Skateboard Culture, Transgression, and the Art Classroom: A Visual Culture Analysis
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In nearly every American secondary school, there are students who just don’t seem to care. Some of these apathetic teens sit in the back of the class, with hoods over their heads, zoning out and working on elaborate sketches parodying their teachers. Others may be forced to sit in the front of the classroom, and, in retaliation, interrupt the teacher’s every sentence with ridiculous comments or obscene questions. There may even be others who whisper to their friends, organizing pranks to disturb the flow of class.
Where does this sort of transgression originate? Is it the fault of the teacher or even the school system as a whole? Did it come from the students’ lives outside of school? Will these attitudes prevent these students from succeeding to their full potential? The origin of students’ transgression in the classroom is surely far more complex than this paper has the capacity to examine. However, the images found within students’ visual culture are an excellent source for understanding how these attitudes develop and are expressed. They may also give clues as to methods art teachers may use to facilitate success among students who stray from traditional learning methods.
The populations of today’s schools are highly diverse. Even within schools which have a fairly unvaried socioeconomic or ethnic makeup students divide themselves into subcultures which are exclusive. One such subculture, which is becoming increasingly prominent in youth culture, is the skateboarder culture. This group is made up of mostly males who take part in the sport of skateboarding. However many of these boys will claim that being a skater is about much more than a sport; it is a way of life. Through a visual culture analysis of the images which come from, and are influenced by, this subculture it is clear that transgression plays a major role in this way of life. Such attitudes and influences tend to clash with the traditional school agenda, and they may contribute to the high rate of high school dropouts among the skater subculture.
This paper will analyse such aspects of skater visual culture as skate videos and deck graphics. Then it will provide a discussion of some of the literature written on the concepts of transgression and the abject. Finally it will provide suggestions for how art teachers can deal with skaters’ transgression and encourage success among all students, including those who lack motivation in the traditional school system.
Understanding the Skater Subculture
Before I begin to discuss skater culture through the analysis of its visual culture, I need to elaborate on my research and involvement. During my experience teaching art to teenagers in high school and middle school, I came across many students who were very absorbed in this subculture. This was not my first encounter with skater culture though. I had maintained an interest in it for many years prior to my life as an art teacher. This is likely a result of many connections I have made to the people of this subculture throughout my life, beginning when I was a student in high school. I had classmates, friends, and boyfriends who were skaters. Many were interested in the same music, movies, and subjects as I, and this encouraged the development of relationships between these skaters and myself.
Through these connections I was able to establish a close relationship to one particular skater who was very involved in the local skater community. Among his many projects, he began his own skateboard company which sponsored a team of young and skillful skaters from all over the state, in addition to making skateboard decks and tee shirts. He created four skate videos which featured either his company’s skate team or other teams of which he had been a part. He sponsored a premier for one of his videos in a large theater which skaters from all over the Midwest attended. Finally, he opened a skateboard shop that sponsors many local skateboarding events.
Through my attendance at many of these events, and the close friendships I made with skaters in the area, I found myself with an abundance of resources for information on this subculture. Casual conversations in the lounge at this skate shop and at other skater outings allowed me to develop an understanding of these skaters’ attitudes toward the various aspects of their visual culture. I was also able to observe skaters’ unrestrained behaviors at the many skate events that I attended, which gave me an insider’s perspective into visual aspects of skater culture.
Skater visual culture is broad, and there are many elements that a researcher could study. I have divided skater visual culture into seven categories that I find to be prevalent in the skater culture I observed: deck graphics, fashion, popular media (which includes the portrayal of skaters in the media, the influence of skater culture on the media, skateboarding on sports stations, and professional skaters achieving mainstream success through various forms of popular media), skate photography (which can be found in magazines and on websites), skate videos, skater art (or art made by skaters who have sought careers in the visual arts either in addition to or after their skateboarding careers), and video games made for home game consoles (such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for Playstation and Skate for X-Box). Each of these categories are worthy of deeper analysis and reveal a wealth of information about skaters. However, for the purpose of this paper I have chosen to narrow my research.
Visual Culture Analysis
In order to further understand the transgressive attitudes of skaters I have chosen a few specific pieces of their visual culture to analyze in depth. Two particular skate videos, Nike SB’s Nothing but the Truth (Vescio, 2007) and Toy Machine’s Welcome to Hell (Youtube, 2008b), exhibit skaters’ fascination with the abject in their playful yet aggressively critical sense of humor and attraction to watching painful falls. MTV’s Jackass (Tremaine, 2002a; Tremaine, 2002b; Tremaine, 2005) is now a part of the popular mainstream media, but it grew out of skate culture. Jackass also offers perspectives into the abject and skaters’ tendencies to push social boundaries. Finally, Consolidated Skateboards offers lines of deck graphics which depict an aversion to mainstreaming and corporatism. This attitude against “selling out”, as many of the skaters I spoke with termed the concept, is an example of skaters’ need to rebel against the socially accepted values that underpin the capitalist economy as well as the American school system.
