12 February 2007

Edie Sedgwick and America's Dull and Lifeless Culture

When I was kid, my friends and I collected baseball cards. Actually, collected is a misnomer. We bought baseball cards at Rusciolelli’s Grocery Store for a nickel a pack. We examined the cards, studied the statistics, and laughed at the physical flaws of the players (big ears, ugly teeth, and baldness). We traded them, put them in our bicycle spokes, and often just threw them away. One rich kid in town used to buy packs of cards just for the gum! We would ride our bikes down to the store’s trash area and try to dig out some of his discards.

Now, here is what we didn’t do in 1965—we didn’t spend any time looking up the value of the cards.....we didn’t have our parents drive us to shows so we could sell our cards for a profit.....we didn’t stash our cards in a safety deposit box in order to pay for our education.....we didn’t put the cards in little plastic folders so their value would increase. You know why? Because they were just baseball cards, and we were a bunch of kids simply trying to have fun.

And I think that is the primary difference between the mid-1960s (when I was a kid) and today. When I was 10-11 years old, I wasn’t thinking about my resume. I wasn’t seeking letters of recommendation, and I wasn't shopping around for a college, or a retirement plan. I didn't even think about my college major--imagine that? I wasn't worried about the future, I was more concerned about being a kid on that particular day.

But it isn’t just baseball cards that represent the life and culture of that time—I give you Edie Sedgwick.
Sienna Miller portrays Edie in the current hit film, Factory Girl. Sedgwick was one of the Andy Warhol crowd in New York City during the 1960s. She made her initial mark on culture and society as one of the nation’s first supermodels. She then appeared in many of Warhol's films, served as his social escort, partied heavily, may or may not have had a steamy love affair with Bob Dylan, lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel…..and then died at the age of 28.

The first book about Edie Sedgwick was published in 1982 (Jean Stein's, Edie: American Girl). Since then, there have been several other books, various websites, and now, this feature film. Why the infatuation with someone who might have been the Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith of her generation? In fact,
Caryn James’s New York Times review of 4 February 2007, even makes the Edie-Paris connection:

"The film and a mass of other Edie-ana — new books, Web sites, even a T-shirt with her image on it — all position Edie as Paris Hilton's symbolic grandmother, the original famous-for-being-famous girl… True enough. But that doesn’t explain why Edie is having another cultural moment, or how her slick Warholian fame has metamorphosed into a more complicated legend that speaks to the present."

What does explain it? Was she just a no-talent celebrity like Paris Hilton, or something more? I would make the case that Edie Sedgwick at least represented something more. She became famous in a time before everything was marketed. She was flawed, but real. In fact, few people in her time (nationally) even knew who she was. She could walk the streets of Manhattan with little or no fanfare. She wasn’t sold to the nation, she didn’t have a TV show to exhibit her talents (or lack of talent). There were no focus groups to help clean up her public image--tell her how she should act. She smoked in public, wore whatever she wanted, and was heavy into the drug scene. She was simply part of a small subculture of American society. And she had fun.

There is still much written about her—but one of the best short essays was recently penned by another Warhol actress, Jane Holzer—who, I think, truly captures the essence of Sedgwick and the cultural spirit of the times. Holzer writes:

"Edie Sedgwick emotionally represents and has come to symbolize something that young people believe is missing from their lives today: the pure authenticity and personal freedom of the '60s. These were the legendary "silver '60s," embodied by the edgy New York underground experience. It's easy to see why young people today are drawn to her. After all, they feel deprived of certain freedoms--sexual, emotional, experiential--and they're haunted by all the dangers and threats that engulf their daily lives. The smart ones know and resent how everything is marketed to them until it all feels the same. They see a world where nothing is spontaneous or authentic, and they yearn for a time when things were "real." Edie incarnates all that--the paradise lost, the Camelot. It was a simpler time. It was fun. None of us knew that anyone would become so famous or die so young. We were just out having a good time. Crazy, right?"

Crazy…..I don’t think so. People then were not necessarily reaching for fame; they were not strategizing for the future. I call that refreshing. But who could do that now? We have no culture today that is divorced from marketers, spin doctors, agents, Christian moralizers, and the mass media. Nothing is real or original. Kids can’t simply collect baseball cards for fun—they have to make a profit. Take up a hobby, you will ultimately need to enter a competition and win some kind of prize: you need to be a success. And most celebrities--at least once they become famous--are packaged and sold like soap. There are few original subcultures like Greenwich Village in the 1960s—it just can’t happen anymore.

In addition, we now live in a society where everyone and everything becomes a political wedge issue. The timid politicians, the rigid and hypocritical family value crowd, and nervous parents all kick and scream whenever there is a cultural phenomenon that might be original. The flags go up—are there drugs involved, do these people go to church on Sunday, and did one of them have an abortion? Let’s send out a flyer to our constituents. Let’s make this a political issue—our interest groups will benefit!

Face it--we live in a boring, materialistic culture with little or no originality. I miss the freshness, the sparkle, the surprises, and yes, the perversity….in spite of the drugs, sex, and those other so-called irresponsible lifestyles. There is something to be said for having fun. There is something to be said for spontaneity. Isn't that what culture is all about? Sadly, we have turned into a frightened and inflexible society. We can lecture, we can judge.....but few can have fun and enjoy.

Maybe it is odd that Edie Sedgwick has turned into a cultural icon--but what kinds of people should we admire and analyze? Politicians, business leaders, ministers? I prefer the alternative crowd--the artists, poets, writers, and other unconventional individuals who didn't care if society rewarded them or not. They weren't trying to cash in, or pad their resumes.

And yes, my friends and I simply threw our baseball cards away when we reached a certain age. But we didn’t care, we weren’t trying to get rich, nor were we trying to be responsible adults. But it was fun while it lasted.


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