Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why is the TV Series "Mad Men" Such a Success? The Nostalgic Interest in Mid-20th Century America

The AMC television series, Mad Men, is a huge hit with it's subject matter about Madison Avenue advertsing and the mores and values of 1960's America. This was time of heady rising expectations. There were plenty of jobs for anyone who wanted to work hard. And with the rising expectations of the growing middle class, the dreams of becoming wealthy, owning a home, having a beautiful wife and family were heavily promoted by American corporations looking to sell the commodities and accoutrements to achieve "perfect bliss and happiness..."

The women of "Mad Men"

Don Draper character from "Mad Men
A cultural backlash began in the 1960's.  The film The Graduate was a pivotal film in 1967 as it questioned the best advice of Madison Avenue.  Simon and Garfinkel  (who won immediate fame for their music in The Graduate) introduced their song "America" in 1968.  Their music, exemplified by this song, appealed to many of the children of the American middle class who were questioning so much of what they saw as they grew up in the mid-twentieth century.  

"Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together"
"I've got some real estate here in my bag"
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America
"Kathy," I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America
Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said "Be careful his bowtie is really a camera"
"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field
"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America

So I'm interested now, as I was then, in what was the impact of the culture of mid-twentieth century America on it's people and values.  There seems to be a nostalgia for it today.
Jane Richlovsky is my husband's niece from his first marriage. She is a talented artist living in Seattle, Washington.   Jane paints on recycled fabric such as tablecloths, slipcovers, and curtains, the idealized images of mid-twentieth century America as envisioned by Madison Avenue ad agencies.
Jane Richlovsky and Ron in Seattle in October, 2008

In her artist's statement, she writes:
"I mine mid-century advertisements, cookbooks, and homemaking guides for images of people, food, and appliances, refashioning them into oblique narratives whose characters are cropped off the edges of the canvases, frozen in moments of interaction with the shiny, textured surfaces that surround them. I see the sensuality and beauty in these surfaces - a marbled vinyl floor or a translucent, wriggling jello salad - and painstakingly build up layers of oil paint in an attempt to render them in all their mid-century glory. By focusing on the seductiveness of manufactured objects, I explore how the lingering desire for the American Dream, in all its suburban nuclear excess, is in essence a sexual one. I twist the perpetually nostalgic visual language of advertising to bring to the surface the underlying uneasiness of this idealized dream world."
The Buddy System by Jane Richlovsky

This Is The House You Ordered by Jane Richlovsky

Surface Tension by Jane Richlovsky

Easy as Peeling a Banana by Jane Richlovsky

Day After Tomorrow by Jane Richlovsky

Jane Richovsky is moving to her new Art Studio this month - '57 Biscayne - in historic downtown Seattle. The Grand Opening Reception is today, 6-10PM. See more news about Jane here.

The American mid-twentieth century was the time I grew up (I was born in 1950 in Los Angeles, California).  You could not avoid being immersed in a highly materialistic culture via the new media of television. I remember as a teenager that I was keenly aware that I was so lucky to be born and raised in California in the USA in the mid-twentieth century. But there were many contradictions.  I saw hypocrisy in much of my daily life. I was very unhappy with a war being waged in our name upon farmers and poor people in Southeast Asia.  I was angry at the absence of civil rights for Black people in America and the brutality that authority used against the Freedom Riders.  I joined the Farmworker's movement to fight for a better life for poor immigrants who harvested our food.  I feared the spectre of nuclear annihilation during the so-called Cold War. I experienced discrimination and sexist behavior as a woman in the workplace.

I think that a lot of today's nostalgia and interest in this period in America has to do with our discontent and rethinking on what our American values are  in the 21st century.  Depending on your economic and social conditions, you may remember the last half of the 20th century as a happy time or an awful time.  To understand today's Tea Party movement is to understand the anger and discontent of the predominantly older, white, Christian, and politically conservative people who are not at ease with todays values and culture which has become ever more diverse.  To understand the Occupy movement is to understand the anger of younger and poorer Americans, as well as those from the middle class who are losing their jobs, savings, and homes, who feel that they were lied to and manipulated by Madison Avenue values and capitalism.  I have previously posted on why I believe today's  struggle of labor unions against the right wing political effort to kill them off is a fight to maintain a Middle Class.

So, what do you think?


  1. beautiful work , the paintings are really beautiful, I love the buddy system one,
    the nostalgia is perhaps a search for the seeming security of the past, for me people harking back to the 50 are those who like control and the seeming certainty of achieving the american dream, not the american reality

  2. Good point, Jane. There is the American Dream and the American Reality. Many of us (Americans) are stuck attaching ourselves to only one of these visions and cannot understand or see the other side.

  3. Well written and thoughtful post. I think your comment on the polarity of American dreams and life is what's going on now. A clash of present and past as it were.

  4. The two guys on the beach. Bobby Kennedy and Leonid Brezhnev?

    But yes I agree with the others. This the most interesting thing I've read in awhile. Weaving together several penetrating perspectives on the American Dream. It gets the synapses popping, those that still will pop, anyway.

    You certainly grew up in the right time and place. You were the American Dream, projected by all of us onto a big screen. The TV series and your niece's work and your wonderings and our comments show that we're still trying to figure out what it means.

    One thing not often mentioned, that I, too, seldom mention in my rants against Capitalism, is that it was always unsustainable, i.e., that material lifestyle that undergirded the dream made possible by others' cheap labor, by the rapid depletion of the natural wealth of this and other continents. We must all have known it on some level, but kept looking at the bright moving images on the screen.

    The TV series is ostensibly about advertising? (I haven't seen it). But at the intersection of being sold a bill of goods and buying into them lies what? The ego?

    Your comment at another web log that the ego is what prevents us from understanding the truth is what drew me here. The ego is like a wall, beyond which is the truth. It projects its own movie onto the wall or invites others to do it for us sometimes. Put on some Paul Simon. Click on one of your niece's pictures. Turn on the TV.

    Entertainment. But once in awhile the ego can be fooled, maybe. A line in the song or the final shot in a scene on the TV show trigger something. At your niece's web site she mentions carefully building up layers. Some of the paintings you show here have a bit of a translucent effect. Once in awhile, it's as if I'm seeing through the wall, behind the screen. I get a glimpse of the other side.

    Very interesting post.

  5. In reality Occupy and the Tea Party are joined as mates in the struggle against the lies and misdeeds of an oppresive federal government. Their complaints may be different but the root cause is the same.

  6. when i saw the movie Bug's Life years ago, that's when i realized...

    we don't need them grasshoppers :)