Hyperaesthetics – 19 Sixty

“So, after abstraction, the monochromatism of, say, Yves Klein and the advent of imageless painting, when nothing more can get to us, really touch us, you no longer expect some brainwave of genius, the surprise of originality, but merely the accident, the catastrophe of finality.”
Paul Virilio
“Expect the Unexpected”
Art As Far As The Eye Can See

By 1960 Abstract Expressionism was done. Pollock was dead. Most of the artists of that movement were sliding quickly into alcoholism, depression and decadence, or worse, mannerism and academicism. But by 1960 a new art world was forming, one that would be determined by the onslaught of the electronic world. In quick succession Art moved from paintings to objects, from ideas to concepts, from abstraction to images, from the avant garde to the in-crowd and from the material to the immaterial. The old visual world was now irrelevant. Speed would determine the outcomes and influences in our culture. Speed which would be documented by the camera and the program. And with that, we get the installation, the cibachrome, the video and the transformed object. All of these new art products are the outcomes of not an aesthetic dialect, but instead, an aesthetization of the culture of speed, the documentation of violent transformation. By 19 Sixty we had entered the age of Hyperaesthetics.

Throughout the 1950s the “advanced” nations were spending huge amounts of capital to find a new viewpoint. The race to space was predicated on two things, the divisions of the world after WWII into Cold War states, and the need to find a global delivery system for the atomic bomb. All through the rise of AbEx painting, Cold War nations were hard at work increasing the velocity of their cultures, particularly in aeronautics and communications. The earlier advances in film and radio simply could not supply enough information, they were too slow – both were still grounded in human interactions, storytelling and mythologizing, and both were limited by their delivery. What was needed was another delivery system of images and words, one that could be instantaneous and far reaching. Lens based television quickly filled the bill. But still these televisual studio perspectives were not enough, they were still grounded. For the Cold War to be understood the new instantaneous image would have to be from above, a birds eye view of the world below, able to parse and parcel huge amounts of optical information up close and in detail. In order to accomplish this new aeronautical and astronomical vantage point the sound barrier first had to be broken. “…Chuck Yeager was credited with being the first man to break that sound barrier in level flight on 14 October 1947, flying at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13.7 km).” Level flight meant that an engine had been developed that was powerful enough and fast enough to project an airplane beyond the speed of sound without using earth’s gravity to create a dive of death. Speed freed us of Newtonian physics. Soon these new velocities would take the lens outside of earth’s boundaries providing new perspectives on human interactions.

The lens followed and recorded every movement, every advance of this new culture in real time. Every new speed record, every step into space, and finally, the plethera of images and information beaming into our living rooms, have been dictated for and documented by the lens and the program. This new velocity was also working its way into our physical selves. We began to accelerate and pump our bodies and minds with new pharmacological potions designed to take us along with this new velocity of life, change our basic human structures, in order to play a part in this hyperactivated culture. The first drugs were designed to control our sleep, alter our thinking patterns and change our relationship to pain. And with the pharmacological hyper-activization, we began remaking our physical selves so that we might exist for this lens culture. Optical reassignments or “lens ready” images have created a proliferation of new plastic surgery techniques and medical innovations that have changed our bodies inside and out. We no longer look in the mirror, we must appear on camera. As we have progressed from 19 Sixty these changes have quickly eroded our connections to Pollock’s natural man, and have created a new kind of artist, one plugged into Warhol’s machine.

“It is a sense of being in communion with powers greater than yourself and intelligence which far outstrips the human mind and energies which are very ancient. You have a sense of being brought in to God’s workshop and that the veil is pulled away and for the first time you see how things really are.” Timothy Leary

