Friday, August 11, 2006

Beating Them or Joining Them: These Are the Only Two Options?

From the text for the exhibition "Complicit! Contemporary American Art and Mass Culture" at the University of Virginia Art Museum, curated by Johanna Drucker:
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.

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.
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.

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 can hear the gritting of teeth in certain quarters from here, but stay with me a moment...I'm not suggesting that context has to be elitist or condescending or boring or quiet, but in much the same way that you take off your shoes in a Japanese restaurant or turn off your cell phone in a movie theater or expect there to be yelling and high-fives at a sporting event, there's nothing at all wrong with a culturally understandable context for Art. In fact, to be honest, we already have one, despite how hard we see folks trying to pretend it's not there or work against it. From the transformation of the interior of a gallery (that still has the white box just beneath the surface waiting to house the next exhibition) to the public performance pieces and stealth efforts to intersperse "art" throughout public spaces (that just happen to be very carefully documented [for what, if not viewing later in a traditional art space?]) to the earthworks and other efforts like, say, the Gates in Central Park (that are heralded with such fanfare and publicity there's really little chance anyone would happen upon them and not realize this was Art in the park), the notion of breaking out of "the context" is somewhat disingenuous and wholly artificial anyway. Am I wrong?

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.

33 Comments:

Blogger Candy Minx said...

Well, you posted this at the same exact second I posted my response to yesterdays post...and boy are they similar...spooky!

but then I use my cultural world to make studio-based art and so does my wonderful boyfriend, we're so cool!

8/11/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

No...the more I think about it the very problem is...


that art isn't mass culture as it USED to be(okay they were small cultures back in the day)

Art should be mass culture, but art has becoem "pinchline work" playing off the work of duchamp (as I said a few minutes ago in previous comments below.)

Art is out of the hands oif the public, when the public cares about art, then it will be a real event. right now it is high brow people with boring sense of actual work hands on work, lazy punchline objects and shows...

these have very little interest to us regular people.Us regular people who want art and make art but it is a sham for the last 50 years. It's not andy's fault its the lack of imagination within popular artists and the consummer the high brow society that falls for the shitty punchline.

Yes, theere are lots of good artists, but the public is alienated from them because art is not for the people and community any more.

Art is treated as a commodoty for the few annd as a negotiation.

when art and the artists return back to earth and the public is interested in having art in their homes or in their school programs then we will see are as a mass culture and appeal as it was over ten thousand years ago.

Artists need to stop being lousy gag one liners and punchline addicts. We need galleries that know the difference.

8/11/2006 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

You can ignore the following links Edward, I'm sure you've seen lots of art made from stuff...but those who may visit here and are not artists...they may find the links below of interest. A large amount of my blog is about the making of objects and the accessible quality of the paintings. anyhow, sorry to triple post and sorry to be so wordy...these last tow posts were close to my heart. Art for the public, not for the rich!

:)

cheers,
Candy


http://gnosticminx.blogspot.com/2006/04/making-giordanos-memory.html

http://gnosticminx.blogspot.com/2006/04/making-resurrection-of-ishtar.html

8/11/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Auvi said...

Nice post Edward. I share your feeling: I want Art to give me something that Paris Hilton can't. Something powerful, something transformative.

8/11/2006 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Even if art neither tries to beat nor join pop culture, even if its aspirations and what you get from it are totally different, it's still competing.

It's competing w/ movies, concerts, tv, books and magazines, videogames, dinners and walks in the park, and the kids' soccer game for people's time and attention.

It's competing with cars, furniture, vacations, investment properties, and consumer electronics for people's money. I would have put Paris Hilton in the vacations category, but I recently found out that she's not a hotel in France.

8/11/2006 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Ashes77 said...

With respect to what David is saying here, I think it is only one part of the problem that it is competing, as this exhibition only exemplifies. Agreeing with Edward's summation, the problem is that mass culture has won and continues to win and we continue to lose.

It is only a matter of more and more people walking away from that empty culture of death. And here we are, greeting each other. Drucker's exhibition sounds not only dreadful, but all too common.

8/11/2006 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

And are you posting this from your posh beach front estate in the Hamptons? It was awfully lonely on 27th Street today.

