Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Vintage vs. Political Correctness
You've probably seen the furore over at Super Kawaii Mama's over her vintage kitsch blackamoor barman. A number of people found it offensive as an unflattering caricature of an African; Super Kawaii Mama finds it a fabulous example of retro kitsch (as indeed I did when I reproduced a vintage 1950s fabric print). The objectors generally considered that the statuette represents all that is wrong about racism and should therefore not be enjoyed as a piece of kitsch homeware, arguing that just because it's vintage and a relic of times gone by is no justification for the racism with which it is imbued.
By extension of this theory, it follows that all pin-up art is also distasteful as a tangible reminder of times when women were objectified and treated as inferiors (the Equal Pay Act was passed in the US only a year before the Civil Rights Act; It took Britain until 1970 to pass an Equal Pay Act. Sex discrimination in the workplace is still common). But very few in the vintage community would find Elvgren's and Buell's and Petty's work offensive. In fact I think probably a majority of us positively delight in pin-up art and all its kitschy glory, despite the fact that it's often almost as unrealistic a representation of women as a golliwog toy is of black people. Fantastically sexist advertising is an example of hilariously outmoded concepts, funny because society has moved on so far as to make them ridiculous.
The blackamoor statuette is of course an unkind and unflattering portrait, but is that in itself enough to find it offensive? For decades Hollywood and Disney villains have been cast with British accents, but I try not to find it insulting. More recently Austin Powers appeared as an unkind and unflattering caricature of British people. I managed not to be offended.
Another question that came up several times over the course of the debate was "would you display Nazi memorabilia?". Naturally, my kneejerk reaction was "of course not", but then I thought on it a little more. Poster art of the era is - some of it - quite wonderful, and to be honest, if a German equivalent of the "Dig for Victory" poster or one encouraging recycling found its way into my hands then, well, I may well hang it on my wall. Obviously I would draw the line at a poster declaring "Juden heraus", but SKM's little ornament doesn't proclaim any outright malice, either. [NB: I've actually just done some research and the German propaganda posters tend to be rather darker and less cheery than the optimistic British ones so it's doubtful I'd want one on my wall, but the theory remains that if I found such an article aesthetically pleasing I wouldn't hold its nationality against it (again, my imaginary poster is promoting something relatively innocuous like digging a vegetable garden or recycling clothes).]
So what do you think - does vintage make non-PC okay? Are there vintage collectables you would happily own, while you wouldn't countenance buying an equivalent article new? Are some outmoded ideas (sexism, certain types of 'harmless' racism like British villains) charmingly retro and others (racism against non-white ethnicities) simply unacceptable? I would be fascinated to hear your views. If possible I'd like to keep the discussion clear of whether specific articles are acceptable or not, but rather about whether 'vintage' can override 'politically correct' sometimes, always or never.