Nike SB’s Nothing but the Truth
Skate videos are short films, lasting approximately thirty minutes, which usually feature a three to five minute part for each skater on a skate team. These parts consist of a collection of short clips of the skater performing a wide array of tricks on camera while a particular song or track, often rock or hip-hop, plays over the sounds of the skateboard wheels against concrete. Typically skate videos are created with a fairly low budget, utilizing handheld cameras in order to keep up with the spontaneity of the tricks performed. However, with their rise in popularity since the mid-1990’s, some well known directors have taken on the production of some skate videos, bringing with them larger budgets and breaking the molds set by previous skate videos (Jonze, 2003; Jonze, 2004; Jonze, 2007). Skate videos are created as a way to promote a skate team, which is generally sponsored by a skate company, and for skaters to demonstrate their skill and creativity in the sport. However, much like skateboarding is more a lifestyle than just a sport, these videos consist of much more than just skate tricks. They often feature montages of skaters travelling, celebrating, bonding, and sometimes just goofing off. They are seen as an expression of the teams’ identity and style.
Nike SB’s 2007 video, Nothing but the Truth (Vescio), is an ideal example of most contemporary skate videos. The skate sections are organized similarly to most skate videos, with each skater’s part separated by a change in song, a large skate company being promoted, and general skater fun. This video also has something extra which makes it stand out from others. Between footage of serious skating, there are sections which resemble a reality television show in which the skaters are assigned the task of creating their own high budget feature films. These missions are accomplished in the most ridiculous ways, often involving pranks. There are discussions about what material makes the best artificial blood (ketchup being the decided winner), scenes of extreme and grotesque fake vomiting (which is projected through the air with impossible force), phony interviews, and the hiring of a plethora of women to act, or in some cases just pose, in their films. The latter caused a need for men to dress up as women to satisfy the skater-director’s need for excess.
“We have three thousand models,” a producer says.
“Well, I expected a little more, but… OK” (Vescio, 2007).
This interaction is clearly orchestrated in order to shock the viewer and provide humor. Despite the illusion of a “reality” television show or a serious documentary about the struggles of completing these movie-making assignments, the footage the skaters have caught on camera is anything but reality. Reactions are planned and rehearsed to be as ridiculous as possible, interviews are improvised in order to push interviewees to feel utterly uncomfortable, and skaters intentionally ask their friends to do the most grotesque and outrageous things in order to get an outlandish response. In one scene, three of the team’s skaters, Danny, Dan, and Daniel, an African-American, Caucasian-American, and Asian-American, claim to an interviewer that they are identical triplets, but chose to have reconstructive surgery so that people could tell them apart more easily. In another, a Styrofoam table replaces the usual wooden table so that a skater can smash through it after being asked about his anger problems, which resembles an action scene from the World Wrestling Entertainment.
The title of the video, Nothing but the Truth, suggests that the skate video may be a parody of the lack of reality or truth in the “reality” television programs and documentaries that dominate cable stations like MTV. It is becoming a widely known fact that these programs do not, and perhaps cannot, portray the reality of their stars (Duncum, 2002; jagodzinski, 2003; Manga, 2003; Sweeny, 2008). Scenes are often staged, difficult or awkward situations are planned or encouraged, and the editors only include the clips that convey the illusion of confrontation and tension which they find attracts viewers based on the stations’ extensive research on their consumer market. The local skaters with whom I spoke seemed to share a similar disbelief in anything they saw on television, constantly criticizing the media for their focus on financial gain through the generic and misleading entertainment of the masses.
Welcome to Hell Bails
Many skate videos feature a section called bail sections. This part of the video consists of montages of clips of failed attempts at tricks, usually resulting in painful crashes against the hard concrete. According to every skater to whom I spoke, Toy Machine’s video Welcome to Hell(Youtube, 2008b) is universally known for the best bails section ever released. By best, these skaters mean it contains the hardest, most gruesome falls, often resulting in torn skin or fractured bones. In fact, the video got its name because of the hellish spills documented in this section.
The Welcome to Hell bails section begins with soft music and time lapsed footage of blossoms slowly opening from their buds for approximately twenty seconds. The music continues as a skater is seen rolling up to a large set of stairs he intends to jump down. Then, right as the skater’s body crashes into the ground, his board slipping out from under his feet, loud heavy metal music begins, shocking viewers with the full impact of the pain and exhilaration of the fall. The clips change with a rapid pace and viewers are bombarded with intense falls and images of bloody skin or skaters lying on the street in pain.
The prevalence of these bail sections, and skaters’ fascination with them, suggests that the threat of physical pain plays an unavoidable role in skateboarding, and may, in fact, be part of what skaters enjoy about the sport. This threat causes a visceral thrill, to which many skaters are attracted, much like many viewers’ attraction to fictional violent films, video games, and television shows. Duncum (2006) explains that a general attraction to such violence is the unreality of the images being depicted. Epic music, exaggerated special effects, and editing to distort reality are techniques often used in film and television violence which point out the artificiality of the scene. However, in skate-video bail sections, the violence, danger, and injuries are all real, and viewers are perhaps drawn to this video footage more because of this. Duncum (2006) explains that sometimes violence is used for mood management, increasing levels of excitement and arousal in a society that often limits or fails to provide sufficient levels of this sort of stimulation. Skaters with a taste for these sorts of sensations and images seem to be more energetic, finding more gratification in physical pleasures than the intellectual ones associated with most school classrooms.