8/11/2006 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the problem is that mass culture has won and continues to win and we continue to lose.

It is only a matter of more and more people walking away from that empty culture of death.


Not sure which culture you're describing as such.

I know it's rather fashionable to see the art world as decadent and a culture of death, but I think that's an oversimplification. First, the only topics worthy of serious art, according to Genet, are sex and death, so if you want serious art, you're gonna have to look at them, and why shouldn't art do so? They're complicated and sometimes scary and making sense of it all is what art's really good at.

Second, there's nothing more decadent to me than surviving a diet of pure pop culture, disposable ideas, instant gratification, nothing to sustain one until the next injection of junk...it rots one from the inside out, IMO.

And are you posting this from your posh beach front estate in the Hamptons? It was awfully lonely on 27th Street today.

No (I wish), but we're closed until September, like many other spaces...I posted it on our website...guess I should do something more...sorry you trudged over there to find everything closed. John's open, I believe.

8/11/2006 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Hamptons..........

sounds tempting :)

8/11/2006 04:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I agree with David that art
is in an obliged opposition and may be failing because of that.

That doesn't mean it has to loose the battle.

Who knows Madeleine Berkhemer here?

I'd bet on her side any day in a mud fight with Paris Hilton.
(and before you cringe at the mud fight scenario, please note that I bet Berkhemer herself would do a performance involving such scenario).

They are artists experimenting at the edges of mass culture but we barely know about them. I'll tell you what: they are lonely at the front but I don't think they are loosing the battle. On the contrary they are paving the ways
to much interesting things.

I sincerely think pop art is over, I think art musn't reduce itself in the recyclage of popular vestiges and icons. I think art must stay at the edge and experiment with whatever mass culture can offer them. Then the distinction will make itself clear:
art being the stage of aesthetical experimentations and reflections.
If art refuses to experiment with what is on offer for it than it would become slave to itself, redundant and unuseful. Something quite boring that would easily be surpassed by mass culture (hence why people wouldn't be interested by it).

Art must find a way to maintain its role as a leader in the exploration of forms and mediums.
Mirroring mass culture is simply not enough. Art will only survive if it is able to extend it (just like Bekhemer loves to extend her woman stockings).

Is the piece by Srah Sze still standing at the corner of Central Park? I don't think that's a failure.


I don't think art suffers from adressing the everyday. And by the way, elitism has nothing to do with creating an art ghetto against mass culture. There's elitism in clothing too.
Elitism will not suffer because of art's need to get out its closet and explore the world.

Whatever happens in Virginia there will always be sophisticated minds. We're not all here to build popsicles.

Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/11/2006 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Edward
>>>disposable ideas


Art has its share of disposable ideas while they are some stuff from entertainment that I keep and keep coming back to.


You may seek to want to oppose the good with the mediocre but that has nothing to do with an opposition art vs mass cuture.

Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/11/2006 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous J@simpleposie said...

Hal Foster offers a similar position to Drucker in his 2002 Design and Crime (and other diatribes).

Drucker's statement, if you really look at it, that "...mass culture is no longer perceived as the enemy of high art.... And yet, fine art continues to create a space apart...." puts the work or role of the work of art to create, carve, blast out a hole apart from mass culture.

As Cedric said, "We're not all here to build popsicles." But the question of WHAT the potential of a space apart could be at this moment of (I think Foster calls it something like the hegemonculous) something designed especially for everyone 24/7 is pretty interesting.

8/11/2006 05:41:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

puts the work or role of the work of art to create, carve, blast out a hole apart from mass culture

This is an interesting notion. But I think it's good to keep in mind that art will always have to keep digging that hole, because mass culture will keep filling it in. And imitating it. And absorbing it. The hole is still part of the whole.

We may not be building popsicles, but we're all part of the pop cycle.

8/11/2006 06:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the puns...they're so brilliant...they're hurting my eyes!

happy weekend all!

e

8/11/2006 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Sorry Ed, I guess I'm a bit bored today.

8/11/2006 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

no, David...please, keep 'em coming...I love 'em.

e

8/11/2006 08:49:00 PM  
Anonymous eva said...

