Nostalgia as a Form of Escapism in Contemporary Art and Design

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2730 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Words: 2730|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Table of contents

  1. History of Nostalgia
  2. Psychological Hypothesis/Research on the Effects of Nostalgia on Creativity
  3. Nostalgia, Escapism, and Art
  4. Conclusion

Escapism is a common theme in art history in which artists depict events or activities that offer an escape from the woes of life. Artists have always found it useful to represent joyful activities in their works of art. The depictions created, avail momentary amusement as an alternative to the worries that characterize day-to-day activities. The contemporary art world is experiencing a trend in which nostalgia is used to achieve the said effect of escapism. This wave of nostalgia and escapism may be out of respect, interest, or the admiration of its success, or significance in the recent past. In each generation, artists attempt to avoid the style used by the previous one, although experimentation and iconoclasm were highly valued. Nowadays, artists, designers, and curators are borrowing the aesthetic certainties that were popular about five decades ago, creating art around that inspiration. There are psychological theories that could explain the reasons for this trend and the effect of the underlying concept of nostalgia in creativity. Nonetheless, a new wave in the art world is using nostalgia as a way of attaining escapism.

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History of Nostalgia

The word “nostalgia” originated from two Greek words “nostos” and “algos” that translate to “return home” and “longing” respectively. From the context in which the word is used, it would be right to define it as a longing to return to a home that has never existed or ceased to exist. This concept may be a feeling of loss but could as well be finding love in one’s fantasies. Despite the word “nostalgia” having its roots in the Greek language, the term was actually coined by a Swiss student named Johannes Hofer in 1688 in the process of writing his medical dissertation. The student was attempting to find the right words to describe the feeling of pain that one has when they wish to return home. He was considering to use the words nostomania and philopatridomania but later settled on nostos” and “algos” from which nostalgia emerged (from a combination of the two words). After coining this word, Hofer insisted that he could not find the right term to describe the condition that he believed to be clinical and criticized people in the medical community for not paying attention to the said condition.

During the eighteenth century, experts and the general public in Europe would adopt the word to refer to the uncomfortable feeling caused by excessive fixation to one’s faraway homeland. This condition was initially thought to only affect people from high altitudes, but by the end of the century, it was broadened to include the pathological attachment to distant places. Later, the demographics fitting the condition of nostalgia was extended to include fixation to past times and distant encounters. The entrance of a new word that almost immediately gained popularity in Europe means that the condition referred by the new term, was that the said feeling or perspective of looking at the past infiltrated society.

In due course, nostalgia was commonly associated with groups that had not fully adopted modernity both in Europe and elsewhere. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, medical specialists stopped diagnosing the condition in all populations. The reason for the “death” of nostalgia as a condition, was because other categories of medical diagnosis covered symptoms that were earlier associated with it. For instance, diagnostic signatures of nostalgia were absorbed by a condition known as melancholia. Later, melancholia became more affiliated with characteristics of depression. Nonetheless, after Hofer’s 17th century invention of ‘nostalgia’ was relieved of its medical connections, it moved to other areas. As a result, it became a bracket term used in multiple ways to refer to various forms of relating to the past.

In later years, the word “nostalgia” would become a commonplace term to represent a variety of problems. Some of these problems were associated with empiricism and politics. The severe energy of the word was later derived not on its history in the field of medicine, but by its subsequent connection with history and political issues. The accusatory power of the word would then be expressed in philosophies related to psychoanalytic theory, politics, and history. Consequently, the meaning of “nostalgia” transformed from being a word used in medical discourse, to referring to the problems associated with transitioning to modernity. In other words, the term began to be used in reference to those who failed to fit the modern framework.

The most intense dismissal of nostalgia happened in the 70s and 80s, a period in which the western world was experiencing a boom in culture industry where museums and other developments related to the heritage industry and development of period movies, subsequently gained popularity and became fashionable. It was through the popularity of such films that some of the most celebrated critics of post-modernism emerged. One of these critics was named Frederick Jameson. Jameson is relevant because he claimed that the historical movies created during that era were “nostalgia films” arguing that they merely appealed the viewer’s infantile yearnings of a past that seemed better than the present. One example from the 1980’s is the movie Crybaby, where we see inspiration and plot being distinctly 1950s. He also argued that the nostalgic films showed the viewer’s inability to integrate well with the present and accepting as a minor part of an extensive stretch of historical progression. Consequently, Jameson’s negation of nostalgic films affects the meaning and attitude towards the word “nostalgia.”

