Legend, Myth, and Street Cred in the Image of the Artist

2 06 2012

In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life.  I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.

Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam.  Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves.  They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it.  As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.

6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) performing “Her Name”

This is not something that is limited to slam.  We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs.  The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work.  In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.

Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people.  When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering.  The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other).  Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.

An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House.  Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago.  The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson.  He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain.  Everyone in the audience has experienced pain.  Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological.  Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain.  Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture.  However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience.  He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.

Yet, House is a fictional character.  Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent.  We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain.  We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took.  We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about.  As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.

In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat.  He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York.  He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11.  His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone.  His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.

Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous.  It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle.  This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.

Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for.  Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton.  But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:

Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it

No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references.  But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.  Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.

Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell.  His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father.  Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.

Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer.  Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances.  Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets.  The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.

Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem.  A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view.  The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder.  The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience.  But even this can backfire.

Alvin Lau

In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam.  One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister.  As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister.  It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from.  It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.

Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?”  McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation.  To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself

I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post.  Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article.  Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.”  Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.”  DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer

Sierra DeMulder

As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis.  My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others.  We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it.  Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence.  No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit.  It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer.  To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist.  To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.

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Intention

29 04 2012

Artists, critics, and academics insist that the defining factor for any object or action to be art is intent.  Even in a postmodern mindset where anything—any act, any work of cultural production, or any object (any thing)—can be art, what makes that thing art is the intent that it is art.  This, of course, is rooted in the Modernist ideology of authority.

Modern thought places the utmost importance in authority, because it is through authoritative figures, statements, and processes that we can determine Truth.  And capital-T “Truth” is the utmost authority.  For this purpose, fields of study are singled out and highly educated experts spend their time investigating and advancing their knowledge of these fields, producing work that is True Science or True Music or True Art.  By designating himself as an Artist, a person then declares his intent to make art.  From then on, what he decides is art—what he intends art to be—is just that.  His justification is manifest in his position as an Authority on Art, an authority granted by specialization and expertise.

In the period of High Modernism (namely, the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), the intent of being art was enough justification for a thing to be art. During the Postmodern period, however, simply being art was not enough justification for an object.  Beginning in the late 1960s, art gained (or re-gained) the requirement of meaning.  In order to have impact, the work needed to do more than just be art, it needed to mean something.

Barbara Kruger, Your Body is a Battleground, 1989

In some circles, this “meaning something” depended on shock—a tool inherited from early Modernist painters who seemed intent on forcing the advancement of society, which was another topic of Modernist importance.  High Modernists like Picasso and Pollock aimed their shock inward—the shock of non-representational painting pushing art to a more advanced, more specialized place.  However, like Realist painters such as Manet, Postmodern artists like Barbara Kruger and Ed Kienholtz aimed their shock outward, putting society itself in the crosshairs.

Activist artists like Judy Chicago, Mel Chin, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Sue Coe made artwork with dual intent:  to be art and to disrupt.  The requirement for rupture seems to have become inherent, especially in art produced and justified in an academic setting.  Disruption  may not always be readily apparent, and thus artist’s statements emerge as a way to explain what is disruptive about a particular work or a particular artists’ oeuvre.

What is peculiar about the supremacy of rupture as a requirement of art is that the intent of rupture seems to have the capability of being granted after the fact.  Artists who do not intend to their work to be disruptive in the present to be dismissed, and artists who created rupture in the past, whether or not they set out to do so, are elevated.  A reader commented on my last post (Thomas Kincade is Dead.  Long Live Thomas Kincade) on Facebook, arguing against my comparison of Kincade to Andy Warhol:

Even if he claims that he did not intend to, Warhol’s imagery (as banal as it was) at the time forced an examination of the boundaries of art (rupture). That’s pioneering. Kinkade’s imagery (although his methods of production and commercialism could be argued as similar to Warhol’s) does not hold the same power of rupture, just based on content alone.

Warhol was famously non-committal about his intentions regarding meaning in his work.  He made works with a popular appeal in a businesslike way that seemed to challenge the accepted specialized, reified nature of art. Critics, history books, and hero-worship have assigned the intent of rupture to Warhol, not Warhol himself.  If intent is all important in the status of an artist, is assigned intent just as powerful as declared intent?