How many times has an artist, with a sort of goofy yet 'knowing' grin, told me their work was influenced by 'Pop Culture'?? Never Leave the house and you still cannot escape it! It is nothing to pride yourself as regards ingenuity.

Some time ago Jeff Wall wrote a wonderful piece for Art Forum on this very issue. Warhol was real, he said, authentic, it all came from the heart. But all these wannabees, in ultra-diluted, insistent form, is getting on our nerves...

8/11/2006 10:49:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

if you look at history, back when there was no tv, no mass media, wasn't 'art' as we call it today, especially painting, basically the closest to 'pop' or 'mass' culture of its time? Isn't the whole glorification/gentrification of 'high art,' as opposed to the lowly mass culture, a pretty recent phenomenon?

18th-century portraits kept in the great art museums of the world today, for example, were commissioned by the people portrayed in them, be it noble aristocrats or members of the bourgeoisie trying to be aristocrats, etc.--sort of like photography, like today's family portraits done in photo studios in the neighborhood, I guess. And today we call them 'art,' we put them in our museums and people go in and say they're looking at 'art.'

8/12/2006 04:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with, say, Murakami doing toys as a part of his art. I don't think he's eitheir loosing or winning any battles.

On the aesthetic front, if Barbie Mattel looks cooler and more "neo-avant" than a Murakami doll than Murakami is failing, since as an artist he is supposed to teach Barbie (or Mattel) a lesson.

If Murakami fails then what?
Than we are left with considering Barbie a work of art.

What is wrong with that, since, as Aurix mentions, commodity portraits were once commodity portraits before they entered the museums?

But I seriously doubt the public will be contempted with admiring collections of Barbie dolls.
I think artists will find their way..


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com


PS: By the way, Hello Jenny and welcome here ;-) Great to have some more canadian blood in these discussions.

8/12/2006 05:28:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

My comment was too long... I posted it here.

Great topic.

8/12/2006 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

To make my previous comment a little more clear, I don't think it's pertinent anymore to bring Barbie inside the white cube and dissect it. I mean that can work for a while but... In these circumstances I'd agree with Edward that Pop will always win. You've got to create your own Barbie now.


I\ve read Deborah's comment, but the danger is in perceiving art as a necessary pool for philosophical, or sociological reflections. Art should be research, that I totally agree, but this research can happen on all sorts of sphere, and so it can be pure aesthetics which is a whole other matter of reflection.

If Britney Spears affects your life there is no reason why art shouldn't start from Britney Spears as focal point. For example take the sound artist Donna Summer (not the singer, the sound artist).
What would he do? He would probably dissect Britney Spears in interesting ways. Following from my comment above I see no opposition to the idea of creating art's version of a Britney Spears.
Not exactly a parody, I'm really speaking of art. Maybe some of Marilyn Manson is at the very close edge between art and mass culture. If he'd get rid of the agendas and explore his craft fully he would be getting there.

Sometimes I'm afraid, not too sound too superficial, art must get rid of agendas if it want to stop dissecting mass culture and really explore its own ways.
That, WITH, the mediums that mass culture is offering fluently (Spears and all).


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com


PS: I'm not sure pop is only about How Are Yous... When I listen to an early Siouxsie album she doesn't say "how are you" but.."how bad was your day today" and somewhere I'm able to correspond to that.

8/12/2006 12:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Actually Deborah, a lot of contemporary art is quite cold and doesn't care about my feelings either ?


Does anyone here care about how I feel?

Can I cry now ? ;-)

Cedric

8/12/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Oops my BIG mistake..: actually you can't ever truly get rid of some agenda, just try make it sound less extraneous to art, maybe?

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/12/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

I think the whole "art" vs. "mass culture" thing is a false dichotomy. "art" describes something's functional role in a culture; "mass culture" describes its popularity and broad influence. So it's easy to imagine something being one, the other, neither, or both.

I just saw "Pulp Fiction" again, and it provided a great example. This winner at Cannes fits all my standards for a fine example of Art with a capital A. It also became a centerpiece of pop culture (as it celebrated pop culture, and used pop culture as a mine for its raw material ... but that's perhaps another story).