Similar visceral video footage can be found in MTV’s Jackass (Tremaine, 2002b), a reality television program which was eventually used to make two feature length films (Tremaine, 2002a; Tremaine 2005). A quick perusal of the show may not exhibit its close relationship to skate culture. However, the skaters with whom I spoke are fully aware of Jackass’ background. One of the show’s main stars, Bam Margera, is a professional skater for Element Skateboards. Before Jackass, Bam starred in similar videos associated with the title CKY. These videos began when CKY, a band whose drummer is Margera’s brother, asked Margera to perform skate tricks and stunts, like jumping off the roofs of houses, for a music video to their song, “Jump off a Building” (Youtube, 2008a). These music videos eventually evolved into full length films which featured Margera and his friends performing outrageous stunts to the music of CKY (Margera, 1999; Margera, 2000; Margera, 2001; Margera, 2002). Jeff Tremaine, a skateboard magazine writer, took note of these underground videos and drafted Margera and his friends to star in the MTV program, performing similar stunts to the original CKY videos.
Jackass is known for its dangerous, crude, ridiculous, and often self-injuring stunts or pranks its stars perform in the name of entertainment. It is all filmed on a low budget, in a similar manner to skate videos, and contains no professional actors or script. Every episode and each film begins with a warning screen, claiming that all stunts are “performed either by professionals or under the supervision of professionals” (Tremaine, 2002b). It follows, advising viewers not to “attempt to recreate or re-enact any stunt or activity” (Tremaine, 2002b) performed on the show. Despite this, attempts at similarly dangerous stunts have become widespread among adolescents, often resulting in serious injuries which have captured the nation’s attention. Many parents, teachers, and lawmakers have been outraged by the footage in the television show and film, and attempts have been made to ban them (Sweeny, 2008).
Sweeny (2008) suggests that boys perform these stunts as a way to push the limits of acceptable behavior, and to prove their own manhood. He says Jackass shows the limits of acceptable social behavior, and these stunts seem to be within the reach of the average viewer. He explains that these replications may also stand for rites of passage for boys. Duncum (2006) also suggest that the viewing of images of violence or danger such as these is a rite of passage. It is a method many young boys and men use to bond together. Much like in the Welcome to Hellbail section, there is also a draw to the emotional arousal that the threat of physical pain causes which may draw viewers to Jackass (Duncum, 2006). Whether the performance of these stunts and pranks are an act of transgression, to prove manhood, simply for the visceral thrill, or for other purposes, these behaviors in which skaters partake and view play a significant role in skater culture.
Consolidated Deck Graphics
Nothing but the Truth (Vescio, 2007) mocks stations like MTV for their reality television programs and documentary shows because they have a high production value to attract the masses in order to attain the highest potential financial gain. Consolidated Skateboards takes a similar stance through their deck graphics. However, Consolidated’s criticism often falls upon the very company promoted by Nothing but the Truth, Nike SB, the skateboarding division of Nike, a multimillion dollar corporation. Moish Brennan, the art director for Consolidated said the following: “The jocks who used to beat me up for skating wore Nikes and now Nike wants to be in with skaters? … We’ve had to fight and scrimp and save, and it wasn’t so giant corporations could come along and buy their way in” (Adbusters, 2006). Many of the skaters with whom I spoke shared a similar sentiment. They felt as though their subculture has been suppressed by more dominant cultures through violent bullying or other means of mockery and they felt a certain amount of anger toward these usurpers. The attitude toward Nike SB and other mainstream sporting goods companies is clear in Consolidated’s “Don’t Do It” campaign, named as a satire of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan.
In addition to this anti-corporate campaign, Consolidated is known for skateboard deck graphics which reflect a similar attitude. One such graphic features a crudely sketched lower half of a nude man, with the testicles prominently displayed. An eroded-looking typewriter font spells out “Sac Pun” across the graphic. This is meant to be a jab at the chain of “skate and surf clothing, shoes, and accessories” stores called Pacific Sunwear, or “Pac Sun” for short (Pacific Sunwear, 2008). Pacific Sunwear was criticized among the skaters with whom I spoke for portraying their chain as a skating goods store, yet the owners are just buying into the growing skater-style fashion industry. These skaters see fashion as a meaningless and frivolous market with which they don’t want to be associated. Included in the packaging for the Sac Pun skateboard is a sticker that says “Support your local skate shop.” This message is intended to encourage skaters to spend their money at small businesses- businesses who are considered to be less likely to exploit skate culture.