Nonetheless, it was during this period that the term gained modern meaning. In French, the word is written as nostalgia, which means the transferred sense of yearning for things that happened in the past. Its use in French literature must, therefore, have transferred it into English through loan translation. In other words, translators from French to English borrowed its meaning by using the word in the context around the original word. Consequently, nostalgia is currently used in contemporary terms to refer to the “wistful yearning” for events of the past.

Psychological Hypothesis/Research on the Effects of Nostalgia on Creativity

In 2015, researchers investigated whether nostalgia contributed to higher creativity (that is, whether it makes people have ideas that are both useful and original). The researchers theorized that nostalgia might be responsible for increasing creativity by opening up a person to experience (openness to experience). The team of Van Tilburg, Sedikides, and Wildschut (2015) rationalized their hypothesis with the argument that the said concept increases openness since openness has been shown have an underlying relationship with inspiration and the sense of optimism. Furthermore, openness is a potential boost of creativity given that it has been proven to predict “actual” creativity as well as self-reported creativity. In essence, the researchers theorized that nostalgia boosts openness, which in turn increases creativity.

After hypothesizing that nostalgia boosts creativity, they followed the tenets of the scientific method to prove it, which involved conducting experiments. They ended up conducting experiments, which in turn increased the chances of having a more accurate conclusion. After the participants underwent nostalgia induction, they were then led to compose a story (30 minutes long) about a cat, a princess and a racecar for experiment 1 or compose a different story of the same length but this time about a mysterious sound heard on a cold winter evening for experiment 2. The narratives from the participants were then anonymized and given to independent judges to evaluate the level of creativity portrayed in them. Each experiment was made up of two sets of groups; one of them had been nostalgia induced while the other was the control (without nostalgia). After compiling the results, it was observed that those without nostalgia (the control group) wrote less creative stories than those with the condition, which proved that nostalgia increased creativity.

On the third experiment, the team attempted to prove whether nostalgia increases openness as well as to confirm whether the resultant effect is responsible for the influence that nostalgia has on creativity. They used the ERT-based process of inducing nostalgia used on the other experiments and left a control group without the condition. The researchers then used 10-item openness to experience subscale used to measure personality, a method introduced in 1998 by Benet Martinez and John. Some of the items used in the measure included statements that aimed to confirm whether a person believes to be curious about many things; others aimed at finding out whether the participants believe to possess an active imagination. Finally, the team measured creativity using Ivcevic’s scale where items included statements that tried to see how a participant would handle different situations. Comparing the control group with the nostalgic one, the latter recorded higher points in self-reported creativity, and the said result was highly influenced by openness.

On the same note, the researchers assessed the replicability of the results obtained, which was achieved through the fourth experiment, by attempting to measure creative behavior. The participants were then induced into the nostalgia state and then told to write creative sentences from the following words: water, money, eating, sea, pain, fun, warm, sun, beautiful and tasty. The sentences from the conditioned control group were then coded and assessed by independent judges. The conclusion from these tests was that nostalgia increased creativity and openness (and openness has facilitated the effect of nostalgia in creativity), which confirmed the hypothesis of the research.

Nostalgia, Escapism, and Art

Contemporary artists are creating a new form of art in which they are combining the aesthetic of the recent past to create works of art that are appealing. For instance, in 2018, Frieze New York had a themed section that displayed works by artists discovered by a new York-based dealer known by the name Hudson in the 80s. Several years before Hudson was featured, Gordon Matta-Clark (an artist known for his work on multimedia art of the 70s), had been given the same spotlight. This wave of featuring relatively forgotten art is not limited to Frieze New York; other art fairs are doing the same as well. Artists who are considered legendary in the field and are still alive are being given much attention in the recent past. People like Carmen Herrera who has not yet stopped doing abstraction art that she did on the 50s has had her fame renewed through the new admiration of old ways. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is another artist of the past receiving this late acclaim. Besides, the galleries like Thomas Dane of London and Kurimanzutto of Mexico City are planning to revive a legendary gallery called Signals London and stock it with experimental art created between 1964 and 1966. In essence, the art world is making a noticeable effort to give credit or revive the art and design of the past.

