Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Blur Cuts Both Ways

I've been thinking a lot lately about the success of efforts to blur the lines between high and low art. I remember when this notion was first articulated in a way that I grasped its potential (and yet, entirely missed the full meaning of it).

This was long after Warhol, who people often will say had completely blurred the lines, and yet the context of his fine art as he presented it was still firmly rooted in a fine art history even he couldn't quite shake himself loose from (and didn't want to from what I can tell). 

No, this epiphany for me was much later, when so many intelligent art world insiders I knew were excited about this ongoing breaking down of context barriers and the artists leading the charge. The thinking at the time, as I recall, was that it would be all one way. That fine artists would break through and into low culture, cherry picking from whatever struck their fancy and resonated with their MFA-informed sensibilities, and yet somehow not only open up a wider audience for themselves, showering the common people with their smart and yet accessible insights like manna from heaven, but also entirely control the situation from their lofty position, jerking back their creations from lowly contexts to plop them on plinths in museums whenever the urge so hit them.

This fantasy of control wasn't something I gave much thought to 20 years ago. I was, as I remain, more interested in broadening the reach of contemporary art, in finding ways to help others around me become as obsessed with it as I am (and this blurring between low and high seemed one feasible way to do that). Had I stopped to think about it though, as I have more recently, I would have recognized that the blurring of lines cuts both ways. Fine artists dipping into low culture can't control shit (to put it in the terms the central concept has earned). Once those doors are open, there's nothing to stop low culture from walking through and staking as much claim to the fine art context as the fine art world assumed it alone could stake claim to in low culture.

As if on queue, the perfect example of what I mean by that was on display at the MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn this past weekend. In Artinfo, Craig Hubert wrote of the ceremony under the title "The Day Pop Culture Took a Nosedive," and noted a few of the ways the pop performers co-opted fine art for their generally inane numbers. But I'm less interested in the way any of this impacts pop culture. Indeed, I'll confess to having next to no interest in the MTV Video Music Awards. But Sunday night I was reading something on my iPad, while receiving reports from Murat who was watching Lady Gaga's opening number, and he kept saying things like "Now she'd doing Warhol"  and "Now she's doing Koons," so I went over to have a look. Indeed, there Lady Gaga was cherry picking from the canon of contemporary art whatever struck her fancy and (one assumes) whatever she felt would resonate with her fans' MTV-informed sensibilities.

Brenna Ehrlich offers a great summary of this love affair between pop music and fine art over on MTV's site, including interviews with New York Times critic Jon Caramanica and Art in America's Brian Boucher. In addition to discussing Lady Gaga, they both reference the Jay-Z video Picasso Baby, which in case you missed it, includes a cast of New York art world insiders watching/participating in a performance the music mogul held at Pace Gallery a while back.

Of course, the interest of wealthy pop icons in fine art seems sensible to most art world insiders:

"I think for Jay Z art is a real marker of class status," Caramanica told MTV News. "He's grown up, he's wealthier, he's taking interest in different things, so enjoying art and buying art and therefore rapping about art is sort of part of the logical progression of what he's always been doing. He's in a much wealthier class now, so his concerns are the concerns of wealthier people and art is one of those things."
Brian Boucher, Art in America online editor, pretty much agreed, telling us, "You get rich, you demonstrate your refinement by buying Matisses in addition to Maybachs and mansions," he said. "It's an old story. The Fricks and the Mellons did the same in the early 20th century."
Boucher also adds that this mounting interest in art germinating in the pop music world happens to coincide with what he calls "an insane climb" in the value of art on the market. For example, a recent sale of contemporary art by Christie's scored the highest total in auction history at $495 million, with records set by one of Jay's favorites, Basquiat.
"While I'm sure Jay Z and Gaga are genuinely interested in art, it's probably not a coincidence that their interest comes at a time when artists are more and more famous and blue-chip," Boucher said.

But where does this bi-directional access lead? Will the next Nicki Minaj performance channel Louise Bourgeois (or, wait, has Miley Cyrus already beat her to it)? Will the Jonas Brothers work with Jasper Johns?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for art world insiders and artists in particular taking themselves a bit less seriously, but I also like to think some of the accomplishments of contemporary art are perhaps better experienced with a minimum of twerking involved.


Anonymous terry ward said...

"Will the next Nicki Minaj performance channel Louise Bourgeois (or, wait, has Miley Cyrus already beat her to it)?"


8/27/2013 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

in terms of blur and art becoming part of 'spectacle' i think this relates but haven't quite figured out exactly how yet .....

(nearer to the end of the piece it comes around to this idea ..."or even just a silly water gimmick, are capable of drawing enormous crowds, who become much more invested in the art than they do when they look at a painting, just because they spend so much more time with it."


8/29/2013 07:18:00 AM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

I disagree with the opinions in the excerpt you cited. Respectfully, I think they all get it exactly backward. Jay Z and Lady Gaga were both raised in educated upper-middle-class families. She went to an exclusive private school in upper Manhattan, I'm not sure about he. Both are well-educated, and both were raised with an awareness of fine culture. I guess what I'm trying to say is that they are not loving fine art because the MTV crowd sees it as a sign of wealth, but because they were raised with it, and taught to appreciate it from their sophisticated families. If the MTV crowd begins to appreciate it, it will be because of them, not vice versa.

8/30/2013 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

Pop radio has a 20 stations, then there are 2 or 3 80's/90's stations, and then one oldies station. What we can gather is that music has a definite generational shelf life.

Art, well done does not. It's kept for centuries to be treasured. There are timeless songs, but when was the last time you heard Pachelbels cannon outside of a wedding? Or any Beethoven? I can't even think of the last time I heard Sinatra on the radio... years maybe.

It only seems natural that a pop star musician would want that sort of cultural immortality that fine art provides. Would you want your body of work to shift from relevant, to less relevant, to irrelevant, to unplayable all within your lifetime? That's the life of a musician. And once the band stops touring, they're gone forever.

8/30/2013 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Larson said...

"I also like to think some of the accomplishments of contemporary art are perhaps better experienced with a minimum of twerking involved."

Yes. Great piece.

8/30/2013 06:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once Upon a Time.. music competed or exceeded visual art.

Blurred lines is a very good pop song . But I know it was lifted from the past.

When I see a Jackson Pollock painting I think of Buddy Rich or vice versa . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QXdi25469U

when I listen to Jeff Beck Wired album I see certain things.

With todays music its rare for me to see or feel anything.

8/31/2013 09:47:00 AM  

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