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Inventing American Reality

2.

It has been a short distance down the yellow brick road from Williamsburg to Disneyland. Both are quintessentially American inventions. Both deal in a doctored reality. What they have in common is their suspension of disbelief, the expertise of their illusion, and their promotion of a skillfully edited, engineered, and marketed version of a chosen place, or theme. If one of the original impulses behind Disneyland was the commercially attractive idea of having people pay to see the famous cartoon characters walking around at human scale, another was Walt Disney’s love of model trains and his passion for changing their settings. It was a short trip to fantasy environments. In the Disney parks, the inaccessible and exotic can be enjoyed comfortably, conveniently, and interchangeably; Swiss and Polynesian villages coexist at a friendly, reduced scale and in close proximity. Familiar cities like New Orleans are edited down to clean and cozy versions of the Vieux Carré or the Garden District, divested of the distractions of dirt, crime, and ethnic diversity. The experience of seeing a miniature Matterhorn from a California highway is topped only by seeing it again outside Tokyo. “Main Street USA” is created even as main streets die across the country.

The possibilities are limitless. Each subject is designed as an appealing visual narrative, presented, as its creators would say, as a “themed” package. The result, which covers a wide range of variations, is the theme park, a singular product of our time and a distinctly American contribution to world culture and human experience. The theme can be geographical or historical, fiction or fantasy; it can invent worlds of the past, present, or future. There are “parks” for marine and animal life, domestic or wild, and, a genre on the increase, the “participatory” theme park with simulated experiences in simulated natural settings or site-and-story rides in re-created movie back lots. The “adventure” park has replaced the old amusement park; instead of dizzy rides it offers the thrill-packed, computer-programmed “dangers” of crocodiles and volcanoes that can be enjoyed safely in parts of America that have never seen either. History can be revisited through the same kind of artifice. Where witches were once imprisoned, tortured, and put on trial, the experience can now be simulated in the same setting with son et lumière, live actors, or automated mannikins suitably enhanced by smoke and screams. All these innovations seek to provide themed entertainment as a controlled environmental experience in which the whole family can share feelings of nostalgia, or shock, or sense the uplift that is thought to come from historical or cultural information.

The “theming” of America is not limited to such tourist enterprises; it includes restaurants, shopping centers, hotels, and housing developments, whether it is just a “look” or a complete concept carried out to the last “authentic” touch. A shack in a roadside parking lot can contain a flocked and gilded restaurant with battalions of stemware suggesting rare, cellar-stored wines and menus as big as broadsides implying Lucullan feasts in a setting of rococo splendor. The building is a darkened, windowless box, the illusion sealed against the surroundings. One stumbles out into daylight and the real world of car washes and cut-rate mini-malls.

There is a tradition here, of sorts: so much of the country has been created out of wishful thinking. The gridded new towns on vast, blank tracts of land for a westward-moving population; the Hispano-Moresque resorts in Florida with imported palm trees and imitation boiserie devised by Addison Mizner for the private Pullman-car commuting rich—all were equal acts of will and imagination. Jefferson consciously chose a romantic classicism imported from Europe as a suitable architectural image for the new democracy. What was arbitrary and artificial at the start, however, could be naturalized by use, growth, and evolutionary change. As the years passed, the accretions of actuality and the alchemy of time provided appropriate character and substance.

The difference today is that themed creations are made-for-the-moment, instant environments, intended only as temporary, substitute events; they are conceived and planned as places to visit in which novelty, experience, and entertainment are sold for a price and a limited period. Based on tested formulas for attracting families, the genre is being extended to complete, themed vacation resorts for longer stays and more tourist dollars. Disney World’s Yacht Club Resort and Beach Club Resort in Orlando, Florida, are themed vacation hotels, detailed throughout to evoke the leisured, opulent, late nineteenth-century life of the verandahed, wooden, grand hotels of the upper-crust, old-money East Coast. Bar Harbor, Maine, as recreated in Florida, is made of glued sawdust clapboards and fiberglass balustrades to withstand the tropical humidity. While Ralph Lauren may sell the blazers and braid and pressed linens that are the dream-world trappings needed to complete the fantasy, it is sneakered and T-shirted Middle America that comes and pays the bills. But the point is illusion, not veracity. Never underestimate the remarkable skills expended on these ersatz and enormously profitable wonders.

It follows naturally that the great American pastime of shopping figures prominently in all of these enterprises. From credentialed restorations carried out by trained professionals to the most blatant pit stop on marginal historic tours, from the Colonial craft-and-candle shop and the general store in the rebuilt Western ghost town to the roadside rest and souvenir stand, behind the reconstructed or imaginary façades, there are always goods for sale. In still another related and uniquely American invention, buildings of genuine antiquity are used to create a “festival market-place,” as in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall market, or “themed” new construction serves the same purpose, as on Baltimore’s waterfront. All are designed according to a pre-set commercial formula based on the essential number of continuous shopping feet considered necessary for merchandising success. The standards for the shops are set and maintained by restrictive clauses in leases. When the historical setting is fragile or discontinuous, as at New York’s South Street Seaport, most of the eccentric and believable fabric of the past is lost—distorted by and subordinated to the commercial calculation.