The faster our culture speeds along the more we vanish into “God’s workshop.” Artists now leave digital trails of ephemeral happenings, theatre sets that held performances and ghosts mirrored in optical glass. But with our disappearance we remain in stasis, caught in an endless loop of repetition and ennui. For example – the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” is a 1960s prototype for what would become a vast cultural imperative. In the video we see performance art, a theater set piece, camera trickery, quick cutting, overlays and montage. It predates all of the televisual editing tricks and installation techniques that are the hallmarks of Postmodern lens culture. In this culture we must become hypnagogic in front of our screens, and like Salvador Dali, remain awake to encounter the hallucinogenic visions playing in our brains. We are somnambulists and voyeurs, lost in the hallucinatory world of light-speed and lenses. We are no longer grounded. We float in the digital subjective, our voices not quite our own, because we have merged into the great electronic collective. We’ve tuned in, turned on and dropped out. We have found that it is only through our absence that we are allowed to become transparent, and with that transparency, we can be “seen” by everyone. We lack depth and heft. We are light as a feather on the breeze – a world of Forrest Gumps. Artists don’t make things anymore, we find things. We capture images rather than draw them. We scan rather than read. We signify rather than converse. We develop games rather than create poetics. We program applications rather than create mythologies. Our vision determines nothing in the free floating vacuum of space.

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

After the bullet – we find our bliss. The ironies unfold into infinity. Speed, violence, and disappearance all converge in our consciousness, and then, we find our happiness. Once we are gone all that remains are the endless loops of lens captures and empty rooms. It’s not death – no, that is physical. We “move to another level,” we are “no longer in pain,” and “we’ve gone to a better place.” That was the feeling I had in the recent show at the New Museum. It was all about art that had “gone on to a better place.” Jerry Saltz was correct in his estimation, that the sublime has become us…”These young artists show us that the sublime has moved into us, that we are the sublime; life, not art, has become so real that it’s almost unreal.” Life attains this unreality when we see it from the other side, when we are no longer “alive.” We crave the warm gun, and fashion its likeness into our electronic devices, each one delivering us to that other side. From that vantage point it all becomes clear, transparent. We can dream of our physical lives in bliss, we luxuriate in the nostalgia of a fleshy yesterday now that we are free of the struggle of gravity and flesh. We have attained the sublime. “We see how things really are.” We are happy.

Media – 19 SIXTY

“Perhaps the great revolution produced by photograph was in the traditional arts. The painter could no longer depict a world that had been much photographed. He turned, instead, to reveal the inner process of creativity in expressionism and in abstract art. Likewise, the novelist could no longer describe objects or happenings for readers who already knew what was happening by photo, press, film and radio. The poet and novelist turned to those inward gestures of the mind by which we achieve insight and by which we make ourselves and our world. Thus art moved from outer matching to inner making. Instead of depicting a world that matched the world we already knew, the artists turned to presenting the creative process for public participation.” Marshall McLuhan

BY the end of the 1950s Modernist painting had run its course. “American type painting,” the last modernist practice, built on the cubist and surrealist legacy and created a new form of materialistic expressionistic abstraction. But after its hard won success, ABEX quickly faded in the bright light of a new decade and a new electric generation. It quickly settled into an uncomfortable and contentious academic life. A new culture was beginning to take hold driven by the proliferation of lens based imagery and instantaneous information. Television became the new communal fire, the new town square, where stories, histories and myths would be communicated and folded into the collective psyche. Television was the new codex and transmitter of the way we would understand our culture, our history and our selves. A new form, a new type of art would have to begin to define the power structures that were taking hold, and by doing so, create a new type of art and artist.

Marshall McLuhan detailed the rise of this electronic media and how it would change the way we would understand and communicate with one another. The immediate effect of this cultural change in the Art World was heralded by the work of the new POP artists. Warhol, Lichtenstein and many others were busy grabbing hold of the techniques of reproduction and iconic assimilation and creating a different sort of art. Andy Warhol was the defacto face of POP, and his pronouncements helped define the discussion around it. We’ve posted about Andy’s machine in Overheads and Screenshots and this “machine” would rule the aesthetic discourse into our present day. Electronic lens based reproduction ended the visual age, and with it, the tradition of painting as it was known. Today we are watching the final implosions of these visual theoretics, cultural imperatives and political power structures. We are morphing into a new age driven by our media extensions, and it is once again changing the way we make and understand Art. But what will remain of this postmodern, postpop, posthistorical ground and what are we to make from what remains, what continues?

