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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel

PAUL GAUGUIN vs FRED FLINTSTONE - a millenial analysis

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

I read a post the other day from a fellow traveler, one professor X, who told me that his millennial art history and graphic design kids don’t seem to comprehend anything critically, could not tell one artist from another, and didn’t really care about the difference.

Since 1986 I myself have been an art history professor at the community college level, grappling heroically against cultural ignorance after the bottom dropped out of my previous life as a feature illustrator in the late 90s. I am now semi-retired and my car is older than most of my students but my experience with millennials is at least somewhat informed.

Please know that I’ll be speaking here about two year college students. These may be a rather different sort than grad students or non-students. I am also generalizing brutally and exceptions are everywhere.

And so, a few observations.

Unlike my generation, they don’t seem to be very contentious. They seldom argue or express volcanic passions of any sort. I’m sure they have such passions but they are, as a general thing, a pretty chill bunch.

Millennials seem to have rather few prejudices or deeply held beliefs. This is, maybe, a good thing. For that reason they might not be so easy to manipulate. My father, for example, was riddled with prejudices and held many sacred beliefs, sacred to him anyway, about race, god, country and so forth. If you knew what those prejudices were (and he wore then on his ball-cap) you could bend him like a paper clip.

Millennials are not as spoiled as we were. We lived in a world of comparative economic ease. When I was 19 my rent for a one bedroom apartment, 100 yards from the beach, was $90 a month. Gas was a buck for three gallons. Millennials pay $1,200 a month for a bunk in a dormitory to live in the Bay Area and think it’s a deal. Many can’t even afford an old beater, or if they can, they live in the backseat.

Jobs are dog eat dog affairs, low-end and mainly lousy, stocking and restocking shelves, delivering pizza, retail check-out, etc. Even at that, Millennial complaints seem pretty lukewarm and perfunctory.

To address the concerns of our professor X, I’d have to say that Millennials are, mostly, non-critical and intellectually shiftless. Not only do they lack the vocabulary to argue a critical point they don’t believe in all that much to argue about.

They live by cell phones and are the most interconnected people on earth, yacking away at each other all day and all night. For the amount of chinwagging they do you’d think they were all masters of oratory.

They aren’t.

From what I’ve seen they’re basically sort of non-verbal. They speak in fragments and have trouble expressing any idea more complex than a light switch. I imagine it's the result of not knowing very many words. I read an educational stat in 2020 to the effect that In 1950 a high school graduate could use and understood around 25,000 words. By 2020 that number was down to 9,000.

Short of a loaded gun to the left temple, Millennials are reading and writing averse, save for text messages. They’ve become so reliant on prosthetic gizmos for entertainment, and for everything else, they just can’t organize or even comprehend a cogent literary or critical idea. They never had to.

No wonder the AI writing apps are an easy sell.

American schools have become academies of self-indulgence, when they aren’t shooting galleries for crazy people.

Millennials are not really anti-intellectual but rather non-intellectual. Being all brainy and analytical, per se, doesn't get you anyplace in America these days, and they know it. Higher ed is expensive as hell plus a lot of work, so what’s the point? American teachers are certainly nobody’s idea of success, financial or social. One might ask what these kids are still doing in college but very few of them are there to become eggheads. Everything is vocational and the rest (like art history) is a tiresome general ed requirement.

It doesn’t help that a great many millennials download a video game and spend 7 hours, basically jerking off in front of it, in a mindless digital void.

I can't think of a more cowardly surrender to nihilism.

I busted one fairly typical student for playing a video game on his laptop before my art history class was over. He was so ginned up on the thing it was all he wanted to think about. He said it was the bomb. I actually liked the kid, he was very personable and fairly bright, but lazy by his own admission.

I forgave him when he successfully rebooted my defunct laptop.

He gave a breathless demonstration of his transformative digital toy to another fascinated millennial after class. Zombies popped out of some smoking ruins and you blew their heads off. All day. You had to be careful or you might cap your girlfriend by accident.

Game over.

The graphics were generic AI garbage, and the game was abysmally stupid, but he wasn't bothered by any of that. For him it was the loftiest pinnacle of visual art that he could imagine, along with the cheap-jack cartoons he could draw, as well as anybody, with an AI program. For him, 2,500 years of Western art was all “pretty much the same” , so it didn’t matter anyhow.

He said Gauguin 'looked sort of cartoony, like the Flintstones...” before he got back to the compelling business of shooting zombies.

Gauguin - Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? 1899

And that was his informed critical assessment of Gauguin's great, post Impressionist 9th symphony, valedictorian statement, and shattering aesthetic climax to the end of 19th century painting. My college kid was exceptional only in that he actually volunteered an opinion about it, however bone-headed.

Millennials live in a visual world that has been trivialized to the point of instigating blindness. They have no desire to change that, no critical judgement, and no words for a critical judgement if they had one.

And that, If you ask me, is why millennial art students can’t tell you the difference between Paul Gauguin and Fred Flintstone, or even imagine why anybody should care.



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Feb 11, 2023

This conforms with my experience with community college students of the last ten or twelve years. I worked the library, so I wasn't pushing art history very often. Our challenge was getting them to recognize the difference between peer-reviewed information on a given subject and some clickbait listicle that popped up in a Google search. The consensus was that they neither had the ability nor the motivation to make this discernment. Everything is just part of the endless flow of "information." It somehow still has validity even if it isn't true.

What I did notice in their favor is that they tend to be effusive with affirmation for each other, meaningless though it often seemed. "You are so fucking cool!…

Jay Abel
Jay Abel
Feb 13, 2023
Replying to

I should also add, in all fairness, that I'm talking about kids who are, what? 19? And therefore pretty dumb. Almost dumb as I was at 19....

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