Other deck graphics include a horizontal arrow and the text “BUY THAT BOARD”, and Consolidated’s logo and handwritten text saying “I bought this board because I’m stupid”. These graphics suggest that this company cares little about promoting themselves in the highly competitive consumer market. They would rather take a passive stance and support other skate companies or mock themselves than compete with their peers. Another shows an image of a referee and whistle under a diagonal red line and the text “Skateboarding is not a sport” suggesting that skaters do not want to be associated with other competitive sports which provide large corporations like Nike and ESPN with further financial gain. Not only does this message ridicule corporate companies, but it again emphasizes a comradery among skaters who do not feel the need to compete with each other. They see themselves as a part of an underrepresented and repressed culture and would prefer to support each other in their fight for recognition and respect rather than push against each other in competition as many players do in traditional sports.
The Don’t Do It website includes the following statement: “This website is dedicated to keeping sporting good companies from infiltrating our surf, skate, and snow industry. It is targeted at keeping them from ‘taking’ from our industry, after we have built and cared for it with blood, sweat, and tears.” Clearly the skaters associated with Consolidated and the Don’t Do It campaign feel strongly about keeping the spirit of skateboarding and other extreme sports alive through maintaining its underground culture. The statement continues, elaborating on the complex meaning of “selling out”, and the danger of large corporations who position themselves as competition to smaller companies.
Transgressive Aesthetics and Ideologies in the Skater Subculture
The images in the media and society are linked. Images are both reflections of the culture from which they come and a contributor to the culture (Duncum, 2006). In the same way, skaters’ attitudes and behaviors likely inform their visual culture, while the visual culture also influences skaters. Regardless of their origins, these skater attitudes and behaviors are certainly evident in the skate videos that attempt to document a part of their lifestyles and the deck graphics that advertise their mind-set.
Transgression was a constant theme in the conversations I had with skaters and cultural images I analyzed. Nothing but the Truth exhibited an outrageous and grotesque sense of humor using pranks and parody to criticize the media and strived to shock the viewer. The Welcome to Hell bails section was fuel for the visceral thrill and exhilaration skaters get from the threat of physical pain. Jackass pushed the limits of socially acceptable behavior. Finally, Consolidated’s deck graphics aggressively mocked and criticized large corporations and mainstream competitive sports while encouraging a comradery amongst underdogs. These attitudes tend not to be compatible with the expectations of the traditional American school system. A deeper analysis of the various kinds of aesthetics in these cultural sites and the ideologies evident in skater culture are necessary to understand the role transgression plays in the skater subculture.
The debate over the discourse of aesthetics in art education is ongoing (Duncum, 2007b; Duncum, 2008a; Duncum, 2008b; Tavin, 2007; Tavin, 2008). Tavin (2007) explains that the term aesthetics has many meanings in art education, and that these meanings can be contradictory at times. Aesthetics is derived from the ancient Greek word, aesthesis. Its original meaning was sense perception (Duncum, 2008a; Williams, 1976). This is a broad definition. It not only includes objects which are visually pleasing, but also objects which are shocking, vulgar, or repulsive. It includes all perceptual experience and was used by the ancient Greeks to distinguish material objects that can be seen from those that can only be imagined (Duncum, 2007a; Duncum, 2008a; Williams, 1976).
Alexander Baumgarten coined the terms aesthetics in the mid eighteenth century as a branch of philosophy in the study of art. He used aesthetics in the sense that we are more familiar with today, referring to it as that which is beautiful rather than anything that can be perceived. This marked the shift in discussions of art to emphasize the subjective sensation of perceiving an object over the objective qualities of the object affecting the viewer (Bennet, et al., 2005; Williams, 1976).
After Baumgarten’s initial use of the term, Immanuel Kant went on to elaborate on this notion of aesthetics. He argued that the only things worth studying were those that could be described as the beautiful or the sublime. He also said that the aesthetic experience is intrinsic. It is pure and detached from all concerns beyond itself. In order to evaluate taste, the viewer must become indifferent and allow the object’s true nature to show through. According to Kant, beauty is universal and not bound to individual cultures or codes (Duncum, 2005; Sturken & Cartwright, 2001).
Baumgarten and Kant’s views on aesthetics were modernist. Today, in our predominantly postmodern society, aestheticians are no longer as likely to believe that any viewer of an object can be indifferent. Everyone’s perception is formed by their own experiences, cultural background, education, and other aspects of their identity. Postmodern aestheticians believe that beauty is dependent on the viewer’s interpretation rather than the object itself (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001).
The term aesthetics has become a way of distinguishing one set of stylistic principles from another (Duncum, 2007a). This more inclusive definition goes back to the original Greek meaning of the word. “Skater aesthetics”, therefore, does not simply refer to the universally pleasant imagery from the skater culture. This is clear in the oftentimes gruesome bail sections featured in their skate videos. Rather, skater aesthetics can be quite visceral, defiant, and abject.
The postmodern idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001) is grounded in the assumption that viewers bring their own ideologies to their perception of objects. These personal ideologies influence their reaction to the object.
The term ideology is also complicated by a problematic history, yet it is entwined with the contemporary definition of aesthetics. Ideology has been generally defined as the science of the mind. Nonetheless the term also conjures an array of connotations that causes shifts in meaning (Bennet, et al., 2005; Williams, 1976).
