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The best and worst thing about Los Angeles art.

Titanic opposing forces exist as the best and worst aspects of creativity in Los Angeles. I’ll save the best for last, so starting with the worst: a big problem is a fundamental lack of freshness. This creative shortfall is demonstrated in formulaic Hollywood films, vapid genre music, too-identical games, and other uninspired works. A fatal symptom of this specific creative failure is often a repetitive retreat to childhood motifs and nostalgia-filled forms like cartoons, comics, and retro style. Also: a swooning love of the past marked by steampunk, vintage, old Hollywood, atelier art, and any recording on vinyl.

The nostalgia trap.
A retreat to our collective pop-culture history is inherently conservative, cowardly, and shows an underlying level of fear. There is a childish comfort in recycling things we have already seen, like a toddler at bedtime who craves the security of the same story, told over and over. If we’re very lucky, we get a fun reboot of a tired story delivered by the able hands of J.J. Abrams (Star Wars, Star Trek.) J.J. has a very rare deftness at making old stories exciting again. This master-rebooter skill is so very difficult to do at the highest level that J.J. gets paid $120 million dollars for it.

We are not always J.J.-lucky in the nostalgia game. Tolerating sappy nostalgia allows contemporary LA art galleries to show “new” paintings of moping big-eyed kiddies, a style that was silly the first time around when Margaret Keane painted this emotional goop in the 1950s. Strangely, even Keane didn’t think her paintings were very good, which makes you really question her imitators and rebooters. Pop-culture reboots can be impressive when done at a very high level of skill. But the success of a few elite pop-culture miners like J.J. Abrams has inspired thousands of zombie imitators, who sift through history remaking turds, not gems.
 Imitation is the fundamental problem in art, since all art-making is learned by imitation. Artists are encouraged to make works similar to what other artists already sell. Schooling operates as a monkey-see-monkey-do process. Because humans are smart monkeys, we develop new habits. We develop a habitual way of working, a step-by-step method called “skill.” That’s great if the skill is one you want. But you can also learn bad habits. If somebody congratulates you on your newest big-eyed-cartoon-cutie with 43 Facebook likes it only gets worse, because you got a jolt of positive feedback to validate your cultural vampirism.

Going custom.
 Here’s an idea: If your creative work seems like an obvious copy of anybody else, just stop now. Try moving in a new direction, demonstrated by what’s best about Los Angeles art. Instead of monkey-see-monkey-do and the group-think of social media — flip it — get very personal and go “custom.” There is a unique flavor of personal freedom in California not seen elsewhere, but it’s mostly a state of mind. Custom is the impetus behind brilliant stupidity like Burning Man. This special custom-thing starts as a shameless willingness to borrow odd spare parts and recombine them into a personally satisfying custom form. Custom tinkering was the backbone of the hot-rod ethos that began in California. It’s the DNA in surf culture and skateboards. It’s visualized in Robert Williams art of custom-meets-nostalgia; injecting a cartoon aesthetic with secret narrative. It’s in Edward Kienholz making a TV out of odd materials. It’s in Steve Jobs too, recombining the best ideas from Xerox Parc research and making them into his dream of a personal computer. This loony customization is a thing willingly done in California more than anyplace else. But don’t let that stop you. California is a state of mind.

Robert Williams, Kienholz, Paul Frank

One example I like: iconic LA Designer Paul Frank got his start making custom wallets out of overstock rolls of vinyl automobile upholstery. He only made the wallets because he wanted to have something cool as give-aways when his nascent punk band performed. The band never made it, but the Paul Frank style with Julius The Monkey became an international fashion hit. For Paul, it was about making an oddball-custom-art thing that satisfied his personal aesthetic. It felt custom and cool to him. Maybe nobody else understands why. That’s a good thing. Maybe it’s your turn to go all Frankenstein with your supercharged custom dream project. Forget fear, if it blows up that’s cool too.