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The double-edged sword of nostalgia – is it reviving or stifling creativity?

Callum Woodbridge

Callum Woodbridge, senior creator at SocialChain, delves into the surge of nostalgia and sets out what this means for creatives.

Upon entering my local pub, young people adorned in JNCO jeans sing along to songs written a generation before them about cultural touchpoints that are seemingly no longer relevant. Has a shift from nostalgic motifs to full-blown cultural regurgitation occurred, and how is it possible to create in a world that only seems to value the previously created?

To understand the surge in nostalgic media and discussion, we need to contextualise it within the wider context of the emerging adult generation in the West. Economic uncertainty, the breakdown of the social contract during the pandemic and an ever-increasing focus on profit over experimentation are creating a world that values regurgitation and rose-tinted reflection over innovation.

Young people turn to consumption of the past as an indicator of more stable times and comfort. For example, binge-watching the rent-controlled financial freedom in Manhattan (which was already a pipe dream at the time of airing) of F R I E N D S from the tiny bedroom of your unheated, damp flat that you share with 4 disconnected strangers and pay 75% of your take-home income for. But is this desire amongst young people to consume existing content destroying the essence of what it means to create something new?

Photographer Louis Bever would likely argue the contrary. Pairing vintage sportswear with dramatic Enlightenment-Era frescos brings us artwork that borrows from the past to create something new – much like how the thinkers of the Renaissance drew fondly from the philosophy of the eras before them. A borrowed nostalgia featuring artwork influenced by its own brand of historical re-imagining brings into focus the cyclical nature of art, fashion and thinking.

From a global perspective, Luo Yang is leading the modern conversation surrounding Chinese youth culture through a nostalgic lens. Intimate portraits of young women document an emerging counter-cultural rejection of previously held social expectations. Stylistically her work is reminiscent of the iconic Chinese protest photography from Li Zhensheng; but the American reference points are also clear to see. With a splash of Larry Clark and Julia Fox’s early work, Yang’s international influences converge to tell a new story that feels both contemporary and rooted in the history of the art form in China and beyond.

Even the seemingly antiquated art of film has begun to evolve through our phone screens. TikTok filmmaker Baron Ryan introduces the introspective world of 70s Hollywood to the short form vertical landscape of modern content. His musings on the struggles of contemporary life feel like they could only exist in the 2020s, but the visual language of Wes Anderson and the erratic, Allen Ginsberg-esque narrative structure clearly root his work within multiple previous decades.

A pessimistic critic would dismiss this as ‘derivative’ in the same way George Lucas was deemed an imitator of 1950s science fiction serials in his early career. The success and psychological impact of art inspired by previous generations is clearly nothing new, however, modern creatives are no longer limited to the available inspiration of curated television channels or cinema listings. This is reflected in the diversity of reference points within their work.

From vintage Arsenal shin pads to quiet youth revolution and introspective conversations with invisible therapists, the emerging generation of artists is reaching back into the past to help tell their stories in the present. To dismiss this as a ‘death’ of originality within art would be short-sighted and a nostalgic take in and of itself.

Dropping off my empty pint glass at the bar in my local, I compliment one of the regulars on his patched-up faded leather jacket. We chat for a bit about Marlon Brando’s iconic biker outfit in The Wild One and discover a nostalgic love shared across generations. “That film’s older than me, and this coat is older than you!” he jokes as we shuffle out past a group dressed for the Second Summer of 2002.

The bottom line is this: in embracing the past to shape the present, today’s creators weave a tapestry of innovation rooted in nostalgia – proving that originality can still thrive in the echoes of history.

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