Baroque Homecomings

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Anyone reading this blog probably also reads every word Elizabeth Bruenig writes, so I feel no need to point y’all to her beautiful post on longing, capitalism, and football in Texas. But I did think of a way to make myself useful, since I know that some of my readers come from outside of Texas.

Bruenig writes:

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upwards of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

The homecoming mum, in this form, is a uniquely Texas tradition, and it struck me that, though Bruenig describes the practice well, readers might have a hard time visualizing exactly what she’s talking about. So I thought it would be worthwhile to link Bruenig’s post to these photographs by Nancy Newberry, which were featured last year at SlateJezebel, and NPR. Okay, that’s just about everywhere, but still, maybe you didn’t see them.

These are mums:

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Look at those things! They take engineering. They take effort. They make no sense and they offend all notions of proportion, style, and good taste.

One of my other gigs is writing about Latin American literature and culture for my department’s literary blog, and right now I’m tasked with writing up a new exhibit at the Benson Latin American Collection on the legacy of the Baroque in the New World. The exhibit connects the ostentation of the triumphal arches that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora designed for the entry of a new viceroy into Mexico City in 1680 with the postmodern poetry of Severo Sarduy and the kitschy art of the landmark MCASD exhibition on the “Ultrabaroque” (2000). The idea is that the baroque is a spirit and a style, rather than a historical period. In this, the exhibition follows a 2012 book by Monika Kaup, in which she argues that we can see the spirit of the baroque in North American lowrider culture and in certain styles of hip hop, and hip hop-influenced visual art.

The cool thing about the baroque (understood this way) is the way it travels, the way it infects (José Lezama Lima compares it to a glorious virus) and devours (Haroldo de Campos compares it to cannibalism) the cultures it encounters. The Benson exhibit traces Sor Juana’s New World Baroque not just into modern Latin American writing, but into a drive-in theater in San Antonio and into contemporary installations like (San Antonio native) Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botánica.

This is pure hypothesis, but considering the fact that football culture is common throughout the American South and Midwest, but the mum-giving ritual is pretty much limited to Texas, the US state that shares the longest border with Mexico, I don’t think it’s crazy to read the mum as a manifestation of the baroque spirit.

At the very least, Texas mums share the strange appeal of baroque art. They trade in superficiality and excess, yes, but also in exuberance and  accessibility—or at least the illusion of accessibility.  Mums are expensive, as Bruenig points out, but with them distinctions between high and low culture disappear. As with the baroque, you only need a sense of awe, not “taste” or an upper-class sensibility, to appreciate their splendor. Newberry’s photos capture all that, I think, and in doing so, illuminates the ambivalence that Bruenig expresses in her essay.

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