The themed shopping environment that uses style as a distinguishing marketing factor is the ultimate extension of the shopping mall as purveyor of entertainment and social activity; it is the heart of modern consumer culture. Potemkin villages offer postmodernist façades with false dormers, towers, arches, and trim in shades of mauve, pumpkin, and pistachio, while the chains and franchises behind them are predictably the same. They are not meant to convince; these are stage sets supplying a background architectural theme. Tucked artfully behind Los Angeles’s glittering Rodeo Drive is a new, cunningly curved street, a pseudo-Continental mix of small period-revival buildings devoted to luxury shops. History is a marketing ploy; shopping is the end of the preservation rainbow. More serious is the carry-over of the same pretense to other buildings and places where what remains of an indigenous urban life is being replaced by these “lessons” in merchandising and make-believe.

3.

Surveys have shown that Americans increasingly choose theme parks as vacation destinations. Museums, also dependent on visitors, have had to hustle to compete. Museums of natural history and anthropology, in particular, find it hard to match reconstructions of native villages with computer-programmed figures performing rites and dances in reproduced regalia with hot-out-of-the-copy-shop accessories. The informative dioramas that mimic reality with animals in simulated habitats, and such evocative genuine artifacts as Conestoga wagons and the battered utensils of the long, Westward trek, are still static displays; they lose out to “restored” and “recreated” Old West saloons with shootouts on the hour. A new museum of the University of California at Berkeley, located not in Berkeley but in the well-to-do suburb of Blackhawk, augmented its exhibition of New Guinea artifacts with a “science theater” where an experience called “Nature’s Fury” produced a rocking earthquake simulation from a mini-volcano. Going a step further to achieve “life-like” relevance appropriate to the community, a suggested survivor’s kit was displayed in the trunk of a BMW.

It has become common practice for originals, reconstructions, and reproductions to be mingled in museum displays; one must read the labels to know what is real and what is not. But since few bother, the distinctions, and their meanings, are often lost. While art museums are more removed from the tourist attractions where the “world’s great masterpieces” are re-created in everything from living tableaux to glow-in-the-dark copies on velvet accompanied by unctuous commentary, the great museums have not escaped the same confusion and devaluation. High art has been “contaminated”—Eco’s word—by the “blurring of the boundaries” of original and reproduction, and the leveling of all with the copies for sale in the museum shop. The ostensible purpose of the reproduction, to make one want the original, has been supplanted by the feeling that the original is no longer necessary. The copy is considered just as good, and in some cases, better, according to Eco; Jean Baudrillard argues that the simulation replaces the original to become the “reality.”4

Is it any wonder, then, that there are “galleries” selling assembly-line Picassos complete with fraudulent signatures for ludicrous sums, and that they are being bought with full knowledge of their fakery?5 Barnum was right, there is a sucker born every minute, but the situation was more straightforward when the flimflam was pure and the suckers were those too dumb or unfortunate to know the difference—when the difference was still assumed to matter. What is appalling is that those who know enough not to want the fake Picassos still find it chic to argue that authenticity is no longer to be valued, that the imitation, in fact, is a better idea—as with the retroclassicism of the false-front urbanism planned for St. Paul’s precinct in London. No matter how seductive the arguments for familiarity and human scale, the irreconcilable conflict with twentieth-century life makes a parody of the eighteenth-century models.

Once the substitute is considered the more acceptable version, remarkable things occur. In Texas, when movie makers planned a film about the Alamo and found the real landmark small and unprepossessing, they built a bigger and better Alamo in a nearby town. Today both the false and the genuine Alamo are equally popular tourist attractions.

The theme park has no such problem of degenerative authenticity. Nothing in it is admired for its reality, only for the remarkable simulation that is achieved; the selective manipulation of its sources is a deliberate, expressive distortion that is its own art form. It is not surprising that much of the most popular and profitable theme park development is carried out by the masters of illusion; the movie and entertainment businesses have become the major innovators and investors in theme parks and related enterprises. An entire new industry has grown up to serve “themed entertainment,” providing such things as those computerized volcano eruptions and fiberglass rock formations; according to an industry spokesman “you get a very artificial appearance with real rock.” A company called Wet Enterprises, which makes computerized fountains, developed much of the extremely impressive futuristic technology for Disneyworld. Those who wonder what happened to American know-how have just not been looking in the right places.

  1. 4

    Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (Semiotext(e), 1983).

  2. 5

    See “Into an Age of Fake Art: A Very Real Quandary,” by William H. Honan, The New York Times, September 3, 1991, p. 14.

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