THE GREAT TASTE OF AMERICA

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
Amidst the banal orthodoxies of the American urban landscape, a handful of cities retain a character of their own: Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans - and, most of all, New York. But now, it seems, even the Big Apple, the self-proclaimed capital of the world, is succumbing to the doltish impulse that drives the imagination of corporate America.

That, at any rate, is the view of William Klein, an expatriate American in Paris who has dedicated much of his energy as a photographer and film-maker these past 40 years to shaking the American establishment out of the dead weight of its complacency. His early photographic work, as explosively unconventional as it was influential, immediately defined him as the enfant terrible of the medium. A kaleidoscopic collection of portraits of New York published in book form in 1956 caused a furore, so savage was his violation of conventional photographic taste. But his work spawned many imitators and has stood the test of time. From 4 February to 1 March Hamilton's Gallery in London will be staging an exhibition of "William Klein's New York 1954-1995", while a festival of Klein's films runs at the National Film Theatre from 4 to 28 February.

If Klein was an angry young man 40 years ago, he is a furious 68-year- old today. His montage of New York's Times Square is an exercise in visual art as satire. The giant Mickey Mouse looming over Broadway like King Kong is an image of deceptively benign menace, presaging a Disney-led drive, encouraged by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to sanitise the heart of the city - what critics call "Metropolis Lite". Disney has opened a superstore on Times Square and plans to convert the nearby New Amsterdam Theatre into a children's emporium (where films like The Lion King will be dramatised on stage). Klein has also included the McDonald's logo and a neon sign advertising Virgils BBQ in his montage as culinary manifestations of the mass market's impulse to flatten and standardise. For sanitise - Klein's message is - read vulgarise...

"What you're seeing now is a pathetic attempt to make Times Square chic," Klein says. "It's so much awful kitsch. The Japanese ads, the snack bars promoted by sports characters - that awful Agassi, and Shaq O'Neill and what's-his-name - and these tremendous rectangles for Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne ads, you see these girls against white backgrounds - so boring, such fashionless dresses - taking up maybe 500 sq ft, or 1,000. So uninventive and boring, just drawing attention to the brand names. The point of my montage is to show what schlock this whole thing is."

When he did his photographic series of New York in the Fifties, he says, Times Square was cool and inventive, but more innocent, less consumed by the indiscriminate imperative to sell. To portray "the pretty shitty stuff going up today" he hit upon the idea of taking a photograph of Times Square and, by super-imposing a frenzy of images, transforming it into caricature. "The Mickey Mouse eight-storeys high wears an expression that says, 'Hi, I'm taking over'. And this is what's happening. It's going to be Disneyland. It's so corny, it's so pathetic. These ads are like a lot of America - going down the drain. The commercials for McDonald's and all these happy families eating all this shit: if you look at it for a few hours you want to throw up."

Klein can understand why Mayor Giuliani would want to clean up Times Square. In the Seventies and Eighties the hookers and pushers on 42nd Street made it a dangerous place and people stopped going. But the effort to make Times Square inviting has gone too far. The legacy of a city famous for the grandeur of its ambitions, for skyscrapers with Greek temples as canopies, has been betrayed. Klein's montage is an indictment of that betrayal, of New York's surrender to Made in America vulgarity.

"Now what reigns is the spirit of the packet of French fries. Look at the Olympics. Empty, expensive, awful. Everywhere you look it's the same. That's what's become of American taste."

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