So it happened to be shown more in mulitplexes than in art houses ... so it wasn't in Italian with subtitles ... so it had a narrative structure. These superficial markers might suggest to some people that it belongs to the mass culture camp and not the art camp, but ultimately they don't mean anything.

I'm sure anyone here can find other examples of works that comfortably straddle both descriptions. And works the fit one and clearly not the other. And works that probably fit neither. The pancakes I made for breakfast today were delicious, but I submit that few would consider them either the stuff of art or mass culture.

So where's the competition? Is there any substance to it at all?

8/12/2006 07:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an old discussion. Clement Greenberg wrote an essay back in the 30s titled Kitsch and the Avante-Gard. He basically argued that most of society was to unsophisticated to understand high art and that there would always be a seperation between low art (Kitsch or pop art of the time) and the forward thinking progressive ideas.

The irony is that the unsophisticated masses decided after WW2 that they could do fine without his high art, thus the prevalence of pop culture pushing everything new out of the consciousness of the public untill it can be assimilated and turned into a mass marketed, mass produced product or service.

All Warhol did was recognize the trend way ahead of the curve and turn the whole thing upside down. instead of waiting for someone to commercialize his art he would streamline the whole process and market the commercial world as art.

8/12/2006 10:15:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

It does seem the difference between high art and pop culture is very slight these days since both are obsessed with money and career development.

8/13/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Hahaha...ml...sooo dark.. The world is not all New York. Come to Canada I'll show you plenty of
(some damn good) art made without concern of money. We're almost socialists here.



Anonymous, I think Greenberg was way off his hat. Mass culture can be very progressive. I'm more on the line with Paul (though for me the film Pulp Fiction is simply the 90's version of Warhol, it's recyclage) that it's an artificial dichotomy. You can bring an element of mass culture under the spotlight, dissection lab that is the museum or gallery and it can turn out to seem quite sophisticated under analysis (mostly under aesthetic terms, hence kitsch is about extremes that we are now better able to judge with real interest).

Sophistication happens in art like it happens in food or travelling.
You're all trying to put mass culture and bad taste in the same pit, but it's not exactly how it functions.

There is as much bad taste in mass culture as there is bad art.


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com


(and Edward, you need all that bad art to get to your "good art" that you so desire. I'm afraid you're alway gonna have to seek it.)

8/13/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Hahaha...ml...sooo dark.. The world is not all New York. Come to Canada I'll show you plenty of
(some damn good) art made without concern of money. We're almost socialists here.



Anonymous, I think Greenberg was way off his hat. Mass culture can be very progressive. I'm more on the line with Paul (though for me the film Pulp Fiction is simply the 90's version of Warhol, it's recyclage) that it's an artificial dichotomy. You can bring an element of mass culture under the spotlight, dissection lab that is the museum or gallery and it can turn out to seem quite sophisticated under analysis (mostly under aesthetic terms, hence kitsch is about extremes that we are now better able to judge with real interest).

Sophistication happens in art like it happens in food or travelling.
You're all trying to put mass culture and bad taste in the same pit, but it's not exactly how it functions.

There is as much bad taste in mass culture as there is bad art.


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com


(and Edward, you need all that bad art to get to your "good art" that you so desire. I'm afraid you're alway gonna have to seek it.)

8/13/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ooops, sorry about that clone.

Cedric

8/13/2006 02:29:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Cedric,

I am not in NY any more. LA. So interesting to be among young artists who expect to make big bucks. The most recent SuperSonic, showcasing all this year's MFA graduates in local schools, was instructive: no one was imitating anyone less than enormously successful artists. No edge, no sense of adventure. While I relish my moderate success, I feel sorry for the kids with dollar signs instead of wonder in their heads.

8/14/2006 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

Wow, Cedric, you're on FIRE. soem great insights.

This blog has the best participation I've come across in six months of intense blogging.

Way to go Edward, you're a trooper and deserve a great holiday!

Cheers,
Candy
http://gnosticminx.blogspot.com/

8/16/2006 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I think that it was all invented with paint by number kits in the 50's.

8/17/2006 11:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

happy to hear you like my work!
check new site
www.madeleineberkhemer.com

madeleine berkhemer

10/10/2006 07:40:00 AM  

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