It appears that this is the case.  The reader concluded her comments by writing, “I believe Kinkade’s illuminated cottage scenes are more along the lines of an allopathic art—an easy sell.”  Kincade was about business and selling, and Warhol was about critiquing the art world and/or society. However, Warhol’s own statement on the matter was that “Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

The figure of Andy Warhol has been ascribed the role of sly critic of mass consumer culture and big-money art markets even with the facts and trappings of his fame and wealth readily apparent.  A similar statement can be made about the work and person that is Jeff Koons.  My favorite statement regarding Koons comes from Robert Hughes, “If cheap cookie jars could become treasures in the 1980s, then how much more the work of the very egregious Jeff Koons, a former bond trader, whose ambitions took him right through kitsch and out the other side into a vulgarity so syrupy, gross, and numbing, that collectors felt challenged by it.”

Hughes goes on to say, and I agree, that you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the art world who claims to actually like Koons’ work.  But because it is ultra-kitsch and still presented as art, we assume the intent is to critique the vulgarity and simplicity of consumer or of the art market itself.  Koons is a businessman, and a shrewd one at that.  He makes a lot of money by “challenging” collectors while stating directly that he is not intending to critique or challenge art, beauty, or kitsch.

Of course, he is challenging them.  It is not his stated intent that is accepted as fact, but it is the intent we as viewers and critics have assigned to him.  In a postmodern view, the authority has shifted to the reader, to the viewer—to the end consumer of a cultural product.  We are no longer interested in a Truth of art, but instead we accept the personal truths of our own subjective views.  Saying you didn’t intent to go over the speed limit does not mean you didn’t do it, and Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, or even Thomas Kincade saying they don’t intend to create disruptive art work doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it.

If rupture is the new defining characteristic of art, then intent no longer can be.  A child doesn’t intent to disrupt a funeral, but it will because it wants attention.  Attention is the intent, but rupture occurs nonetheless.  Kincade just wanted attention and fame, but that shouldn’t stop us from viewing the work as a disruptive critique of the market.  It hasn’t stopped us from doing the same with Warhol.

Jeff Koons next to his own sculpture, Pink Panther (1988)

The reader’s comment used the word “allopathic.”  Allopathic, according to Merriam-Webster online, is “relating to or being a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated.”  In this case, the system of art critique is allopathic.  Typically, critique is aimed at works of art that intend to be art in a certain way.  Here, we are critiquing work in a way different or incompatible with its supposed intentions when being produce.  In a world of relative truths, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.





Thomas Kinkade is Dead. Long Live Thomas Kinkade.

15 04 2012

When Thomas Kinkade died last week, I got a few emails and Facebook wall posts from former students.  “I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to inform you about this.”  I have had a long and complex relationship with the art of Thomas Kinkade, and his death brought him to the forefront of the greater consciousness (however briefly) once again.

This is an example of a Thomas Kinkade painting. There's no need to look at any other ones, they're all pretty much this.

Thomas Kinkade was a painter.  He was a very well-known painter who produced thousands of paintings of quaint cottages in idyllic settings.  Tomas Kinkade was a businessman.  His galleries are in malls all across America.  There are calendars, coffee mugs, prints of various qualities and price ranges, “original” paintings, and even a Kinkade-themed housing development in Northern California.  For most in the art world, this places Kinkade firmly in the category of kitsch, with his reliance on mass reproductions of artworks and an easy appeal to a general populace.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant, instructing introductory-level studio classes, our first-day activity was to have the students fill out a form answering various questions about themselves.  What kind of music did they like?  What other art classes had they taken?  And, of course, who was their favorite artists.  When the TAs would get together after the first day, the conversation always turned to that last question.  How many Van Goghs did you get?  How many Dalís?  Any late, great, unknown uncles?  And the kicker—the question that would make us howl with laughter and wretch with disgust—how many Kinkades?  We were snobs.  We were art snobs.  We were educated art snobs, and we were going to educate these uninitiated undergrads about what was good and what was bad art, and Thomas Kinkade was bad art.

Yes, this is exactly what we looked like. This is what all art snobs look like.

There are several factors that go into dismissing Kinkade outright, and the kitsch argument is only one of them.  His galleries, even if they were not franchised McDonald’s of paintings scattered across America and found next to the Dillard’s north wing of the mall, were vanity galleries.  A vanity gallery is an art gallery that is owned and operated by the artist himself or herself.  While academic art instruction sees itself as operating outside of the art market, the market’s peculiar institutions of legitimation are sacrosanct.