Shifting Grounds and Percolating Subjectivity

A good example of how the sliding electronic ground of instant total awareness is changing the visual world yet again is to be found in the current fiscal crisis facing the print newspaper industry. Since the inception of the online world the readership and subscribers to printed newspapers has plummeted. A new form of interactive news content has begun to proliferate our culture. Internet generated news can be immediately commented upon through blogs, pundits and the general net-surfing public. In fact this commentary is read, followed and critiqued far more than the actual event reported. News today features the opinions of the mass public about a shared event. For instance, the recent historic spectacle of the first African American president addressing congress about a bold new initiative to reorder American economic structures was quickly overtaken by the fact that many of the lawmakers in the audience were busy “twittering” their passing thoughts. The news of the event and the dialectic being proposed were quickly made redundant by the deluge of commentary that those “tweets” engendered. Additionally, there was the live broadcasting of the event, complete with other news scrolling along the bottom of the screen, digital network graphics and reaction shots of the audience turning the speech into a television program, a reality show. Immediately following the speech we were deluged by network pundits’ commentaries, email reactions from viewers and interviews with focus groups. The shifting ground of the electronic world slid from beneath the rising subject of this event. Printed newspapers can not compete with this instantaneous deluge of personal opinion, flowing entertainment and subjective commentary. The structures of printed news are designed to report events in a dispassionate dialectical manner from a distanced perspective. The print news, most usually, is “old” – at least a day away. One reads the news in order to distill the event, to reason its implications. However this means that a critical distance must be maintained, something the immediate deluge of online subjectivity can not maintain. Further, the opinions about the printed news events on the op-ed pages are separated from the reporting, and as such, they too remain distanced, systematic and visual in nature – they are never confused with the event itself. There is no audience participation in the event other than receptivity – the print reader receives news, the internet participant gets the news. Today it is the commentary that we search for rather than the unfolding dialectical nature of the event – we seek to participate in the programming around the event. Further we do not look for meaning in the event, but we use the event to identify and confirm our subjective interpretations. It is the commentary that has become the news. In electronic culture the event is merely a catalyst for the ground to rise into view. This is the Postmodern condition.

In art practices a similar cultural change regarding commentary and participation has taken place. In Matthew Collings’ recent column in Modern Painters states that conceptual art is the art of today, “We want art to be alert to change, tuned in to how we live now. The whole conceptual tradition, including Pierre Huyghe, offers exactly that. It’s not that Matisse and Gorky, etc., can tell us only about 1917 or 1939. They offer magnificent lookatability, not just beauty but beauty full of mind and feeling — emotion that transcends its own moment. But we are frankly baffled by the tradition of aestheticism that Matisse represents. At least, we can only appreciate it from a distance. We can’t join in. We can’t do it anymore. Society just isn’t set up in the same way. In terms of immediate everydayness, such heights of art have become meaningless. Conceptual art hits the spot instead. (There’s something sad about it. It’s about new freedom, but it’s also basically about giving credence to impotence.) We have this itch for the present that conceptual art answers. It doesn’t have anything worth looking at. Plus its “think-about-it” content isn’t worth thinking about for long.” The in-depth participation of electronic culture has attuned us to the way conceptual practice immerses the audience in an art of immediate accessibility and audience responsiveness. This idea of in-depth participation translates throughout the art world no matter which art form one practices. Concepts are far more user-friendly than the actual physical embodiment of those concepts. The art object is no longer the focus of either the artist’s or audience’s attention, it’s no longer a thing-in-itself but a thing-for-others. That is what we, as both participants and audience, experience in electronic reality – a simulated world of personalized data, information and context – the flow of integral subjective concepts.

