A few weeks ago a photograph titled "Rhein II" (above) by artist Andreas Gursky was won at auction at Christie's in New York by an anonymous bidder who paid more than $4 million. It is a digital photo of a river and grass embankments on the Rhine. Gursky manipulates his photos by digitally removing anything that distracts from the sparseness of the image, erasing real things that exist in the actual place so that what remains is a false, flat, linear layering of dull colors. "Rhein II" is part of a series. There are four or five more images like it, just as boring as the one sold at Christie's.
Francis Outred, Christie's head of Post War and Contemporary Art Europe, told CBS News that "Rhein II" "is an image which speaks to everyman on many different levels."
Just in, reaction from Everyman: "Some idiot has $4 million to blow on a boring picture of grass and water? It ain't Van Gogh, my friends. Excuse me, I'm late for my shift on my third job."
Kierkegaard said that boredom came before the chicken or the egg: "The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings." And bored human beings created Uggs, Angry Birds and the YouTube video of Rebecca Black's "It's Friday," which was watched 200 million times in 2011 by other bored human beings.
British newspaper pundits have dubbed this new wave of blandness in art and pop culture "The New Boring," or as one called it, "The Boretex." On their lists of trendy boring benchmarks are Downtown Abbey, chef shows, Adele and the return to fashion of penny loafers and pencil skirts.
Add to that Blake Lively as a fashion icon; the revival of Fear Factor; TV shows about people shopping with coupons and people who can't throw anything away; the continued, inexplicable popularity of Garrison Keillor and Jay Leno; and the baby names Mason and Emma (the most popular of 2011).
The center of the internet Boretex currently is Pinterest, where users "pin" things on individual "boards." Those things fall into five narrow categories: ways to braid your hair, things to do with Mason jars (no Emma jars?), soft-focus pictures of brides, pictures of puppies in snow and inspirational sayings written in loopy fonts, such as "Keep calm and carry lip gloss." Boring is the new black on Pinterest. With just a dusting of craft store glitter.
The top-selling musical on Broadway right now is about Mormons. Madonna will star in the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. Bored with Pilates and hot yoga, exercisers now go to "bootcamps," returning to the same old push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks we all hated in junior high phys-ed. Kate Middleton might be pregnant. Beyonce might not really be.
Boring has become the new exciting because we're afraid that the next excitement will scare us all to death. (Remember, the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. Or maybe the Mayan calendar chiseler just dropped dead from boredom.)
We are in a Recession-turned-Depression and we're all deeply afraid that the next paycheck will be our last and we'll end up as apple-selling hobos living on a smoking ash heap, like William Powell as the "Forgotten Man" in My Man Godfrey. (The last Great Depression had much better movies and literature than ours.)
There are so many real things to worry about we go pie-eyed at the reality of them. So we go back to fretting about easy-to-fret-about matters like childhood bullying, iPhone tracking software and whether Howard Stern will say bad words as a judge on America's Got Talent. We get flu shots and have our teeth cleaned, insuring ourselves against the coming global epidemic and/or root canal work.
Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong Il aren't here to fear any longer, so we can push the re-set button on our concerns about gluten and whom they'll pick to sit next to Kelly now that Regis has retired. (Oh, please, not Josh Groban, the boring-est of all young pop singers with high voices.)
All of the GOP presidential candidates are individually the most boring people in politics. Gathered on a stage for yet another couple of hours of stultifying "debate," they bring boredom into a new dimension. Not just a Boretex but a Bore-nami, a Bore-phoon of Limbaugh-vian intensity.
Everyone fears controversy, so it's just easier to go boring, not bold. News media now allow argument from "both sides" about facts, as if facts can be open to argument. (It's boring, but worth repeating the much-repeated quote from late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.") There are plenty of big stories that need covering but it's so much easier to make up facts about non-stories. The nightly news and the infotainment shows got two solid weeks of coverage out of actor Alec Baldwin getting kicked off a plane for playing Words with Friends before takeoff. There was less reporting about the end of the Iraq war.
We are happily marching in our lookalike footwear into a future of conformist culture. We use the same slang words (oh, totes you know we do) and want and buy the same doodads. We eat the same bland stacks of meat and carbs. What was the newest, hottest fast-food stop this year? In-N-Out burger. Soft white bread, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo and meat patty. Boredom on a bun.
Little blips of excitement in pop culture sometimes trick us into believing that somebody somewhere has new ideas. The Artist is an Oscar contender as a black-and-white silent film that borrows from Rudolph Valentino and Fred and Ginger (at least it doesn't feature wizards or elves). Homeland, buried on Sunday nights on Showtime, is more or less 24 with Claire Danes playing the Kiefer Sutherland role, but it's the best TV there was this fall. Mad Men finally will return to AMC in 2012 after a long lay-off. It's a show about the 1960s as experienced by men in Madison Avenue ad agencies. This show has made boring guys sexy - they smoke, drink and screw with equal passion. But Don Draper is still no Tony Soprano.
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There was no must-have toy this Christmas. There is no hot topic around the office water cooler. Because there is no office water cooler, which went the way of the pencil sharpener and carbon paper. We bring our own Starbucks cups into our beige cubicles and huddle there, staring at Pinterest and "It's Friday" till Friday, when we can pop by In-N-Out on our way home. There we can slip on some Uggs and pajama jeans and settle in for all the episodes of Top Chef and X Factor waiting in our DVR. We will fast-forward through the sad commercials for pound puppies set to the boring notes of Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You." We will check our Facebook pages and find the same boring, bogus posts over and over about peppermint sticks being shaped like a "J" for "Jesus." And we will drift off to sleep with visions of gluten-free sugarplums dancing in our heads.
When the people of France overthrew King Louis Philippe in 1848, French poet, politician and idealist Alphonse de Lamartine knew why: "La France est une nation qui s'ennuie." France is bored, he said. Bored enough to oust a monarch.
From boredom, a revolution. Let's hope.