Permanent Adolescence ; Nobody Lives in the Present, except Painters, Engineers and Scientists. Instead, Popular Culture Provides Us with a Constant Stream of Imagery Allowing Both Dreams of the Future and Nostalgia for the Past. Paul Barker Observes the Contemporary Triumph of Mass Art and Its Paradoxes

Article excerpt

A replica of the young Bob Dylan walks along the platform ahead of me, as I get off the afternoon Tube at Bethnal Green. He's got the right shades, right curls, right tight trousers. Clinging to his arm is a loving Mod girl, also in replica. Long blonde hair cut straight across, short coat, white tights. He has perfected the saunter' she has the correct upward glance of adoration. Snapped close up, you'd swear it was 1965.

But then glance across the rail tracks. A huge Marks & Spencer poster for jumpers and skirts. Twiggy, looking something like her age. She leans against a vintage Mini which is painted with streams of flowers against a background of pink. No: it's 2006, after all. A 2006 trapped between hopes of the past and nostalgia for the future.

Nobody lives in the present, except painters, scientists and engineers. All these try to see the world as it is, if only (in the case of engineers) to re-make it now. Everyone else lives in a mishmash of future and past. The present is simply where hope and experience meet. A mixture of pain and dreams.

Mass culture, mass arts, popular art - grab your own label - has become the main wrap-around purveyor of such imagery. There may be a surface show of "reality," as in Jack Vetriano's pictures, based partly on teach-yourself-to-paint manuals, or in Ron Mueck's sculptures, based partly on his experience as a TV set designer. But the point is still to convey a dream or a nostalgia. Or both.

This rule is seldom violated, and only in special political and social circumstances. One exception was the heyday of photo- reportage in certain mid-20th century magazines, such as Picture Post. Since then, though, photography has gone all ironic and self- referential. Let's just say camp. The glamour photography of Mario Testino, forever yearning back to the studio stills of Samuel Goldwyn's MGM and Harry Cohn's Paramount, gave the National Portrait Gallery a sell-out show.

We're all dreaming together. The mass media have the quality of permanent adolescence, teetering between childhood's past and adulthood's future. As Big Brother cranks up again, think of television's previous "celebrity" creations: Jade Goody, Chantelle. Away from the small screen, adolescence may be dying out as a social fact: there's an ever more direct transit from the infant to the adult state. But adolescence lives on as the frame of mind of the mass media. They deliver a youth that many people never really attain.

What are the attributes of mass culture? Richard Hamilton, the English artist who more or less invented Pop Art, listed them like this: Popular (designed for mass audience), Witty, Transient (short- term solution), Sexy, Expendable, Gimmicky, Low cost, Glamorous, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Big business.

And Hamilton's list still stands up. Most people who complain about the mass arts attack them for doing what they were always intended to do. The technologies they're most associated with are: cheap printing' photography (stills, movies, TV)' studio-processed music' plastics' the web. As components of the mass arts, plastics are what the 19th century cast iron of Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace was only aspiring to. They're the most adaptable materials ever invented.

In every lads' mag, PVC-clad glamour models caper lasciviously among cheap polypropylene sets. And not just in lads' mags. In the Guardian last month, one young woman was photographed by David LaChapelle, trapped beneath a huge blowup acrylic hamburger. Another was threatened with rape by a polystyrene dinosaur. A surprising place to find all this? Not so. The line between mass and high culture, art and pornography, crumbles all the time.

Top among the dreams the media purvey is the wet dream. On the internet the most visited web-sites are pornographic. Genealogy is second. (Dizzy visions of past glories and future pleasures. …