Catching the Spirit of the Times

Being an artistic person, there is one thing I can tell you that is pretty common in artistic endeavors, change. Art is expressed differently during different time periods. Movements, trends, rages and fads all meld together to express an overall feeling. In art school, or at the least the art school I attended, we are taught to try and recognize and then capitalized on these moods. They called it catching the zeitgeist or the spirit of the times. That way we could take what we wanted to do and tune it into the universal consciousness of all mankind of that moment and potentially make money. (Yeah, they were a little cutthroat about the making money bit. Granted these are artists they are talking to and ‘starving artist’ is a stereotype for a reason.)

Granted catching this spirit of the times was probably a lot easier several hundred years ago when the art scene was confined to an area the size of the United States (aka Europe) and artists didn’t have to compete with the internet age and the idea of a global economy. But now we have strange things like marketing analysis and trend forecasts! (I swear, if you want to go into an industry that is over analyzed and forecasted to death, choose anything related to fashion. This includes advertising. Oye vie.)

And still where art is a business, they will still make the same things that worked before over and over even though the market is tired of it. (Though the market doesn’t help because they keep going out and watching or buying these things. Mainly, because there is nothing else there.) This is what I feel happens when art is reduced to the bottom line of dollar and cents. The spirit of the times gets ignored in favor of things that are considered a ‘sure deal.’

Case in point, how many Spiderman Origin stories have we had in the past two decades? How many times have we seen Batman fight against the Joker or Two Face or “insert villain of the week” here?

Right now we’re in the middle of a ‘stand alones are not welcome,’ series franchising is paramount, and the summer tent pole is King. It feels we are in the middle of the era of the 1980s remake. Where the real spirit of the times is embodied in the early Marvel Cinematic Universe (and if they keep going the way rumors suggest they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot with it.)

I like watching these swings. What are people talking about? What are fans talking about versus what are critics talking about? What are average people talking about? Critics see things completely differently than how fans see it. And fans see things differently than the average movie goer. Critics are about opinion. Fans tend to be ahead of the curve. The average person can say “this is what I like, right now, at this moment.” They are the immediate temperature test to see if things are going in the right direction or the wrong direction. Because the average person might read something by a critic or view a trailer and decide to see what the fuss is for themselves and come out with a completely opposite opinion of what the critic is saying.

Take John Carter for example, the critics hated it. Financially, it was going to be a flop no matter what happened. Those who went and saw it in theatres, liked it. (You know, that is if they knew it was in theatres to begin with and had an inkling what the story was about.) So while critics and articles use John Carter as an example of a bad movie that just stank, the average movie goer gets mad because that was a good movie in their opinion and that critic and article is just plain wrong! Whereas the fans of John Carter of Mars who have read the book get angry because the movie destroyed the story of the books. They wanted a more faithful adaptation. (It’s Disney, that wasn’t going to happen, ever.) So, for every article saying that John Carter was a bad movie, there will be at least half a dozen comments on how it wasn’t a bad movie. That it never stood a chance to be a financial success. And that it is giving anyone who is involved with it a bad rap. (The fans of the books go mutter in their corner about how the spirit of the books were completely ruined and the ground breaking story ideas for that time were completely ignored.)

In the fashion world at least, we call these three different types the trend setters (Critics), the early adopters (fans) and the followers (average person). Things can work their way down from the trend setters to the streets or they can work up from the streets to the trend setters. This is the difference between Haute Couture ideas working their way down to discounter and outlet stores. (Yes, outlet stores have their own designed ranges now.) Versus, street fashion working its way into the designs of ready to wear.

There is the scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Miranda is talking to Andy about the godawful acrylic bright blue sweater she’s wearing. And how that color, cerulean, had started on the runways of an haute couture fashion show several years earlier and had worked its way down to whatever chain store Andy had picked the sweater from. And somewhere, at some time, Pantone told said designer that cerulean was the next it color. (Really, it is enough to boggle the mind, remember how a few years ago it was orchid. Orchid? Really? Fuchsia? My eyes hurt. Cerulean is just as bad. Cerulean was at least fictional.) This is the example of top to bottom.

Whereas bottom to top would be the Harajuku fashions of Japan. Harajuku wasn’t really a fashion trend in Japan. It was a place where Japanese teenagers came and wore clothes to express their individuality. This was extremely important in Japan because the culture is a total opposite of the United States. Individuality wasn’t and isn’t really encouraged. They express their individuality much differently over there, especially among the younger set. (Fashion is marketed and sold completely differently in Asian countries were branding is much more emphasized.) Harajuku and places like it were places where Japanese teenagers could throw off the constraints of their family and their schools and try to form an identity by being ‘someone else’ for a while. Well, this street fashion became something of a news story. It made it into Vogue even as something to watch. There were photo books published called “Fruits.” And then later, Gwen Stefani created a whole ready to wear line based on the aesthetics of the Harajuku. Street fashion became ready to wear. (Whether or not this was even appropriate is a different discussion.)

You see, by the time the trendsetters, or the critics in this case, are tired of an idea, the average person is raving about it. To keep your eye on the spirit of the times, you have to look ahead. (In fashion you are always designing 18 months in advance.) You need to keep your finger on the pulse by seeing what the early adopters or the fans want and catering to their needs, because by the time you get it out, that is probably what the average fan is going to want too.

Fortunately, the spirit of the times tends to stick around for several years before the average person gets tired of it and moves on to something else. In some cases, using critics as your trend setters isn’t the best idea, because like I said, they see things extremely differently than the average person does. So, in whatever area you’re trying to figure out what your ‘spirit of the times’ will hopefully be in the near future, do your research carefully.

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  1. What is the next big thing? | Ginny O.

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