Is it ironic? Funny? Why?? Courtesy of Ltd. Art Gallery

Not so long ago—as recently as the late 1990s—nerds were taught to live in shame, to hide their interests away from the general public, at the risk of ostracism and lifelong virginity. That's the culture in which I learned to enjoy comic books and science fiction novels and Dungeons & Dragons and genre movies: with the knowledge that if my employers and casual friends ever discovered the depths of my love for nerdy things, I would be branded an outcast. So the proliferation of the internet, through which we all quickly learned that everyone is a nerd about something, has changed the course of my life for the better.

Outdoor Performing Arts Festival featuring over 100 artists, food trucks, a beer garden and more!
Celebrate the return of the live arts in a safe, outdoor setting. Capitol Hill, Sep. 18-19.

But sometimes I can't help but think that a little critical thought applied to nerd culture would be a good thing. Nerds of a certain age are so frenzied with excitement about being able to share what they love—without fear of noogies and wedgies—that sometimes they forget that just because something is nerdy doesn't mean it intrinsically has value.

For example: Ltd. Art Gallery is hosting Saturday Morning, a collection of art (largely paintings) mostly inspired by '80s and '90s cartoons. Ltd. Art Gallery is not the first pop-culture-centric gallery, and it sure as hell won't be the last. In LA, Gallery 1988 ("The #1 destination for pop-culture art!") has turned pop-culture art into a booming business, taking its Crazy 4 Cult art festival to New York City to much acclaim. This is just the beginning of what looks to be a lucrative business. And Saturday Morning is a perfect example of the form: designed to capture the interest of young and youngish people with lots of disposable income and boundless affection for their own nerdy youth.

Please, let's be clear: I'm not against fan art. I adore folk art of all kinds, and the fan art you can now find all over the internet is often inspirational, mystifying, and/or hilarious. Fan fiction—speaking in the voice of a writer, using toys from that author's sandbox—is the way lots of writers learn how to write, and aspiring artists can learn by riffing on the cartoons and comics that they love, too. But seeing this work displayed in a gallery makes me a little bit queasy, and I can't quite figure out why.

I keep trying to pin my feelings down into an easy elevator pitch. For a while, I had formulated something along the lines of "If the corporation that owns the intellectual property in the art would be willing to sell the art without any changes, it's not art." Jayson Weidel's Scooby, a huge acrylic painting of Scooby-Doo's face, doesn't even bring anything new to the IP; it's just a huge painting of Scooby-Doo. (Other paintings in the series include Yogi, Fred [Flintstone], and Huckleberry.) At $100 a pop, Weidel is just profiting on Hanna-Barbera's characters' likenesses. There seems to be no artistic touch, no fair-use alteration to the cartoon character to make it Weidel's own. Likewise, Derek Eads's Pikachu, a collage of the most popular Pokémon character, is not so much art as an unabashed tribute that Nintendo could be hawking on its website.

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But that definition operates under the assumption that art has to be transgressive or even just original to work, and I don't think that's true. Some of the art that does add a vision not already in the original text, like Dave Perillo's Bayside Class of '93, which depicts the cast of Saved by the Bell in stylized cartoonish portraits, is just as vapid as Weidel's portrait. And, really, who buys all this stuff? Who would put Candice Ciesla's Hooooo!, a portrait of Lion-O from Thundercats, in a place of pride in their home? Do they love the leader of the Thundercats so much that all the action figures and DVD box sets and comics and posters don't display enough devotion to the Thundercats brand? Or is it, somehow, ironic? Do they think it's funny? Or am I frustrated with this just because I come from that time when nerds were pilloried, and I'm suffering from some sort of residual Stockholm syndrome that causes me to shame nerds the way I was once shamed for being a nerd?

Or maybe it ultimately comes down to this: I have this fear. When I was a kid, my baby-boomer teachers used to spend hours telling us how great life was in the 1960s when they were kids, how they fought the establishment and how they won. When they weren't doing that, they were describing the way their generation's greed had destroyed the world and left it a mess for us. They didn't seem to realize that their nostalgia and their narcissism were basically the same thing. Sometimes I think about all the kids I grew up with who are now teachers—some of them teaching in the same public schools in Maine that we all attended—and I wonder if instead of complaining about Nixon and rhapsodizing about the Summer of Love, they just tell the kids how awesome it was to be around when Transformers and G.I. Joe were originally on the air. Sometimes I worry that nostalgia is all we have to offer the future. recommended

Washington Ensemble Theatre presents amber, a sensory installation set in the disco era
In this 30-minute multimedia experience, lights & sounds guide groups as they explore a series of immersive spaces.