A gallery, in the operation of the art market, is a proprietorship of a connoisseur who gathers the work of a group of artists, legitimized by their inclusion in this stable (yes, this is how the collection of artists represented by a gallery are referred to).  The connoisseur in the form of the art dealer then sells the work to connoisseurs in the form of the buyers.  The connections and collecting history of the connoisseurs provide the provenance for the work, and the connection with that provenance further legitimizes the artist.  They aren’t just making great work.  It’s great because of who owns it and because of what else they own or have owned.  A Jenny Saville isn’t just important because it’s a monumental painting, but because it was purchased by Charles Saatchi, and Saatchi also purchased work by Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood.  Good connections in the primary market lead to even better connections in the secondary (auction) market, which lead to collection or donation to museums, which are the ultimate arbiters of what is important.  What is important to museums is what ends up in art history text books, and it is what is taught to students as high art.  This process, as convoluted as it is, begins in the person of the art dealer.

In a vanity gallery, the artist circumvents the dealer in order to get his or her work to the primary market.  The work is sold, yes, but in the view of the institutions of legitimation, a necessary step in gaining legitimacy has been skipped.  How can these primary consumers know what they like if they don’t have a connoisseur to tell them what is important?  Thomas Kinkade made the vanity gallery into Wal-Mart, selling directly to consumers, legitimation be damned.

Yes, this gallery is in a mall.

Aside from the inconsequential, saccharine-sweet subject matter of Kincade’s paintings, his primary sin in the eyes of the art world is this crucial skipped step.  Other popular kitsch artists are simply ignored:  Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, Anne Geddes, whoever took those photographs of children in adult clothes in the 1980s. For those who hate Kincade, he is more than ignored, he is reviled, and other “sins” are held up as support for this judgment that are allowed to pass with other artists—even artists widely recognized by the institutions as important.

Even as a student myself, I lambasted Kinkade’s use of employees in creating his works.  “They aren’t even his!” I would argue, “He’s just the financier!  He’s a businessman.  Not an artist.”  Many people share the expectation that the genius artist’s hands are the only hands that work toward creating the final object.  The image of the artist’s studio in the heads of art students and the general public alike is one of a lone artist, toiling away at his massive projects.

Art is not made this way.  For an artist to make money, very rarely is this even a possibility.  In pre-Modern art eras, the sole-genius-production ideal was not as closely held.  Renaissance artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo were part of a guild system, where apprentices would do basic work like backgrounds in paintings or rough out the major forms for a sculpture.  The master was the boss in this situation, but the workload was shared.  Four hundred years later, Monet used apprentices and employees to crank out painting after painting of water lilies and haystacks.  In the 1960s, Andy Warhol went so far as to refer to his studio as The Factory, with artists, actors, photographers, and even lackeys all contributing to its output.  Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami do not lay a finger on the massive sculptures and paintings produced and exhibited under their names.  These artists occupy the highest tiers of the art-historical hierarchy (Koons is certainly up for debate—another blog on him later), and their output is directly related to the use of employee artisans to physically create the works.

A painter at work in Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studio in New York.

I have written at length about the dangers of high art alienating itself from the tastes and opinions of culture at large.  The disdain for items produced for a consumer, mass, or popular market is self-defeating.  How much differently would high art be perceived if Alan Kaprow’s Art Store had been in malls all across America?  What if connoisseurship was permanently circumvented and every person’s opinion had equal validity in the market?  What if legitimation depended more on quality of communication than quality of provenance and connections?  Would Kinkade have died an art start?  Would his paintings be in the Powerpoints of 100-level Art History survey courses?

In many ways, Thomas Kinkade fit the mold of the superstar hero artist.  He had ambition, ego, and is even rumored to have died due to alcoholism.  In the pantheon of art gods, those qualities have eclipsed any technical talent since 1956.  Personally, I can’t stand the work of Thomas Kinkade.  I also hate the Rococo.  But the Rococo has a place in art history textbooks.  Maybe Thomas Kinkade should, too.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, "The Happy Accidents of the Swing," c. 1767.
Just... ew.





Lies

20 01 2012

“Art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”  — Robert Hughes

This quote from Hughes’ Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History may or may not hold water in my proposed method of thinking about art not as based on object, but as based in interaction.  Of course, the quote, as presented, is a bit out of context and, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.”