Conceptual art was designed for the realm of unfettered consciousness, the Platonic world of Anamnesis and perfect forms. “What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.” The photograph, the collage, the combine, the photoshopped image, the painted photograph, the found object, the manufactured incident, the video setup are all aftereffects of the conceptual interrogatory and the reclamation of memory. This is a Socratic form of art that wants to reveal some perfected “truth.” Allan Kaprow’s states in his 1966 Manifesto, “Now as art becomes less art, it takes on philosophy’s early role as critique of life. Even if its beauty can be refuted, it remains astonishingly thoughtful. Precisely because art can be confused with life, it forces attention upon the aim of its ambiguities, to “reveal” experience.” This confusion between art and life and the critique it engenders is where nostalgia for Art emerges, the memory of what Art was. The interrogatory is a way for the audience to remember, to re-connect with the idea of Art. Instead of an encounter with the visual, the conceptual practice unfolds the already understood, the remembered history or the renegotiated memory. For instance, Bruce Nauman posed a question about studio life in Mapping the Studio in 2001, letting his cameras roll through the night. He then projected on the walls of galleries the outcome – a night in the studio space spent documenting the nocturnal life of small animals, a hunting cat, insects and time. What is interesting is not the “live” events in the studio, but the idea of the surveillance that the video of the event engenders. Is it art without the artist? Is it art without framing? Is it art without editing, without choice? Are the images produced interesting in themselves or is it the idea of passing images that is interesting? There are many questions surrounding the nature of the event, the “life” it critiques, and how the work is presented rather than what meaning we might attribute to the images themselves. Again we don’t interact with the images, we interact with the interrogatory, we comment, we conceive. The “piece” is the tool to retrieve the memory of Art. To the Conceptual midwife we are all Anamnesiacs.

A different idea of visual participation is something that visual art, particularly painting, is going to have to redesign in order to grow with the new culture. Don’t get me wrong there are a number of conceptual painters steeped in the idea of audience participation at work today, but their work barely exists as painting. Those paintings are designed to be encountered as things with paint on them. The painting has to mind its manners, and act like yet another thing in our world, like a sculpture, an object or that annoying person driving the Subaru in front of us. We will not give up our commentary, our control or our sureness about what we understand and encounter. We’ve lost our capacity to see, to enjoy how we see and to indulge in that vision. I think Collings gets it right when he says that we can’t join in. We just don’t understand how Matisse’s mind works, how he uses his eyes, because we don’t see in that manner any longer. McLuhan discussed this in depth as well. He detailed how tribal societies could not distinguish what was in a picture – they had no way to understand a one point perspective. Their vision was more inclusive, less specialized. And McLuhan gets it right as well when he says that we have become more like the tribal man through our electronic extensions. But for some of us it’s not enough to continually drown in pools of connectivity or the contexts of installations. We want something more visually exciting and challenging.

to be continued….

Notes – 19 SIXTY

As I’ve been doing my research for the 19 SIXTY series I’ve been comparing a lot of pop culture to POP art and finding some really fun connections. That period in the mid to late fifties when Johns and Rauschenberg were working out their ideas is still a fertile place to begin. Especially with Jasper. But to backtrack a bit further, I’ve had many thoughts about the idea that in the 20th century paintings moved away from being pictures to being things – and as they became more thing-like the images became more about games, and by games I mean games of optics and games of language. This is Duchampian in nature and begins with Nude Descending a Staircase. Duchamp was depicting an action rather than a nude and with the depiction of the action he was really describing the way he depicted that action. It was a double bluff – as are most of Duchamp’s works. We weren’t meant to look at the nude, nor the action of the nude but the sequence of painting from top left to bottom right. The descent or “dissent” was actually the painter refusing to depict, to create a picture. He was painting time – a “history painting” if you will. Oh well – make your own punning references, I get a bit tired whilst punning.

Anyway, I was on youtube looking through a lot of euro-popular videos – because Postmodernism in Europe is a bit different than it is here in the US. I think this has something to do with the visual and theoretical history of Western thought. OK as an example – Cities feel thicker somehow – and I know that seems like a cop out when trying to explain something. But I guess it boils down to this – you’re walking through the streets of Rome. Down every little street there are centuries old buildings that have been renovated to suit modern tastes while somehow managing to retain the look of the past – open floor plans, flat screens, cutting edge technologies crammed into a 17th century semi-detached. The juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary exist at once. Thick. We don’t experience this sort of relationship with the past in the US. So our Postmodernism is different.

0thru9Yesterday I was thinking about Jasper’s 0-9 painting. It’s one of my POMO favorites because of the nature of the gaming going on in the work. There are the optical games – the colors, the brush strokes, the overlaying of numbers, the collapsing of space. There are the language games, the counting, the fact that we start with zero and work our way to nine, and then the cyclical nature of the numbers themselves – that as we count as far as we can we then find ourselves back at zero – once we’re at our peak we find ourselves emptied again. We move in circles, always renewed by being emptied. Then I remembered seeing this video while I was staying in Venezia. I had returned from a long and happy day of walking the churches. I had eaten a huge meal and finished a bottle of fantastic wine. Needless to say – I was happily soused, and when I’m happy things tend to stick with me.

