St. Anthony Hall is home to several Brown stereotypes taken to their extremes, and thus offers fertile ground for exposing their contradictions. Items I have at one point stumbled upon in the lounge include: a unicorn head above the mantle, a stuffed puppy with a sword stuck in it, children's books and instruction manuals on sadomasochism. It's all very confusing.
Or is it?
Think of the last dorm party you went to. Were attendees jumping up and down to that cutesy tune of the "Pumped Up Kicks" remix, singing along to the lyrics, "You'd better run, better run, faster than my gun"?
Welcome to 2011. Never before have the cute and the cuddly been so intermingled with the dark and the depressing.
No doubt members of our parents' and grandparents' generations liked cute animals. But our consensus about pets goes beyond liking — though we've clicked many a "like" on Facebook in response to videos with titles like "I'm a Stupid Cat" and "Husky Dog Talking."
This is a generation of Americans unabashedly in touch with our inner children — epitomized by those who showed up to Technology House's Java Spook party as the My Little Pony cast — but also a generation that grew up too fast. We entered adolescence in the wake of Sept. 11, 2011, spent our teen years bombarded with media coverage of natural disasters, genocides and wars and basically witnessed our economy go to shit.
Instead of being just plain bitter, we have chosen a more flavorful, bittersweet outlook. We are the generation of dead baby jokes, "FML" stories and Uglydolls. We take lemons and make funny faces.
And maybe we need this strategy to avoid making horrified faces instead, as we process all the horrible facts we are bombarded with. When someone like Sarah Palin has a chance to run our country, what can we really do besides compare her to a Valley girl and laugh at her? As we become increasingly aware that the way our country treats animals seriously sucks, we thank goodness there are so many videos of happy cats and dogs on Youtube to mollify our discomfort. We retreat into childhood because the real world is scary.
Yet we also find creative ways to make the real world accommodate this retreat.
"House on the Run" at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is Olneyville artist Brian Chippendale's way of making light of his eviction from his apartment. The walk-in funhouse-like installation contains SpongeBob SquarePants figurines, deformed toys and bitingly drawn-over newspaper clippings. One photograph of former President George W. Bush with a black woman is overlaid with the speech bubble, "You know, I think about taking a shit on people like you all the time." Such cynical content makes for walls that are brightly colored and fun to explore.
This discrepancy between form and content seems to have become a popular artistic technique. The RISD Museum also displays a plaster relief cast from human bone in the shape of "Chrysanthemum and Dragonfly." In the accompanying description, artist Virgil Marti calls the piece "decorative grotesque." Making the beautiful also grotesque may reflect a trend, popularized by feminist film theory of challenging voyeuristic pleasure and considering at whose expense it comes. As theorist Laura Mulvey wrote in an essay on cinema, "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article."
But this type of irony could also be part of the postmodern turn against dichotomies. If there is one target of liberal arts students' resentment, it is the binary — the mind-body binary, the nature-nurture binary, the male-female binary, you name it. Deconstructing pretty versus ugly and cute versus creepy is one way among many to dismantle dichotomies and let the system implode.
Hence places like the Duck and Bunny snuggery, adorable cupcake shop by day, rowdy bar by night.
Hence the dissonant lineup of an AS220 concert last week: the Finches, with lyrics like "you're my very favorite bro" and "I'm the same kid I was out in the schoolyard," followed by Orion Rigel Dommisse, one of whose songs details instructions for how to "Fake Yer Death."
The latter band demonstrates another possibility for the collapse of the endearing-grotesque dichotomy: the humor found in opposite extremes. Given the lead singer's part-emo, part-twee — tweemo? — image, hearing her grimly croon, "You can make a body out of plaster soaked in your own blood, then leave the body in your bed. … You can burn your house down and leave some bones" is amusing.
It is a comfort that the gradient of the grim is a circle that twists back around to the light-hearted. It is a blessing to be able to cry so hard that you laugh. The only peril of this ironic hyperbole is that it can become a trap, a defense mechanism through which we descend into fakery by either theatrically exaggerating our feelings or sugar-coating them. Using only tropes and cliches to express our indignation, we begin to look upon the world through sad puppy faces. Our bizarre culture is a symptom of profound grief and frustration with this historical moment. Let us embrace this as a form of expression, but not confuse it with a solution.