Fine Art for 39 Cents

Marjorie Garber

  • Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America by Alison Clarke
    Smithsonian, 241 pp, £15.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 56098 827 4

‘Plastic! Plastic! The plastic – that frightful word gives me gooseflesh.’ This is Baudelaire, wickedly ventriloquising the neoclassical obsession with ‘the immoderate love of form’ in an essay called ‘The Pagan School’, published in 1852. ‘Plastic’ in this sense was a key criterion of formalist art: ‘plastic art’, ‘plastic merit’ and ‘plastic beauty’ were high compliments. Henry James, describing an aesthete, notes that ‘his appreciation ... was based partly on his fine sense of the plastic.’ Yet a hundred years after Baudelaire the figurative meaning of ‘plastic’ had fallen; it was now nearly synonymous with words like ‘artificial’, ‘superficial’ and ‘insincere’. ‘Now that so many of the young seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves,’ ran an article in Harper’s in 1967, ‘it is hard to tell which ones are real and which ones are plastic.’ Plastic, a chemically produced material based on polymers, had by this time become a lucrative business as well as a cultural sign.

The locus classicus for a certain mid-century generation was Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate of that same year, in which a bemused Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), newly home from college and unclear about his future, is given some advice by a family friend: ‘I just want to say one word to you, just one word.’ ‘Yes sir,’ says the well-brought-up Benjamin. ‘Are you listening?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘Plastics.’ A long pause during which Benjamin, and the audience, reflect on this gnomic pronouncement. ‘Exactly how do you mean?’ asks Benjamin. ‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?’ ‘Yes I will,’ says Benjamin, who has no intention of doing any such thing. Movie audiences roared with laughter. Plastic was the word for the artificial world of middle-class suburbia, everything against which Benjamin and his age-mates were about to be in revolt. But what goes around comes around, as the cliché insists. Today, ‘everybody in the world of polymers’ quotes this line from The Graduate, as cars, computers, clothing and just about everything else we use in daily life depend on ‘plastics’. The word has evolved from statuary and poetry to chemistry, physics, engineering (and credit cards).

Visiting a plastics exhibition in the 1950s, Roland Barthes had been struck by its double role: ‘the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels ... It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.’ Although, ‘in the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world,’ its very artificiality is its triumph: ‘for the first time, artifice aims at something common, not rare ... Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished; a single one replaces them all; the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself.’

Like ‘artificial’, which used to mean ‘produced by art, skill and artifice’, and gradually acquired its modern meaning of ‘fake’ or ‘insincere’, ‘plastic’ has made a circuit. Though we may deplore artificial manners we invest in artificial intelligence. And now that the art of plastics resides in science and technology, we are curiously nostalgic and indulgent towards those mid-century years of plastic pocketbooks and Lucite belt buckles.

Characteristically, Barthes had zeroed in on the techno-language of chemistry and saw it as a return to art: ‘Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic,’ he noted drolly, ‘is in essence the stuff of alchemy.’ But it is not these graceful Theocritan or Spenserian creatures, the Poly-brothers, who epitomise the era of plastic in everyday life, plastic consenting to be prosaic, but rather another eponymous creation: the product line called, after its inventor, Tupperware.

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