Bernini, Plato and Persephone, 1621-22

In the book, Hughes is discussing the importance of Bernini and the transcendent beauty he ascribes to Bernini’s sculpture Pluto and Persephone (1621-1622).  Hughes has never been shy about decrying the narrow focus of high modernism, as he illustrates with the statement, “The extraordinary character of the sculpture lies in a mastery over carving which transcends the puritanical mantra of modernism about ‘truth to material,’ as though there were only some things that could legitimately be done with wood or stone, and to go beyond them were a sin.”  Hughes revels in Bernini’s skill to make stone appear to be as soft and supple as flesh, leaving the Greenbergian “integrity of materials” in the dust.  “Is it wrong for it to look as though it were modeled rather than carved? Assuredly not, the marvelous surfaces and textures of Pluto’s and Persephone’s bodies tell us.  Is the effect a lie?  Of course, but art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”

This kind of representational detail holds the beauty that makes this sculpture powerful.

It might be in that final statement, more than his dismissal of “truth to material,” where Hughes identifies himself as something other than a modernist.  The modern emphasis on authority, on truth with a capital “T,” is not so much that art represents truth, but that art is Truth. For Greenberg, the veracity of a painting was in its ability to be self-referential and self-reliant—art for art’s sake.  Add to that Benjamin’s concept of the aura of an artwork—the ineffable presence of the object itself—and you can see the supremacy of the artifact in modernism.  Art is produced to be an object, and the sole purpose of that object is to be art.

For Hughes, art, at least in this instance, serves another purpose than to be an object that is art.  It is in the service of revealing or communicating the truth.  In the case of Bernini, that truth would be the Biblical Gospel as interpreted by the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.  With this in mind, the art of the Italian Baroque was similar to much of the academic and conceptual art produced today:  it was visual communication constructed by the artist.  One difference is that Bernini had an audience already literate in the iconography he was using as his visual vocabulary whereas contemporary artists rely on artist’s statements to explain the signs that are their works.  Another difference is that Baroque artists imbued their works with an ornate and decorative beauty abhorred by contemporary artists still affected by the modernist rejection of it.

Whether it is based in beauty or based in communication, Baroque Art and contemporary academic art operate on the assumption that art is something else.  So what of art that just is—not in the modernist sense that the mission of an art object is self-contained, but in the idea that art is within the interaction between artist and viewer, not in an object?  Is an interventionist performance art?  If so, is it a lie?  Can that lie be in service of the truth?

Yoko Ono, Box Piece, 1964

As I see it, the “lie” of art is in the idea of representational art. It is representing something else outside of itself.  Bernini’s Plato and Persephone is a lie—stone that is masquerading as flesh. Jeff Koons’ Puppy is a lie—kitsch masquerading as high art with the purpose of communicating irony.  Yoko Ono’s Instruction paintings are lies—words arranged to represent a concept.  Whatever truth these works are in the service of, and whatever importance you may or may not ascribe to those truths, the works are there to represent something outside themselves.

Whether I am modernist or something other than modernist (post-post-modernist?), I think that the true power of art is in the experience of interaction between the artist and the viewer.  In this, no object is necessary, and no representation is necessary. Without representation, there is no lie to be put into service as communication—the experience simply is.  Perhaps the “is” is truth.  Maybe I’m more of a modernist than I thought.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Robert.  Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  pp. 281.





Avant-Garde, Kitsch, and The End of Art

19 08 2011

I was having pizza with two friends who were discussing the song “Let ‘Em In.”  Not being familiar with the song by title or their description of the lyrics, I asked who it was by.  “Wings,” said one.  “So, typical McCartney drivel,” chimed in the other, and they both chuckled.  “Ah,” I thought, “music snobs.”

But this isn’t just an example of music-snobbery.  It’s more specifically pop music-snobbery, and even more so than that, Beatles- or John Lennon-snobbery.  These types of music fans (and there are many of them) place Lennon-scribed Beatles tunes or his solo work on a higher level than the works of his partner Paul McCartney, and have a particular disdain for Wings.  The reasoning?  Though it is often hard to get them to admit, it has to do with the perceived simplicity and popularity of the songs.  McCartney writes simple songs that are catchy and everybody likes and understands what they’re about.  Lennon writes deep, poetic masterworks that take time and education to truly appreciate.  McCartney writes “Back in the USSR,” while Lennon writes “I Am the Walrus.”

It’s an attitude that carries over into all areas of artistic evaluation:  that which is more difficult to understand or appreciate is of higher value than that which is easily grasped.  Clement Greenberg crystalized this attitude regarding visual art in 1939’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he described kitsch as low art, the ersatz culture of the newly literate, but uneducated masses. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”  Kitsch is mass-produced for easy consumption by people who like it because it seems like art, but is easy, convenient, and plentiful.