Towards the end of the 20th century, contemporary artists began to reconstruct historical representations through their works of art. This “historical turn” ended up producing art that features things like obsolete technologies, architectural remains, or other works of art created in the past. This new development had been dismissed by scholars and critics. For some critiques, the inclination to dig up things of the past is an indication of a “pathological escapist fantasy” that suggests that they are incapable of interacting with the present or finding a way of foreseeing the future and putting it in their work of art. Due to the volatile nature of nostalgia, an evaluation of each case suspected to have been influenced by this state. In other words, the artistic practice of an alleged “nostalgic” artists should be assessed and the impulse located and examined.

One of the candidates for this examination is the Danish artist Joachim Koester. His work is characterized by images associated with conceptual art and representations of architectural ruins, which undoubtedly suggests the possibility that the nostalgic impulse might drive him. Koester began his art career in the 90s and was sooner or later termed as the originator of the “historiographic turn.” His art seems to incorporate a measured and open-minded use of nostalgia because he does not celebrate the past but instead uses it as reflection or commentary of the present.

How Koester incorporated the nostalgic impulse in his work requires an expansion to the whole concept of nostalgia, the one that allows for the critical, conservative and progressive reading of the idea. However, the idea of nostalgia has been referred to as bad politics and bad history by both modernist and postmodernist philosophers. For instance, Marx, Hegel, and Kant collectively argued in the lines of nostalgia being an irrational and reactionary impulse since history is a continuous flow in the direction of progress and liberation. On the other hand, post-modernist thinkers like Jameson consider it as a spoof and a regressive impulse that fabricates the past and interferes with the establishment of a more ordered society. Nonetheless, postmodernity is in itself nostalgic since it is within this period that most of the return to history has happened like through the creation of the heritage industry and the fetishization of ways of life of the past. Therefore, bashing nostalgia has been seen as ironic. Koester’s art challenges the negativity associated with nostalgia by showing the critical and progressive use of the concept.

The relationship between nostalgia and escapism is based on the meaning of both words. Escapism is defined as a way of escaping reality, mostly through means that bring joy. On the other hand, nostalgia is defined as the state of wishing to return to the past. The yearning of the past associated with nostalgia is most of the time seen as a source of joy. Therefore, nostalgia can be used as a means of achieving escapism. In connection with art and design, the two concepts are linked through the creation of depictions or representations that are inspired by nostalgic impulses of the creator or meant to trigger the said feelings on the viewer. Therefore, nostalgia can be used as a form of escapism in art and design.

Since nostalgia correlates with the past, incorporating it in one’s art involves turning to history. This has resulted in a trend in contemporary art in which artifacts, people, or events synonymous with the past are recreated. Some of these resurrections include drawings of pop icons like Michael Jackson, creation of historical ruins and the remaking of The Black Square that was created in 1915 by Kazimir Malevich. In essence, the new trend in art is taking advantage of the feelings associated with the yearning of wanting to return to the past to make art that gains instant appeal from people with clues about the subject matter.

However, some critics of this trend claim that contemporary artists are only going back to history to get inspiration for art or create art about it as a way of high jacking nostalgia of the audience, which in turn would trigger constant admiration. In other words, they are taking advantage of the psychological glitches of the human mind that make it vulnerable to the “irrational” nostalgic impulse. They argue that since nostalgia can be used as means of escapism, artists are using it to enable the positive feeling associated with escaping reality. For this reason, they can get “derivative” art (art that is derived from things of the past) to gain unwarranted admiration in the art world. For instance, if a person makes a painting of Michael Jackson, the people who knew him for his success in the music industry are bound to like the image notwithstanding the creativity involved or the overall quality of the work of art. In essence, the critics’ main point is that those who are doing nostalgic art may be getting unearned admiration and credit.

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Nostalgia can be used as a form of escapism in art and design. There are scientifically proven ways in which the said concept of yearning for things or events of the past affects creativity. One of them is that the underlying openness that arises from nostalgia increases creativity. Escapism, on the other hand, relates to nostalgia because it involves escaping reality through engaging in things that bring joy. Since nostalgia can be used as a way to bring joy and diversion, the two concepts correlate. Therefore, the contemporary is supposedly using nostalgia to evoke unwarranted love of their derivative art. In other words, they are taking advantage of the psychological propensity of people to be fixed with the past to gain admiration for their work. Conclusively, nostalgia has been proven to be a vehicle of escapism.      

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Nostalgia As A Form Of Escapism In Contemporary Art And Design. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from
“Nostalgia As A Form Of Escapism In Contemporary Art And Design.” GradesFixer, 25 Oct. 2021,
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