In the second part of a series on all things cute and/or animalistic in pop culture, The Cultured Animal examines their significance in art, craft and fashion. To read the first part (furry things and music), go here.
What’s that? You don’t have a child? That’s okay, perhaps you’d like them for yourself!
Yep, they’re everywhere. Just about every trendy gift shop you walk into in Melbourne is packed wall to wall with things like cut-out deer, jewellery made from children’s storybooks of yesteryear, or bunny rabbit ornaments (even though it’s not Easter anymore). Check out Little Salon (City and Fitzroy), who go delightfully overboard on the theme; or Zakkaya (Fitzroy), whose fine Japanese products are top of the safari range. I Dream a Highway on High Street, Northcote, is also a favourite. Not because it’s Oh So Melbourne Alt-country Rock (complete with their own Western style shirts and a mini music shop stocking local artists), or because they stock independent local designers – but because it’s named after a Gillian Welch song. Who does that? (They do).
Scientist, former Australian of the Year and all-round amazing harbinger of hope for the future, Tim Flannery, argues that we are a world in its infancy, only just beginning to come fully into consciousness. These childish sensibilities may symbolise a coming to terms with this infancy, a declaration of how little we actually know.
Bring Back Baby
Another reading of all this immature paraphernalia is that it’s a backlash against the elusiveness of childhood in today’s world*. Gone are the days when we let our children run off and play freely in the streets – you know, “Just be back by dinner, Rory, we’re having bangers and mash” kind of thing. Whether it’s due to a hyperbolic, fear-inducing media, or simply an attempt to somehow mediate the flow of unfettered information coming from everywhere at our children, today we want to know where our little ones are at every moment, and precisely what they’re doing. We’d tag them with trackers if we could – but smart phones are a good substitute (god knows what else they’re using them for, though).
And so today’s little people are caught in a sort of oxymoronic homeostasis – they have at once less freedom, because they must be kept close tabs on lest they become fodder for some hideous, child-hunting monster; and more, because they have new routes for clandestinely playing out their lives: Internet chat, texting and so on allow them to extend their social selves far beyond anything a parent could ever hope to monitor with any real effect, beyond flagrantly removing a child’s right to privacy. And if anything’s sacred today, it’s the right of the child, is it not?
In The Information Age, kids’ brains are like expectant receptors for potentially anything, including highly sexualised images from billboards or Saturday morning pop music videos, which often verge on soft porn. There’s plenty of voice given in the media to concerns about the sexualisation of children, even if ultimately these (not-so-)subliminal influences continue to thwart the censors. But a less talked-about potential threat to childhood, and an extension of this “information overload”, is the knowledge that Earth is (arguably) hurtling towards environmental catastrophe at an alarming rate.
When I was a child, I used to have nightmares about dolphins washed up on toxic beaches covered in fluorescent, radioactive goop which burnt my feet. I adored dolphins, so this was a truly terrifying image. Yet all this public chatter about global warming and environmental issues was far less prevalent then. Today our kids know more about these issues than we do. Making sure we instill respect for the environment in our children from a young age is crucial; but is there a dark side to knowing in graphic detail the potential consequences of inaction? Does it scare them in the same way it used to scare me (and still does)? If so, isn’t that a form of trauma – the kind of trauma that makes you grow up pretty fast?
Kill Your Darlings
If real innocence is hard to preserve, artists are immortalising it on canvas. You’ll find it peeking out at you through hooded eyelids as you trawl the galleries of Fitzroy, or perhaps somewhere a little more famous – think Mark Ryden, the pin-up boy for this movement (if you could call it that). Yet Ryden and his contemporaries are often concerned with exposing the dark sides to these visions of innocence, through juxtaposition or brutalisation. Gore dolls are a pertinent example, as are the nightmarish dystopias of Camille Rose Garcia, which read like dark fairytales full of forlorn creatures who’ve strayed from the safe, childlike havens where they really belong.
This distortion of innocence in art can be read not merely as children’s loss of innocence, but more broadly as humanity’s loss of innocence. Today we are aware of what we are doing to the planet, and any failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions, or stand up to those who perpetrate them, is immoral (you could use any example of human abomination, really – human rights abuses, war – take your pick). We can no longer feign ignorance when hard science and information are now so easily available to just about everybody**.
These visions of thwarted childhoods can also be read as more literal, direct warnings: if we don’t act now to stem the environmental pressures facing our planet, we are potentially leaving our children the legacy of a damaged environment, which may prove inhospitable to human life as we know it.
Mark Ryden’s Little Boy Blue: is humanity in its infancy, toying with dangerous things it can’t yet comprehend? Or, does childhood elude us entirely – the boy’s knowing facial expression indicates a maturity and awareness beyond his physical years, linking him to the horrific, adult motifs against which his childish appearance is juxtaposed.
The growing love for childish paraphernalia (the ones that haven’t been subjected to violence, that is) may also indicate a sort of Freudian denial at work in our social subconscious. It’s fun to inhabit our inner child, because it means we don’t have to deal with the heavy responsibility that comes with being aware of our complex world, and our part as a species in shaping it. Wallowing in pastel-coloured ’80s toys purchased from eBay, or flouncing around in a tutu, are delightful acts in reclaiming childhood – a retroversion toward the safety of the foetal position.
Cute craft revivals are a further conflation of this regressive psychological process. Hand-sewn aprons made from vintage children’s fabrics, for instance, hark back to not just childishness, but childishness from eras long gone, from a nostalgic (perhaps fictional) place when the world felt a little less complicated. Yet to view these movements as motivated – however subconsciously – by a denial or rejection of the contemporary world may irk the many crafters whose creative pursuits are underpinned by environmental and/or social philosophies.
Recycling old things into something useful is a positive environmental statement, while the renewed recreational interest in crafts – many of which were once practiced as a matter of necessity – is right on cue with increasingly popular “slow” movements (think slow food, slow reading). These movements offer an alternative to the fast-paced, mindless consumerism of contemporary, urban life. They espouse a back-to-basics ethos and a more interactive, social role in the human chain of production and consumption. Even if a handmade product ultimately ends up on sale at a craft market, the buyer is more easily aware of where the product has originated, and therefore more aware of their consumer impact should they choose to buy it.
Peter Pan Rocks
I’m not suggesting for a moment that childish fun just for the hell of it (that is, without a hand-stitched manifesto to justify it) isn’t a good thing – so far as it doesn’t usurp our responsibilities in dealing with the world’s big issues. I’m all for children running around in the street playing cricket, without a mobile phone in sight. In fact, “disconnecting” in healthy doses might be just the thing our society needs. Writer Susan Maushart unplugged her family for six months, to some surprisingly positive results. Embracing play, creativity and childishness reconnects us with humanity and returns us to a state of freedom, unfettered by the chains (or wires) of our fraught, digitalised lives.
Digital media are not intrinsically bad either (unless you take issue with psychological addiction). But we may, from time to time, and whatever our age, need to go and play a game of hide and seek, or steal a shopping trolley and take it for a spin at 3am. Just to allow ourselves a little mental and spiritual space, so that we might be in a position to better comprehend the ways in which we react to the world of information surrounding us, and the implications this has for our humanity. Hopefully we can then figure out how to swim through it (maybe throw in a few backwards somersaults – but purely for the joy of it), rather than drown.
*I’m being very Western-/First World-centric here. Sorry.