What is kitsch? This is kitsch.

The Avant-Garde, on the other hand, creates art that is forward-thinking, that is moving toward new ways of creating and thinking and is therefore inherently more difficult to understand.  Greenberg saw the Avant-Garde as a necessary product of a move away from what he called “Alexandrianism,” an attitude that looks to past masters and tradition for answers regarding questions of taste. Writing in the Twentieth Century, at the cusp of the pinnacle of High Modernism (indeed, Greenberg championed the King of High Modernist Art, Jackson Pollock), Greenberg’s emphasis on progress and originality is typical of the modern mindset.  Greenberg also saw the isolation of the Avant-Garde as necessary to move culture forward as a whole.  Modern art had to be separate from Kitsch, from the popular aesthetic of the masses, in order to bring about true originality and create a more pure form of art.  Ultimately, this led to abstraction and non-representation in works, divorcing them from even representing anything outside themselves. Greenberg’s “High Art” was art that was self-referential, art about art, art for art’s sake.

Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31), 1950

This detachment of art from the rest of the world is not something that was new with Greenberg, however.  It extends as far back as Arthur Schopenhauer, who expounded on the idea that aesthetics and utility are separated from one another, “we rarely see the useful united with the beautiful.”  For a work of music, philosophy, painting, or poetry to be a work of genius (and therefore high culture), it must be “nothing for use or profit.  To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of works of genius; it is their patent of nobility.”  For art to be genius, noble, or of high cultural standing, it must exist for no other reason than to be art.

While ideas about beauty changed in the time between Schopenhauer and Greenberg, and the notion of making beautiful work was all but rejected in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century, the idea of a work of art having no other purpose than to be art remained.  We see this in Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, surely.  We also see it in the attitude of many regarding the legitimacy of Duchamp’s readymades—that a readymade changes an object into art by denying its function.  You can no longer use the urinal for its original purpose, so you are forced to contemplate it as a purely aesthetic object—as art.

Another area where we see this attitude is in what is rejected from or marginalized by institutions of legitimation such as art schools and university art departments, museums, art history texts, art magazines and galleries.  Despite the continual visual dialog contributed by contemporary ceramics, art metals, illustration and graphic design, these areas are typically defined as craft.  Their primary purpose is not simply to exist on their own, but potentially as vessel in the case of ceramics, as visual embellishment of a text-based source in illustration, as a vehicle for sale of a consumer good in graphic design, and as personal adornment in the case of art metals.  Rarely are these given much serious consideration in textbooks for Art History Survey courses, and while from time to time there are museum exhibitions focusing on them, they are often treated as curiosity or as a method to lure the masses to see the other, more serious works of painting or sculpture.

In art schools and universities, these subjects are taught alongside the more expected topics of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture.  It is tempting to say that this is creating (or has helped create) a more egalitarian attitude regarding these forms rooted in craft.  But while every art department surely includes painting, not every art department includes Graphic Design.  Where I earned my Batchelor’s Degree, that program was housed in the same department as Engineering and shop classes.  Many small (and not-so-small) universities do not include Illustration or Art Metals at all.  Even in departments that do offer these subjects, there is an unspoken prejudice among the students at the very least.  Go into any department and ask a Fine Arts major what he or she thinks about the Graphic Design emphasis.  Ask the Graphic Design students where they think their area of study ranks within the department.

To complicate matters more, there is also art that owes its existence to the conceptual work of Duchamp but also reaches into the social realm.  The experientially-based work of Fluxus artists like the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the written instructions of Yoko Ono are relatively safe as “art for art’s sake.”  While they are not objects or images to be venerated, they are experiences separated from the rest of everyday life to be experienced as art, not as, say, exercise.  Activist art, however, is an aesthetic product made specifically for the purpose of societal interaction.  How is one to evaluate the work of Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping as art?  Its purpose is not simply to be art, but to provoke change in American consumption habits.  Evaluating the work as “art,” as something with no other purpose but to be art, ignores, and thereby negates, its social purpose.  Once this work is legitimized by a museum, it loses its use-value as a societal agent and becomes simply, and solely, art.

Bill Talen, aka "Reverend Billy," simultaneously engages a willing audience and the greater public.

