I’ve been brushing up on my arts and humanities theory the past few months. My first step was to remind myself of the very basics. For this, I reread a text from undergrad, The Theory Toolbox. The book was written specifically to explain basic arts and humanities theories to undergrads, and its authors manage it in a succinct and relatable way. I was particularly taken with their explanation of postmodernism; however, one of their examples perplexed me. The authors claimed that Hard Rock Cafe was an example of postmodern architecture. They gave no explanation, and I have to say I’m still confused by it. I don’t know what constitutes a postmodern building. However, I do know what constitutes a postmodern museum, and Hard Rock Cafe fits the bill. If we think about the Cafe as a museum then we can recognize several hallmarks of postmodernism. The design of the Cafe building itself is a move away from the stodgy “white box” gallery setup to a more casual and interactive restaurant setting, while the interior decoration elevates objects not traditionally thought of as important art or artifacts, such as guitars and magazine covers.
So Hard Rock Cafe is a museum. That’s kind of a great idea. I love food; I love museums. Why aren’t there more places combining the two? Oh wait. How about Applebee’s. And TGI Friday’s. And Max and Erma’s. And Cracker Barrel. And Red Robin. And Ruby Tuesday. And pretty much every chain restaurant to ever hang sundry old crap on their walls in an effort to spark conversation in their bored customers, draw said customers’ attention away from the mediocre food, and seem quirky and down-home in the process.
In case you’ve somehow never seen these restaurants’ décor, they consist of walls crowded with completely random old stuff: movie posters, sporting goods, record albums, farming implements, clothing, food containers, toys… In addition to entertaining customers, it’s meant to elicit a sensation of general nostalgia. Somewhere in the mix, there are always a few photos of the town the franchise is located in, as well as some paraphernalia from local sports teams. Supplementing the general nostalgia, this suggests the interior of a local independent spot that’s been around long enough to have collected lacrosse jerseys from the seventies.
Of course, it’s not. It’s a corporate chain with locations from Beijing to Boca Raton. This is all the more ironic considering how many independent businesses have been edged out by these very same chain restaurants. But the attempt to elicit false feelings of home also creates a sort of fake local museum, a repository of stuff that isn’t from “around here” (where does that stuff come from, anyway? Here’s a clue) but nevertheless creates a false sense of homeyness. This is a cold, impersonal version of restaurant-as-postmodern museum. Instead of customers patronizing the restaurant for the fun of its decorative artifacts, chain owners deliberately use that sense of fun in order to create false nostalgia and hometown allegiance. Who knew using tin lunchboxes and snowshoes as wall hangings could be so shrewd?