Off-Screen Drama
Now that the scene has been set and the lighting tweaked to perfection, we can see there are actually two players in this drama. We see a feminine shadow cast from the window above the fire hydrant and a masculine shadow cast from the elevated street light.

Continued from “Carefully Described Terrain, Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3: The Billboard,” and “Part 2 of 3: Shifting Light.” 

The masculine figure appears to be headed in the direction of the woman, and the implication in the painting is the woman is standing in line with the window (making her shadow casts all the way to the street), which means she is likely looking straight out toward the approaching figure.

The lighting in the scene has a mysterious, somewhat threatening feel. Given that the scene fits snuggly into the classic noir aesthetic from the 1930s – 1960s, an implied night meeting can mean a hundred things. The genre itself is crafted on the inhuman capabilities of desperate people, so most of them are alarming. If the male/female interaction is a romantic tryst, it’s happening in atmosphere of adversity.

The painting is a place for the human characters to hide in. And the fact these characters are off-screen, so to speak, leaves the interpretation of what is happening open to the viewer.

Given some time with this painting, viewers would likely come up with a diversity about what they think is going on between the characters. Again, much like the genre Fifth Street is playing off of, psychological projection is a key element, allowing the viewer to bring their own unconscious associations to the work.

The Cultural Transition To Postmodernism
When this painting was made in Dayton, Ohio in 1993, traditional academic curricula at college institutions was in upheaval. Modernist texts by canonized white males were being supplanted by new voices from a diversity of backgrounds previously marginalized or shut out of the Western world’s cultural conversation.

This was the beginning of a major shift for American culture as a whole. The iconic notion of Western progress key to the modern era’s identity began being questioned in a widespread way in the 1960s.

By the 1980s and 1990s, government and academic institutions began acting on the idea that the unquestioned linear march of modern culture might have some flaws. From the inherent good of time-saving convenience in processed and fast food to changing academic voices to questioning smoking as a sign of sophistication, the post-Reagan 1990s were a time of deep contextualization of major cultural assumptions held true for most of the 20th Century. 

Fifth Street captures this subtle, but abrupt transition. The noir look is a ‘high modern’ style, with a garish billboard fitting any major urban landscape of the 20th Century. However, this billboard has one telling distinction: While itself being a large, brash Modern City advertisement, the billboard also features an equally prominent, stark “anti-ad” subverting it’s own message and contextualizing the product it is selling. 

The anti-ad on the billboard in Sprout's "Fifth Street" hints at a new era of contextualization for the previously infallible good of the Modern era.

The prominent anti-ad on the billboard in Sprout’s 1993 “Fifth Street” hints at a new era of contextualization for the previously infallible good of the Modern era.

 

The WARNING in Sprout's "Fifth Street" occupies about the same relative spaces in the painting as the sign advertising "5¢ Phillies No. 1 American" in Hopper's "Nighthawks," which is confident, subtle and even classy, lacking any self-doubt. (Image enhanced for legibility.)

“Only 5¢ Phillies American No.1” roof mounted sign in Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” occupies about the same relative image area as Sprout’s “Warning,” but is confident, subtle and even classy, lacking any self-doubt. (Detail of “Nighthawks” enhanced for legibility.)

Fifth Street is a perfect painting of that fracture. Sprout’s dedication to realism gives us a historically accurate bookmark in time. Ironically, the most common negative feedback I’ve gotten about Fifth Street from potential buyers is that they, “Don’t like the cigarette ad.” People don’t want to live with it on their wall. I get that.

But on another level, this particular cigarette ad shows society finding a path beyond an entrenched fixture of modernism that is indeed harmful. The WARNING shows we live in a society interested in evolving past harmful cultural norms, which is quite the opposite of the Hopper painting’s confident, unselfconsicous, even classy plug for Phillies Cigars, fixed to the roof of the diner. The confidence in the Cambridge ad is a lot more contrived: Flag stripes and fetishized cigarettes.

The Cambridge billboard is the perfect capture of the American transition from a Modern to Postmodern culture. Fifth Street is like a gate we pass through on the historical path Western society has taken in the relatively short timeline of industrial society, still less than 200 years. This is the moment in American history when the questioning of Modernity’s inherent good becomes institutionalized. It shows our culture beginning to ingest and deal with the flaws of long held assumptions related to a Modern orthodoxy that ‘what is good for manufacturing and economic expansion is good for people.’

Questions Are Good, But They Aren’t Answers
Postmodernism, as the name implies – and as I understand it – doesn’t really have answers. It’s founded on the importance of having ‘anti-answers’ to bad ideas. Postmodernism is the teenager of historical time-periods, defined by a rejection of that which spawned it. But anti-answers lack unification and sovereignty. It’s more about taking stuff apart. Postmodernism exposes the flaws in Modernism, deconstructs it, and replaces it with nothing iconic.

The Postmodern context is the unresolved cultural purgatory we live in to this day. The fracturing of American identity has turned a ‘God, Country and Prosperity’ society of post-WW II American cultural preeminence, exuberance, and seeming inconquerability into a multitude of tribes and subcultures. Grand, unifying ideas have crumbled under the cultural mandate that all things are equivalent.

Even the notion of merit, value or quality in art or thinking has become a matter of nearly pathological relativity. Nothing, it seems, can be assessed, evaluated or judged, because no agreed upon standard of merit, value or meaning exists.

When I was in college, my peers illustrated this radical shift, first anticipated by French philosophers,  by earnestly reading cereal box ingredients as poetry and challenging anyone to explain why John Milton’s Paradise Lost had any more value. Postmodernism is the total embrace of  the subjective perspective.

In fact, it seems Postmodernism’s only absolute is the idea that “everything is subjective.” In the strictest interpretation of Postmodernism, ideas like “Western cultural heritage” don’t have inherent, or even provable, value. Postmodern cultural value is constructed ad hoc as it emerges from the stories of the cultures previously locked out of the discussion.

As the giant of our big American ideas have given in to the new law of social equivalence, so has our social cohesion. Everyone has equally retreated into their subcultures that perfectly mirror their values and ideas, tastes and beliefs. Postmodernism puts us all in our chosen cultural encampments, our ‘bubbles,’ our algorithm realities.

As our culture goes further into this anti-world, we may discover that the idea that the only social and cultural absolute is that ‘nothing is better or worse than anything else’ has itself created a cultural tyranny, tearing away the tools we use for discernment of value and meaning of any experience or institution we share as a people.

We live in an era defined by the fact a central unifying cultural theme has yet to coalesce into a cultural movement. That is ‘postmodernism.’ That is the reality of living in a culture that spends millions to sell cigarettes and mandates they be negated in the same breath. Where all this is headed, I don’t know, but Fifth Street is literally the sign along the road, telling us the true nature of the direction we are going, and it’s not an easy path.

 

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas, $9,800

 

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted April 8, 2018. Parts I and II published in March.

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