So as I was thinking about Johns’ 0-9 this video came to mind. The clever thing in this video is the counting, the layering as we count, and all of it done to a catchy beat! Like Johns’ work in this video you build the optical, the space collapses, the subjects emerge one from the other to the surface and fall away. And as the song ends your game is packed with Kylies. You empty it out by hitting the replay button. The one thing that is missing in the video and Jasper’s painting is the beginning – for Kylie it’s the first missing package and for Jasper it’s the first missing brush stroke in the upper right corner. It allows us into the sequence. Both the painting and the video are perfect POMO machines.

Too Dubai

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice. Paul Krugman NY TImes Editorial

Look, I value the constructive criticism and healthy debate that is a foundation of American democracy. I don’t think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that good ideas are the province of any party. The American people know that our challenges are great. They’re not expecting Democratic solutions or Republican solutions – they want American solutions. And I have said that to those who have criticized the plan.
But what I have also said is – don’t come to table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped create this crisis.
We’re not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that in eight short years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin. We can’t embrace the losing formula that offers more tax cuts as the only answer to every problem we face, while ignoring critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, the soaring cost of health care, failing schools and crumbling bridges, roads and levees. I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV – if you’re headed for a cliff, you have to change direction. President Barak Obama

The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more. Holland Cotter The Boom is Over Long Live the Art

Right now, what’s going to work is something their customer doesn’t have in her closet and that has a real intrinsic sense of value. …Because to be honest there’s been too much product, too much copy-catting, and, probably too much consumerism. I think a sense of clarity, a sense leveling off and a sense of reality is needed. Anna Wintour

These quotes from players in the economic, political and cultural worlds let us know that something big is happening. Many of us are beginning to realize that the times are definitely a-changin’. Doesn’t matter what part of culture you reside in these days its all about coming up with something to fix the mess. I guess we are heralding in the era of the big idea. Unfortunately in our Art World there hasn’t been an idea, a really new idea, in decades. At least not one that changed anything about art, and the thought that a big idea is needed is starting to scare the pants off of those without a clue. Change can be a scary mother, man. Let’s face it – after we accepted the security of a corporatized art world we signed away any rights for real change. In order to fit in to the economic mix our art market became very adept at appearing to be legit to the equestrian investor classes. “Art as an investment” has been the mantra for so long that we actually began to believe our own hype. Christ, there are still art blogs and web sites offering feel good lessons on how to market your work, what your slide portfolio, web sight, business card and go-to-meetin’ attire should look like. These business hucksters are even advising artists on how to ingratiate themselves to the powers that be. But that sort of Barnes and Noble “self-help” crap just doesn’t cut it anymore. You won’t find any ideas coming out of a consultant’s mouth, least of all, an idea that might challenge the entrenched. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is stable at the moment and all those fixed ideas about markets, careers and “success” are all in flux. The so-called power brokers don’t have much power any longer, if they ever did. In fact they only had the power we gave them. In any case, the old ways, the actions that brought us to this moment just won’t cut it any longer – “don’t come to table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped create this crisis” indeed!

But sometimes you just gotta love a POMO. Leave it to Anna Wintour to nail down this particular moment with this simple and devastating phrase – “I don’t think anyone is going to want to look overly flashy, overly glitzy, too Dubai, whatever you want to call it.” At least not in the institutional old ways – we will make our own flash!

