We Are Art Vandelay, Architect

The sitcom Seinfeld didn’t last into the 21st century. But in the popular culture universe, the show is immortal, generating an endless stream of GIFs, memes, video clips, websites, and more. And, of course, every minute of its nine-season life has been rerun on one or more channels since the series ended in 1998.

Why does it remain so popular? “A show about nothing” was really 180 22-minute mini-plays on our most mundane realities. Its common theme, as epitomized by the final episode, was the comic self-absorption of the show’s four main characters.

During that finale, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer were thrown in jail for breaking the Good Samaritan Law by watching a crime against others rather than interceding. In jail, their lives went on in egomaniacal denial, fully focused on themselves, independent of the circumstances. 

We loved this because we are these people. 

We often see our own desires first and foremost, vanity and self-aggrandisement chief among our values. George Costanza was uniquely expressive of a life lived in complete ignorance of others. He had no “career,” let alone “mission,” beyond being the happiest George he could be—an impossible task, as it turned out.

His desire for praise and happiness extended to inventing glamorous lives for himself: whale saver, Lothario, business executive. He even christened an altar ego. Occasionally he was “Art Vandelay of Vandelay Industries, an exporter-importer,” but most memorably for me, George became “Art Vandelay, architect.”

“I designed the addition to the Guggenheim Museum,” he boasted at one point. “And it really didn’t take that much time.” To be a faux architect, Art Vandelay did not have to design a thing, just project an architect-like coolness across his portly, balding countenance, in full denial of his core artlessness. 

The assumed expertise of the “architect” is a branding success for the profession. Art Vandelay validates the The Fountainhead/Frank Lloyd Wright sort of megalomania that has made “architect” somehow a cut above the other “artist” personas. 

Architecture has become the Mother of All Ego Projections. 

And maybe just in time. Art Vandelay thought he could dominate a room in his projection of cool, with absolutely zero basis in reality. Robots are replacing CAD monkeys. The AIA says only 40% of those with professional degrees can expect to get jobs in architecture, after spending a few hundred thousand dollars on education. Sure, an architecture degree might get them a job in construction management, real estate development, even video game design, but Howard Roark and Art Vandelay would surely cast a wary eye on those pedestrian pursuits. Could you see George Costanza at a cocktail party, chewing on a pretzel, announcing, “Art Vandelay, owner’s rep”?  

Anyone who went to school to be an architect will tell you that they are one, regardless of whether they have a license, a job, or any built work. It’s a state of mind, you see. Art Vandelay was that kind of architect, too, as long as no one could see what he was actually designing, which was a false persona, all image and affect.

Are posers good enough in the 21st century? Are we all news readers, masquerading as journalists? Is lip-syncing the song the same as singing it? Would Milli Vanilli be celebrated on Instagram? Do clothes make the man? 

In the end, it does not matter. When we live for 15 minutes of fame, or 3 million hits on YouTube, or the “influence” of a Kardashian, we live in a world of perception, not performance. The “Mother of the Arts” seems to lend itself to bastard children, like Art Vandelay and Richard Meier. Playing a doctor on TV cured no one, but it fed a lot of empty lives with sound bites (and residual checks).

We are all experiencing the hangover of 20th century branding, and we are left with a fuselage of memes/likes/shares. The clumsy artifice of Art Vandelay was hilariously transparent to TV viewers, but to him it was validating. Actually being an architect was as impossible for Art as it was for Kramer to ever get a job, or for George to ever keep one.

The only real job George ever had was being Art Vandelay. Is that the job architects will be living into as we progress through the 21st century? 


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