Beating Them or Joining Them: These Are the Only Two Options?
Complicit! Contemporary American Art and Mass Culture takes its initial impetus from the arguments put forth in Johanna Drucker's recently published, highly provocative book Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Complicit! makes the argument that artists are engaged in a new studio-based but conceptually self-conscious, dialogue with mass culture. Daniel Wiener's artfully created playfully biomorphic sculptures made of vividly colored, plastic, cloth, and pipe-cleaners, Alexis Rockman's ultra-realist painting showing inter-species communications and biosphere-type environments, and Nancy Chunn's reworked newspaper headlines- all show that artists are using contemporary materials and media as the "stuff" and substance of their work. Likewise, Gregory Crewdson's staged photographs, Susan Bee's eclectic sticker-and-decal painted collages, and Bill Davenport's quirky quasi-cartoon realist objects are each distinct but share a common acknowledgment of the seductive power of popular imagery. At the same time, their artworks are very much made objects. Studio-based work is back.Natually, being stubbornly committed to this notion of "better art," and believing that the closer fine art comes to popular culture, the less elbow room it has to illustrate any distinction, I'm a bit alarmed by the implicit notion in "a need to compete"--that is, it suggests artist have a desire to win or beat the competition (here: popular culture). This leads to a growing dilemma, IMO---either beat them at their own game or join them---and may be at the heart of what I sense is the real threat in all this: popular culture will win, fine art's importance will fade (even more), and with it the public support that makes artmaking possible (for those diehards who have to make art) will disappear.
Artists in the 1990s and 00s seem to be eagerly opportunistic with regard to matters of taste and materials. Nothing is taboo, no holds barred. Current work builds on the outrageous legacy of Marcel Duchamp and his readymades and extends the daring gestures of Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, and a host of Fluxus and Happenings artists. It also draws on the enthusiasms of Pop and the intellectual reflection of Conceptualism. These works share a commodified flare and bravado, as if in recognition of a need to compete in a high-gloss world overrun with "things" of all kinds.
Interviewed for the exhibition, Johanna Drucker offers what I see as cold comfort:
"Artists are engaged in a new studio-based but conceptually self-conscious dialogue with mass culture," Drucker said. The artists use 21st-century materials and ideas while at the same time drawing on art history. The works are fabricated and carefully crafted and "seductive, beautiful and very rich in that way."
In a departure from 20th-century ideas of art and art criticism, Drucker argues that "mass culture is no longer perceived as the enemy of high art. Instead, artists are working in a curiously complicit relation to the production values and ideologies of mass culture. And yet, fine art continues to create a space apart - a space in which the ability to think differently about the very materials, objects and forms in which experience comes into shape are reworked."
That last idea strikes me as a distinction without an audience, or at least a perpetually shrinking one. Popular culture will win in a head-to-head competition, if for no other reason than the money behind distributing and promoting it. (Andy, oh Andy!!! What have you wrought?!?!?!)
But hang on there...(he says, talking himself back from the ledge)...if, as they say, when there's no way to win a competition, it's dumb to compete, doesn't that suggest a third option here? What if fine art could show the way to stop competing with mass culture and instead serve the masses in a distinct way? That doesn't mean artists can't take full advantage of technology or other tools that mass culture uses (artists generally have a hand in inventing many such tools actually), but that folks wake up to the pitfalls of pandering and return Art to a clearer context.
I don't see why fine art should have to compete with popular culture (other than to feed an artist's ego or an institution's coffers, that is). I choose to consume mass culture and I choose to experience fine art. Both have an importance for me, but I see them as distinct. Yes, the subject matter of fine art is often popular culture (and why not, wasn't mythology and other such "heady" subjects simply the pop culture of their day?), but I've never actually forgotten where I was during an art event or happening nor let me critical guard down while experiencing them, like I do for mass culture. Perhaps that's actually my concern here. If mass culture and fine art compete, leading to art's defeat or assimilation, what happens to the critical experiencing of fine art? Is it fair to judge art aspiring to be pop culture by the same criteria we would judge efforts aspiring to be "fine art"? If so, then is it fair to judge pop culture by the same standards (and how much of it would survive such a critique [probably some more than some "fine art," but not much]).
I prefer to think fine art should be something other than mass culture...not superior, but distinct. Some fine art will be co-opted by mass culture, which is fine and flattering actually, and mass culture will serve as subject matter for fine art, which is equally fine and flattering. Head-to-head competition, though, doesn't serve anyone well in my opinion. Mass culture will win, and then everyone will lose.