Art at the service of a socially oriented program can be benignly dismissed as illustration or graphic design or, in the case of Reverend Billy, “fringe street-theater.”  It can also be more ominously feared as propaganda.  Both Greenberg and fellow cultural critic Walter Benjamin expressed concerns about the tools and methods of high art being used to influence masses through mass-produced kitsch productions (especially film, in the case of Benjamin).  One can easily see aesthetics put to malevolent use in the time that both of them were writing with the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels, and especially (and infamously) the films of Leni Riefenstahl.  As a German Jew writing in 1936, Benjamin was justifiably pessimistic about politicization of art.  But he also saw the potential for mass-produced and therefore easily accessible art forms like photography and film to bring at least some of the experience of “true” culture to the viewer, to meet the common viewer “halfway.”

The notion that “true” culture or high art are somehow separate from the rest of society damages the potential art has to affect as many viewers (or readers, or listeners, or participants) as possible.  Work that is purposely obtuse and aloof leads to disinterest and even distaste from the general public.  Moreover, insisting that an object of true high art has no use value other than to be art marginalizes it and leads to societal and political dismissal.  When NEA budgets for visual art were slashed in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there was little public outrage because art, with no use value, isn’t necessary to the everyday existence of taxpayers.  In our current economic climate, arts budgets are the first to be cut again.  Perhaps a public more invested in art—more connected to work because it means or does something in their everyday lives—would be less apt to accept the financial dismantling of government assistance for the work.  Art can and should engage the public.  Social projects like Judith Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles are community-based artwork that is integral to a greater population, not just art existing to be art.  However, this crossover creates problems of classification, which I will address later.

Conservative politicians like Jesse Helms used outrage over the display of controversial images, partly funded by the NEA, to spearhead devastating cuts to the visual arts budget of the National Endowment for the Arts during the late 1980s

To dismiss kitsch, as Greenberg does, is alienating and unhelpful.  Works of kitsch can, at times, influence works of “greater” culture.  Many viewers come to an awareness (and subsequent appreciation) of art through kitsch-influenced works like the Pop Art of the 60s or even Jeff Koons.  Say what you will about Thomas Kinkade, but his method and level of production has similarities to that of Monet.  Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime,” but he also wrote “Helter Skelter.”  John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” but he also wrote “All You Need Is Love.” They didn’t get to “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” What’s more, as much clout as we might give Lennon or The Beatles, they are still a Pop group—kitsch—when compared to the “true” high-art music:  Classical.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. And yes, I am comparing Koons to Lennon. Get over it.

I argue that accessibility in art is necessary not only for its survival, but also for its advancement, and the advancement of culture as a whole.  In my post, “Art, Meaning, and Language:  Part 2,” I pointed out that art can be everything.  In comments to that post, other bloggers pointed out that if art is everything, it is also nothing.  The story goes that once Duchamp decided that everything could be art, he stopped producing any art whatsoever—because playing chess could be art, and he would rather have done that, so he did.  Since we currently view art as being something that exists only as art, to think that art is also everything negates its status, its special place as some sort of beacon of (or for) culture.  The term itself implies separation—isolation.

Arthur C. Danto makes the argument that we are currently in a period of historical time After the End of Art (which is the title of the book).  I don’t know if I’m in total agreement with him that we are experiencing that epoch in history at the moment, but I do argue for the viability of that change.  The “Era of Art” is the historical period where we as a culture have separated art from religious, merely decorative, or use-value and place it in its own sphere to be art alone. We are now entering (or have entered, or should enter) a period where cultural production does not have to be isolated or legitimated through academic institutions; where, say, a social experiment aired on YouTube can have more of a cultural impact than a painting.

Allan Kaprow writes of a project undertaken in the 1970s in which artist Raivo Puusemp became mayor of Rosendale Village, a small community in New York.  The Village had serious financial and infrastructural problems, and, in the end, Puusemp provided an atmosphere in which the citizens of the village themselves made the decision do dissolve and become part of the larger Rosendale Township.  Puusemp himself did not refer to the venture as an art work, nor did he see it as a purely political act.  It was what Kaprow would define as a meaning-making activity, somewhere between the two.  And that is where the power of the story is:  that it is in between.  By putting it into an art text book (or an art blog, perhaps) the story becomes art, the frame of “Art” descends upon it, and it becomes solely art, no longer viable as public action.  It is the label that isolates it, not the action.  Perhaps it is time to discard the term itself.  This is something after art.  It’s something other than art.  It is something more pervasive, more connected.  I don’t know what to call it.  Perhaps it is best to not call it anything at all.








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