Napoleon Bonaparte used the term to attack extremists and revolutionaries. In his use ideology was a pejorative term which meant abstract knowledge which was not rooted in the realities of human life (Bennet, et al., 2005; Williams, 1976).
Later, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels turned Napoleon’s use around so that it could be used against conservatives. They argued that ideas are valid because they are rooted in the material relationships of social life (Bennet, et al., 2005). However, they used ideology to mean the unconscious belief system belonging to particular classes or social groups. They saw the formation of these belief systems as a top-down cause-and-effect. Those who are in power, the ruling classes, produce a state of false consciousness in the masses so that they will mindlessly buy into belief systems that would allow industrial capitalism to thrive so that the ruling class would maintain their positions of power (Bennet, et al., 2005; Duncum, 1987; Sturken & Cartwright, 2001). Marx and Engels understood that ideologies were essential in people’s ability to understand the world. Every class’s ideologies are developed out of an expression of its own material conditions and people use them to make sense of ideas. However, Marx and Engels explained that all ideologies are incomplete and did not aid people in understanding all aspects of the world, only that which they already know (Bennet, et al., 2005).
Today, theorists agree with the Marxist idea that ideologies are used to help people understand their perceptions of the world and their relationships to a range of social structures. However, now the concept of ideology is expanded to reach beyond economy and class. It encompasses a variety of other social divisions as well, including race, gender, culture, and sexuality. Through ideologies, groups of people form their ways of thinking about these social divisions. This can produce ideological theories of racism, patriarchy, ethnocentrism, and homophobia (Bennet, et al., 2005; Sturken & Cartwright, 2001).
Ideologies influence how a group of people will perceive an image, as mentioned above. For example, a person who has a homophobic perspective may find an image of two men holding hands to be repulsive. Ideologies also help create meaning in an image. Through an understanding of the ideologies of the culture from which the creator of an image comes, a viewer can understand the creator’s intention and purpose for the image. Likewise, aesthetics may also influence ideologies. The formation of ideologies may occur through images seen often by a group of people. Images of women being victimized in popular media can contribute to an ideological theory that all women are helpless and need to be watched after and taken care of by men.
Skater’s aesthetics and ideologies are linked as well. Their ideologies are based on transgression, and this influences their aesthetics. Skaters are non-commercial, opposing corporations whose main objective is to financially profit from their previously overlooked sport or from their generation of MTV-obsessed teens. This has influenced the Consolidated deck graphics and Nothing but the Truth’s parody of reality shows and big-budget film makers. In addition to an aversion to corporate commercialism, skate culture also resists normal societal conventions which are imposed by other, more mainstream cultures. This resistance is reflected in much of their visual culture, including the intentional infliction of discomfort on others in Nothing but the Truth, the shockingly gruesome injuries in the Welcome to Hell bails section, the questioning of socially acceptable behavior in Jackass, and the the aggressively critical sense of humor in Consolidated’s deck graphics.
In the same way, their aesthetics likely influence their ideologies. Skate culture has a strong connection to the visceral aesthetics of the rush that comes from moving fast on a skateboard, jumping down large flights of stairs, even the fearful moment of a fall, just before the skater hits the pavement, as can be seen in Welcome to Hell’s bail section or Jackass’s painful and visceral stunts. The attraction to this sort of pleasure is not common in more mainstream cultures. It makes skaters different from the masses. It also causes some to look at their visual culture with disgust. In many ways skaters are outcasts from society, and this plays a major role in the formation of their ideologies. This rejection likely causes their resistance to mainstream cultural conventions, as well as the dislike for large corporations like Nike as seen in Moish Brennan’s statement for the Don’t Do It campaign.
Skater aesthetics and ideologies are transgressive in that they are in opposition to the mainstream cultural conventions which are shaped by prevailing discourses of utility and rationality. These are the very conventions that inform our school system’s mode of operation. “The dominant social discourse – including that of schools — is one of purposefulness, economy, rationality, and productivity,” (Duncum, 2008d, p. 5). In the same way, the carnival of European medieval times was also an expression of a rejection of the mainstream cultural expectations. An analysis of the carnival can assist in developing an understanding of the transgression of skaters.
Historically, the carnival took place just before Lent, a Catholic period of fasting and abstinence. It was a celebration of emotional and physical excess before religious people would suppress all of these urges for several weeks (Manga, 2003). There was a strong focus on the body during the carnival (Duncum, 2005), indulging in physical pleasures of food, sex, and wine. As the carnival was banned time and time again, it lost its religious purpose. It became an event of low culture- a resistance to and mockery of the ruling class and their ideologies. Stallybrass and White (1986) describe the happenings of the medieval carnival:
Carnival in its widest, most general sense embraced ritual spectacles such as fairs, popular feasts, wakes, processions and competitions, comic shows, mummery and dancing, open-air amusements with costumes and masks, giants, dwarfs, monsters, trained animals and so forth; it included verbal compositions (oral and written) such as parodies, travesties and vulgar farce; and it included … curses, oaths, slang, humor, popular tricks and jokes, scatological forms, in fact, all the low and dirty sorts of folk humour. Carnival presented by Bakhtin was a world of topsy-turvy, of heteroglot exuberance, of ceaseless overrunning and excess, where all is mixed, hybrid, ritually degraded and defiled. (p. 8)
The events of the carnival were purposefully unproductive. It was pure purposeless entertainment.
