The great thing about cartoons is that they don’t age. They live forever in the now; past and future are nonexistent. The Simpsons and those South Park kids haven’t changed more than one grade of school in the decades they’ve been on the air.
The same is true for comic strips; hand-drawn characters don’t age on their own, so the cartoonist can preserve them like amber in the tree of his vision, maintaining their youthful innocence and wisdom through multiple generations. Such is the case with Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” the iconic strip whose characters date back to 1954 and continued to run in newspapers, comics, television specials and other media until the cusp of the new millennium.
But even if Charlie, Linus, Snoopy and the rest of them survived in ageless perpetuity for more half a century, it doesn’t mean the times they lived in remained static. Quite the contrary: If the Art and Culture Center’s new exhibition, “Pop Culture in Peanuts,” tells us anything, it’s that the Schulz and his hand-drawn children navigated the zeitgeist with aplomb, offering sly commentaries and of-the-moment observations on everything from 3-D movies (the glasses appeared in a 1954 strip that looks ever-so-prescient today), skateboards and mood rings on through to “Forrest Gump” and “Harry Potter.” Macrame, meditation and geneology are covered in one strip alone, in 1970.
“Pop Culture in Peanuts” is really a two-pronged exhibition. The Peanuts part of it takes up all three rooms in the Center, with dozens of Schulz strips hanging on the walls; you’ll be able to identify the older, ‘50s material because it’s not as well-drawn – Charlie’s head looks like a cantaloupe. The rest of the show is comprised of objects, mostly under glass, that are referenced throughout the strip, making it something of a nostalgic time capsule. One installation showcases a Frisbee, a skateboard, Adidas shoes and a weathered Jane Fonda workout VHS; another houses a punk-rock record, a vintage Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and a book by the Dalai Lama. The strips are inseparable from the pop surrounding them, rendering the exhibit as much about the past half-century’s culture as it is the titular comic characters.
In an accompanying video about Shultz’s life and work that’s projected large onto one of the Center’s walls, the Peanuts creator is referred to as “writer, humorist and social critic.” Not all of his strips will incite guffaws these days, and some of them don’t have much to say beyond a surface reference to a fad or trend. But I gravitated to the ones that did express Schulz’s worldview, that suggested he was all three of those descriptors at once.
He pokes fun at the politically correct movement toward gender neutrality by having Lucy build a “snowperson.” He has Snoopy abandoning a bowl of food because he’s concerned about its cholesterol level. And, again showing his prescience, he comments on our overreliance on computer technology. In one strip, Charlie Brown is denied entrance on his school bus because he’s not in the driver’s electronic database; in another, Charlie sardonically suggests that technology is eclipsing the need to read or learn arithmetic, turning us all into slaves to our machines – and this was before the Internet became a global phenomenon.
Schulz clearly was a Luddite about cell phones, but he was also correct in skewering their overuse. Essentially, he was a man of the times, working in a timeless medium, and this exhibition makes you wonder: What would Schulz have to say about metrosexuals, the Kardashians, Tim Tebow and “Gangnam Style?” If his spirit is reading this, we’d all like to know.
"Pop Culture in Peanuts" is at the Art and Culture, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, through Sept. 1. For information, call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.