Cultural and political engineering have shaped the world across history. It wasn’t until the transition from a print-based society to one dominated by images that we began to see the trickle-down of relative illusion infect the general population, slowly replacing reality with a mass distribution of entertainment to pacify the public. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of public relations and propaganda, believed that manipulation was necessary in a democratic society—the irrational and dangerous herd could not be trusted. By engineering consent, the cultural pacification evolved from traditional sources—the press newsroom, television studios, Hollywood and advertising firms—to our current landscape of 24-hour infinite media. Preying on the instinctual desires of power, sex, and social status, the American Dream was created after WWII to maintain the economic boom and elevate the United States to its capitalist driven Superpower Empire.
Following the financialization of the American Economy in the 1970s, the “Me Generation” of the 1980s furthered a narcissistic trend that has manifested to the point of normalcy (in 2012 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed narcissism as a personality disorder). As wages stagnated while corporate taxes plummeted, one of the largest socioeconomic disparities in American history developed under economic falsehoods and a relative morality of selfishness and propaganda. Furthered by High Fashion in the 1980s and 90s, the pervasiveness of the celebrity culture and mass distraction is so mainstream we now see websites like TMZ.com and broadcasts of the Superbowl draw more viewership than the State of the Union or Time Magazine; and amid this chaos, the common person has been led to believe that they too, if special enough, can attain celebrity if they’re willing to dive into their own reflection.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagined a perpetual flood of irrelevant and trivial information distracting people from taking interest in anything of importance. Building on Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle believes: “we now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this ‘other America,’ serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.”
Drawing from surrealist cultural critiques of David LaChapelle and Erwin Olaf, I collaborated on several shoots to parody subtle facets of narcissism in the American Dream. Blending elements of fashion and reportage, the images revel in an acerbic joy, speaking to the hysteria and consequences of a virulent celebrity culture. Wrestling with VOGUE, Wall Street, model and hipster culture, the subjects transform into stereotypes of rural Americans grasping for what they want, when they want it.