The ruling class began to fear that the carnival might be dangerous to their system of power and wealth. It gave the working class people the opportunity to parody, mock, and ridicule the elites of the church and state (Langman, 2003). For a brief moment a top-down system of power was turned upside-down. To maintain control, the carnival was banned. However, every time it was suppressed, displaced, or marginalized the people would find another environment to celebrate this sort of transgression (Manga, 2003). Banning the carnival, caused it to become an event of the culture of The Other. “It encoded all that which the proper bourgeois must strive not to be in order to preserve a stable and ‘correct’ sense of self” (Manga, 2003, p. 171). However, this rejection from the dominant culture gave the carnival something to stand in contrast against. In order for it to be tangible as a low cultural form, it had to be defined against a standard of a supposedly higher culture.
Those characteristics that constitute the carnivalesque – the grotesque body, hyperexpressivity, extreme emotionality, and its sheer uselessness – are not just visual representations and behaviors. Rather, they embody a particular sensibility that stands in contrast to bourgeois standards of economy of utterance such as appropriateness, or modesty. (Manga, 2003, p. 179)
The purpose of the carnivalesque has become an intentional breaking of the rules of the socially accepted norms. For example, the carnival is deliberately unproductive and pointless. This breaks the social code that says that all things should have a purpose.
The carnival and the carnivalesque can be seen in much of skater visual culture. The carnival consisted of events which parodied and mocked the ruling classes. Nothing but the Truth did the same as it parodied reality television shows and mocked big budget film makers. The mainstream media has become just as powerful, if not more powerful than the law makers and enforcers of our nation. The media provides entertainment that envelops people’s lives. Despite the superficiality of it, people develop personal connections to their favorite forms of media. Other powers in our nation are incapable of coming anywhere near these connections if not through the use of the media as well. So the ruling class of the medieval times is very similar to our mainstream media sources, and the mockery and parodying of them is also closely linked.
The carnivalesque depends on a focus on the body and physical excitement and pleasure. The pleasures skaters find in watching Welcome to Hell’s bails section and MTV’s Jackass is also dependent upon a bodily or visceral aesthetic. The elitists, of both the time of the carnival and today, attempt to deny these bodily desires and favor the more rational pleasure of the mind (Duncum, 2005). Skaters often seem to struggle in settings where they are also expected to deny their visceral nature, such as in the classroom. These opposing ideologies further separate the carnivalesque from the rest of society.
Jackass also reflects the carnivalesque in the way the show and films push the limits of socially accepted behavior. In the same way, the carnival intentionally broke, not only the behavioral expectations set by the elites of the church and state, but also the cultural norms set in place by the wealthier classes of the medieval times. Jackass’s dangerous, crude, ridiculous, and self-destructive stunts are completely unproductive and pointless. They provide no direct value to society except purposeless entertainment for the masses, much like the carnival.Jackass has also endured banning or displacement attempts from other, more elite or powerful cultural sources, in the same way that the ruling class attempted to rid itself to the carnival through litigation.
Both Nothing but the Truth and Jackass use the grotesque, outrageousness, and ridiculousness to appeal to their audience of social outcasts. Such imagery further aggravates the sensibilities of mainstream society and makes the entertainment even more unproductive and pointless.
Similar to Nothing but the Truth’s resistance to mainstream media and corporate profiteering, Consolidated Skateboard’s deck graphics also exhibit an expression of the carnivalesque. Large corporations, like Nike, are viewed by skaters as trying to control the people of their alternative subculture, much like the working class people felt the ruling class was trying to control them. The carnival was an expression of this resistance in the same way that the Consolidated deck graphics are.
Other Forms of Transgression
The idea of the carnivalesque is not uncommon in contemporary commentaries of transgressive behaviors. Duncum (2008d) observes the reaction children have to the pressures of such systems. “When children are constantly under pressure to conform to adult demands, including to grow up and not act like children, children’s own culture becomes one of resistance and transgression, or the carnivalesque: Inane, risqué, scatological, and politically incorrect” (p. 7). He explains that adults’ pleasure is like Barthes’ plaiser, which is a pleasure one has when conforming or relating to the social order. Children, however, tend to be drawn to jouissance, or the intense bliss produced by transgressing the social order.
Similarly, Lloyd-Smith (2005) discusses the meaning of the abject, especially in the context of Julia Kristeva’s (1982) essay, Powers of Horror. He explains that our culture imposes an “empire of the sign” (p. 191), which is increasingly mediated and controlled by the government, business, and corporate popular culture. It grows more and more with the dominance of information technologies. Our school system also works within the culture of the sign. An opposition to this has developed which celebrates what it is to be human rather than a piece of the larger machine that has become our society. The abject is everything that lies outside of the sign. It is “a refusal to engage with the recuperated articulations of the dominant culture” (p. 195). This resistance to the dominant culture, seen in the carnivalesque, jouissance, and the abject, is clear in the skater subculture.
