rise in popularity dying out, partly because of that history and partly because of that surreal beauty of surfing. It’s like Steve Pezman says at the end of the film. Its that whole feeling of the “packaged energy”, you get a little taste of the universe, you get to be in connection with the universe. That’s never gonna’ die out.
Wilber, Ken. A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality
Shambala, Boston 2001
Smith, Leonard. Chaos: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Oxford University Press, New York 2007
Young, James Webb. A Technique for Producing Ideas (Advertising Age Classics Library)
McGraw-Hill, New York 2003
Perkins, Sean, Ralph Ardill, and Adrian Caddy. Experience. Booth-Clibborn Editions, New York, 2001.
Peralta, Stacy. Dogtown and Z-Boys (Deluxe Edition)
FILM Sony Pictures, Culver City California, 2005
Miller, Ivor L. Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City
University Press of Mississippi / Jackson, New York 2002
Jordy, William H. Symbolic Essence, and Other Writtings on Modern Architecture and American culture. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002
Cutri, Chris. Riding the Wave. FILM, Stake Dance Films, Utah 2006
Rosen, Emanuel. The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing
Doubleday Currency, New York 2000
Gladwell, Malcom. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Little, Brown and Company. Boston, 2000
Meggs, Phillip B. and Alston W. Purvis. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design
, Fourth Edition. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey 2006
“I was afraid that by observing objects with my eyes and trying to comprehend them with each of my other senses I might blind my soul altogether.”
“Experience is not what happens to you, its what you make of what happens to you”
Aldous Huxley (exp book)
“As long as only the image of the idea is perceived and not its substance it cannot become a driving force – the idea has to take shape.”
Pierre De Coubertin(exp book)
“We shape our buildings: Thereafter they shape us.”
Winston Churchill(exp book)
“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.”
Henry James(exp book)
“Nowadays peoples’ visual imagination is so much more sophisticated, so much more developed, particularly in young people, that now you can make an image which just slightly suggests something, they can make of it what they will.”
Robert Doisneau (exp book)
The BFA Show