September 18, 2006
In September's Atlantic Monthly, libertarian technology writer and general aesthete Virginia Postrel writes about the transformation that neon lights have undergone over the course of the century—"from marketing tool to tacky trash to folk art," reads the tagline. (The article is available only to subscribers.) She underscores a dynamic in material culture, one that takes place in the public realm: As subjective tastes (and neighborhood associations) remove visual markers from a community, these artifacts attract the attention of collectors, who "archive" them. Noting that in the 1920s, neon signs were a jazz-age symbol of modernism, Postrel continues:
Beginning in the 1960s, neon signs were persecuted throughout the United States and Canada—torn down and outlawed by city officials determined to avoid the "carnival atmosphere" and "visual clutter" of such blatant commercialism. "The signs and the billboards are bullying you thousands of times a day," Alderman Warnett Kennedy told the residents of Vancouver, calling on "the more thoughtful citizens" to "become nuisances on the subjects of ugliness." The anti-neon movement reflected both elite taste and consensus ideology.
Today the market for vintage neon is glowing (pun intended), and museums dedicated to the medium have been established in Los Angeles and Las Vegas (among others), as all the while neon's real-world presence—aesthetic concerns notwithstanding—has been supplanted by the technologically superior, programmable LED.
While photographers have certainly documented the urban landscape when it was cluttered with neon—or illuminated with light, your tastes depending—the photos don't stand in very well. Neon lights are far too sculptural, the tone and "feel" of the light too crucial to the medium. (Worth considering is the fact that it's simply possible to preserve even massive neon signs that have been removed from their original settings, while barns or factories, which might be valued similarly as kitsch, aesthetically speaking, crumble. Bulbs can be moved; vernacular architecture stays put. That base concern contributes in part to the successful role that photography plays in documenting vernacular architecture.) When the last neon bulb flickers out—and probably sooner than later, the technology will be extinct, leaving no new bulbs to replace burnouts—photographic documentation will be all that remains. Which is to say that some future generation will have no way of understanding neon light.
This exact extinction crisis has threatened the works of Dan Flavin, who made sculptures using "off-the-shelf" commercial fluorescents as a way of rejecting the notion that the artist's hand was the core characteristic of an art object. He didn't predict that one day, manufacturers might stop stocking the shelves. From a 2005 NYT article on Flavin (archived here):
In the late 1980's, for example, Sylvania stopped making green bulbs. Flavin instructed Alec Drummond, who was then his assistant, to scour distributors' warehouses and buy up all the remaining stock. Drummond managed to amass a stockpile of more than 600 spare bulbs, which were carefully stored for judicious future use. Those particular bulbs eventually went back into production, but others became obsolete. To ensure the work's continuity, the Flavin estate contracted a custom fabricator to make hand-crafted copies of the bulbs, piecing together available components and matching the chemical composition of the phosphorescent film that gives each its color. Likewise, new fixtures are made to order using vintage templates rescued from the original factory.
The irony is that Flavin selected the fluorescents because they were commercial and pervasive, and have transformed (in his artworks) into artisanal objects. Neon seems to be following something of a similar trajectory: from commercial light pollutant to prized collection piece.
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