The boundary between high cultural standards and the carnivalesque, plaiser and jouissance, or the sign and the abject are increasingly blurred as popular culture strives to satisfy the masses’ desire to be shocked. Television shows and films like Jackass have found their way into capitalist consumerism perhaps because of the jouissance associated with them. Mainstream popular culture has become drawn to the abject, which in turn allows corporate America to financially benefit from teenage transgression. Skaters are aware of the complexity of this system, and continually attempt to push the boundaries further and further to keep themselves one step ahead of culture designed for the masses.
The aesthetics of skaters, as evident from the videos and deck graphics discussed above, tends to be that of jouissance and the abject. This transgressive visual culture contrasts the expectations of the school system. Today’s schools are still designed to be efficiency driven, much like a factory assembly line, attempting to churn out productive members of adult society with a one-size-fits-all approach. In order to do this, schools appeal to reason, rationality, and logic as the supreme authority on matters of opinion, belief, and conduct. Art classes are also subject to this push for rationality (Duncum, 2008d). However, this approach does not work for all students, especially those who share this attraction to jouissance and the abject. These ideologies of the school system are the very ideologies skater culture is transgressing against in its visual culture.
Stokrocki (1990) did a study on eight preadolescent level art teachers and observed the problems they had with students in the art classroom and attempted to find the root of these problems. One of the major causes she noted was a conflict between the students’ and the teachers’ art preferences. She explained that often students had different expectations for the art studied and projects assigned in the art class and this often caused tension between the students and the art teacher who developed the curriculum. Skaters’ perspective of what is pleasurable and attractive transgresses so greatly from that of the traditional art curriculum developed to fulfill the school system’s ambition for rationality. This causes many to be left unsatisfied and frustrated. Many times this frustration is taken out in rebellious and aggressive ways, much like the skater visual culture observed above.
In order to understand the aesthetics of skaters more fully, it is helpful to become aware of less traditional forms of pleasures that can be taken from images. After all, the Modernist concept of one true objective definition of beauty, as professed by Immanuel Kant, is no longer accepted in our postmodern culture (Sturken & Cartwright , 2001). Now, each individual’s personal sense of aesthetics, or taste, is just as valuable as any other, including the carnivalesque, jouissance, and the abject. Today the term aesthetic refers not only to the beautiful, but also includes fascination with and attraction to ugliness, horror and suffering, and violence (Walker & Chaplin, 1997).
Duncum (2005) discusses the aesthetics of embodiment, or the aesthetics of the experience of being human, as it relates to the carnivalesque. He says it needs to include the entire human experience, not just the pleasant, often plaiser feelings. Eagleton (1990) says it should address “our whole creaturely life … the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces” ( p. 13). This aesthetics of embodiment can be seen in much of today’s visual culture, but especially in visceral skate videos like Welcome to Hell’s bail section (Youtube, 2008) or Jackass’ (Vescio, 2002b) self-injuring stunts.
Visual Culture Studies
The disconnect between students’ aesthetics and those of the teacher is evident. Visual culture studies offers a more inclusive approach to teaching the visual arts, adding the study of popular culture, which is often associated with youth culture, into the art curriculum (Barnard, 1998; Duncum, 2008d; Sturken & Cartwright, 2001; Turnbull, 1998; Walker & Chaplin, 1997). The images studied in a visual culture curriculum have the same elements and principles as traditional art sites, but students relate to these images on a more direct level. These images are loaded with ideologies that are almost never discussed in a traditional art class.
However, the reaction of many politicians, policy-makers, educators, and parents has been to attempt to restrict children from these images. Computer programs have been developed to block certain websites, which may be construed as too mature, for the eyes of adolescents. Retail companies have banned material they consider offensive from their shelves. Rating systems have been implemented to evaluate films and television programs’ maturity levels in order to prevent youth from viewing material intended for an older audience. Nevertheless, children are still attracted to these visual media and are able to find access to them, despite the enforcement of these protective policies (Buckingham, 2000).
Since students are exposed to all of these images it is essential that they are taught to understand their attraction to them, how they represent cultural ideologies, and how to be reflective and consciously critical of them. The visual culture approach in art education expands the subject of art lesson, so that students’ visual knowledge goes beyond that of the highly regarded fine art masters. Rather, art educators take a more postmodern and inclusive approach, including anything visual that has been “produced, interpreted, or created by humans which has, or is given, functional, communicative and/or aesthetic intent” (Barnard, 1998, p. 18). This definition includes all of the fine artworks that the modernist focused on, as well as images from popular culture, the environments we live in, and the designed objects we use from day to day. It does not restrict an art curriculum to the artworks that the wealthy and ruling classes deem to be valuable. Rather, a visual culture curriculum seeks to engage students in the consideration of images from their own culture, as well as the cultures of those both near and far from their own (Walker & Chaplin, 1997).
Students’ connection to these images has caused the Visual Culture approach to gain popularity in the past decade. However, due to the school system’s push for rationality, this often becomes a lesson in the criticism of this transgressive culture with which students and skaters identify. This can lead to a further disconnect between students and the school system (Duncum, 2008d; Turnbull, 2001).
