SAH News

Places Journal: Simon Sadler on Notes Toward a History of Change

by Simon Sadler | Feb 09, 2016
Ch-ch-ch-changes. The Boomers and Gen-Xers have been mourning the death of one of their popular pioneers — an unexpected grief that recalls, somehow, the grief at the passing of another popular pioneer, Steve Jobs. David Bowie, like the Apple founder, seems to have approached his final months as he did his celebrated projects — with steadfast creativity and a kind of primal wonder at the phenomenon of his own being. Bowie and Jobs identified as artists and dabbled in Buddhism even as each enjoyed the heights of fame and wealth. Both sought the sacred amid the profane of pop culture. Both transpired to have touched lives and inspired collective memories in ways not quite anticipated while they were still around, and to have brought to every detail of life a degree of aesthetic and conceptual rigor which seems positively designed. So strictly and thoroughly had Bowie archived his work that the Victoria & Albert was able to stage a hit exhibition with displays of hundreds of artifacts, from Ziggy Stardust bodysuits to album art to diary jottings. And — what really interests me here — Bowie and Jobs both came to personify the curious trope of change in an era that seems to have given up on progress.

Clearly Bowie and Jobs each displayed a game-changing sense of style, and both had an uncanny ability to reach into the collective psyche. But what’s more relevant to the design disciplines is the way each embodied the growing disconnect between change and progress in an era that saw the loss of modernist faith in the capacity of design to improve — to change — the world. The passing of these figures — whose careers were defined by nothing so much as a series of successive and successful transformations — is a good prompt to reconsider the nature of change, and our expectations for what it should mean. What, say, were the politics of Bowie and Jobs? Both men hooked into politically progressive causes through the charitable work of their wives (Iman’s campaign for children’s welfare, Laurene Powell Jobs’s for educational opportunity), and Bowie showed up at the occasional benefit concert, notably Live Aid in the mid ’80s. But then there’s that infamous incident of Bowie returning to London from Berlin in 1976 and making a gesture, while standing in an open-top Mercedes, that many interpreted as a Nazi salute. In retrospect there seems something inexplicable about all the changing personas, ideas, fashions, and images in the careers of both Bowie and Jobs — a mystery which only made them that much more fascinating to fans. Both men emerged from the deep sincerity of the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s seemingly free of belief in anything except the self, the image, and the future of each, facilitated always by change or, as we say nowadays, by innovation. No wonder Bowie spent the latter part of his life in search of projects (or, in the words of one critic, reviewing the retrospective album Nothing Has Changed, “mining his own history for proof of a core self”). But also in his last years Bowie, like Jobs, retreated into a bourgeois domesticity so complete that it was satirized in The Onion. (“Speculating that he would just stop off at Gourmet Garage and pick up a couple things on the way to CVS, the voracious bisexual who developed an abiding fascination with Third Reich iconography while living in Berlin with Iggy Pop reportedly broke a dog treat in half, fed it to his pet, and rifled through a pile of mail.”)
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Simon J. Sadler has been an SAH member since 2008.

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