Duncum offers a few suggestions. First of all, he points out the importance that teachers realize their students previous understanding about the complexity of the images they see in their visual culture (Duncum, 2008d). Clearly the skaters in Nothing but the Truth are commenting on their awareness that the video footage they see on television is not always reality. Consolidated’s deck graphics also show that these teens understand the process of competitive consumerism and want to push its limits. Students understand a lot more than teachers give them credit, but in teacher-centered lessons this is rarely obvious. In order for students to express their perspectives, and for teachers to adapt lessons to their students’ needs, a dialogical approach is necessary (Duncum, 2008c). This allows students to express their knowledge, and to lead the lesson in a direction that is interesting and relevant to them, without focusing only on the negative elements of their culture.
Duncum also suggests that teachers allow a playful atmosphere to develop in their classroom (Duncum, 2008d). As seen in Nothing but the Truth, skaters use parody to playfully comment on their criticism of popular culture. Similar projects should be allowed in the art classroom because it encourages students to think critically, yet independently, in their own youthful and playful style. However, due to the rationality embedded in the school system, many teachers fear the consequences of allowing their students to work in such a manner. A teacher who is clear about the limits students must abide by in the school setting, who can hold students accountable for their own art making, and who is open with the school’s administration and can defend these art projects, can allow students to truly explore the possibilities of art making in the school system.
Through the close relationship I have with members of the skateboard subculture, I have had the rare opportunity to study the aesthetics and attitudes of skaters with the intimacy of an insider but with the perspective of an outsider. To ground this research, I focused on a few sites of skater visual culture which seemed to play a large role in the development of skater aesthetics and ideologies.
Nothing but the Truth was a video produced by Nike, a multi-billion dollar corporation which is often looked down upon by other skaters, but also gives outside viewers a perspective into the antics of a skate video. Skaters parodied reality shows and big-budget film makers with outrageous, grotesque, and sometimes shocking humor. This video shows the carnivalesque ideologies of many skaters and jouissance aesthetics.
Welcome to Hell is a popular video among skaters because of its bails section. This section features a montage of the most brutal falls from the team’s skaters during the production of the video. The section stuns the viewer with the violence of these falls and the resulting pain that is clear from the video footage. Welcome to Hell’s bails section shows the visceral aesthetics of skaters in the thrill they get from the threat of physical injury.
MTV’s Jackass was a television show that was made into two feature length films, the origin of which is closely tied to skater culture. The show pushes the limits of socially accepted behavior through ridiculous and dangerous stunts. Jackass is also an example of the carnivalesque, as well as the abject.
Finally, Consolidated Skateboard’s deck graphics and Don’t Do It campaign show skaters’ aversion to big corporations like Nike and Pacific Sunwear. The deck graphics use jouissance aesthetics to mock these companies and to set themselves apart from other sports or companies who are simply using the skateboard industry to make money.
From these four visual culture sites, we can see that skate culture is transgressive in several ways. At times it is grotesque and shocking, pushing the limits of socially accepted behavior, like the abject. It can be anti-commercial, rebelling against the capitalist system that guides much of society. It is also visceral, preferring more physical aesthetics to the rationality and reason that is so often preferred by elitists.
These aesthetics and ideologies are not limited to the skater culture alone, yet they conflict with what is generally expected in a school system that is based on rationality, reason, and obedience. This causes many teenagers to bump heads with teachers and administrative faculty. Art classes are particularly confused in these situations because they strive to inspire students to express themselves freely, yet also limit this expression so that it fits within the guidelines set by school administrators and legislators who have little or no connection to the art world.
This clashing of cultures, however, is natural in a society such as ours. Just as structure and control are necessary in a top-down society, so is transgression against these limitations. It is unavoidable, and perhaps healthy. Much like the medieval carnival was banned time and time again, yet still persevered among the repressed people, transgressive subcultures like skate culture will do the same. “Participants can partake of otherwise submerged luminal identities that are not and cannot be parts of the quotidian” (Langman, 2003, p. 76). Transgression cannot exist without a realm of control and order.
It is possible to give students an outlet for their transgression in healthy and creative ways. A visual culture approach to art education allows students to analyze and discuss alternative forms of aesthetics, rather than limiting their studies to traditional modernist aesthetics. Visual culture, however, should not be used to only criticize the popular culture of teenagers. Rather, art teachers should approach visual culture with a dialogical approach, allowing students to discuss images and the deeper, imbedding meanings within them without leading their responses. Students, after all, have far more prior knowledge than teachers often realize. Art teachers should also permit students to be playful with their art making and expressions, using such methods as parody to productively express the aversion they feel towards certain aspects of their society.
Rebellious students can be a challenge to any teacher. A complete reversal of the power systems in school is impossible and completely unnecessary. A healthy dose of transgression can be a positive thing, but it can only exist with a structure to oppose. Through a sensitivity to the ideologies of many underrepresented subcultures, and an acceptance of alternative aesthetics, art teachers can create a more open-minded and freely expressive environment to inspire their students.
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