Existenz – 19 SIXTY

The bestiality of World War II and the onset of the cold war was bringing a dark-but also exciting-pessimism into intellectual life. The social optimism of Marxist intellectuals, eroded by harsh realities of history, could no longer attract strong minds. However, many now turned inward and celebrated the individual who had the courage to face without fear a terminally absurd and corrupt society. The heroes were no longer Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, but rather Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Neitsche and Freud, the great voices of isolation and the inner life. In particular, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who raised nihilism and a sense of absurdity about human matters to the first principle of modern life, attracted attention…As [Harold] Rosenberg wrote, artists did not speak as a group, as they often did in the thirties, but were making “an individual, sensual, psychic, and intellectual effort to live actively in the present.” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan de Kooning An American Master

Here in Rosenberg’s quote about the individual artist is the first indication of what the contemporary Postmodern art world might come to look like. His statement seems to be one of unifying principles, but it is the beginning of the eventual fracturing of art theoretics and practice. The idea behind it is peculiarly American in its use, reaching all the way back to Emerson and the American Trancendentalists. In this philosophy the individual chooses what his life will be, and it is the choice that is imperative. This is also a predominant theme in the mid-century philosophy of Existentialism which was often quoted and used by the ABEX school. The connections between these two schools of thought, Existentialism and American Transcendentalism, is best summed up with Emerson’s quote, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” In Existentialism this idea of responsibility was taken to new heights by Sartre as he roped the unfettered consciousness of the 19th century philosophers back into its 20th century human skin. For Sartre consciousness was part and parcel of being, and the fact that it could not slip those bonds, that consciousness could never get free of physical limitations, brought a new idea of humanism and responsibility into focus. In its most simplistic state, consciousness is manifest in and through the being in-itself. There is nothing beyond being and being is what you choose to be. This idea of choice sets up the anguish of responsibility, the anguish of freedom all leading back to what you make of yourself. “Once freedom explodes in the human soul God can do nothing against man. God can do nothing against this pillar of granite, this irresistible column, man’s freedom.”

The ABEX painters in the years following the war took these ideas up and made them manifest in their work. Harold Rosenberg asserted, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.” What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event, a confrontation of choices. This ensured that the Modernist ground would become more than a physical surface to hold a picture. The flat stretch of ground had become the focus of the artist’s attention. Visual meaning, understanding what one was seeing in this instance would have to change dramatically. Vision itself had to become more attuned to the tactile. This way of seeing and understanding a painting in its simplicity as both surface and materiality, would necessarily shift the predominant senses. In order to understand the ABEX painting one had to use one’s eyes as if one were “feeling” the surface, the color, the gesture, the image. One was not looking at the painting or even the surface of the painting, one was experiencing the physicality of the artist, and it’s this difference between seeing and experiencing that defines the end of Modernism. “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.” In this sentence are the major ideas that govern the end of Modernism and provide a basis for our Postmodern age.

First, the idea that the art work would not be a representation of an image. Now this may seem counterintuitive to an age inundated with representational images, but we Postmoderns do not make our images, nor do we create our images – we find them, we rework them and we appropriate them, we treat them like things, physical evidence. Our images flow through the media, they come full-blown, fully realized through the lens. The implication is that when we find an image we encounter it, we grapple with it, we fold our existence into it. Second, the idea of materiality, that the stuff, the physicality of the process is the engine that drives the work’s creation. The material is the element that documents and recreates the encounter. This sets up the idea that the painting of the image in itself is of secondary importance to the actual “performance” or conception of the work. How you “handle” the image is of more importance than the meaning of the image – in other words presentation or context is the focus and the locus of understanding. Both of these concepts of art will become important in setting up the idea of context in the Postmodern sense. The arena, the surface, the showing space becomes the important thing – the painting, the image, the picture is only of secondary interest. In this idea it becomes apparent that the ground will take precedence and the rising subject will be subsumed by it. Additionally, the idea of documentation is expanded and proliferated in our lens based electronic culture. Delivery systems, how the image arrives, how it is packaged become more important than what is packaged.

But for the ABEX painter working to connect, the artist still grapples with the history of painting, the anxiety of influence, and his need to find an “expression” through the materials. The documentation of this struggle is the painting itself. What we see are the outcomes of the encounter, and through that experience we come to understand the thing in itself and the choices made. We begin to find meaning in that struggle. But the truly difficult idea beneath this encounter is not drawn out immediately in Rosenberg’s famous assertion about the “arena.” What we come to learn later is that the artist does make moral distinctions in the choices he makes even as he tries to move beyond them. It comes down to the moment of determining one’s existence in the act of painting, of creating something new and beautiful out of a physical gesture, out of painterly ugliness that asserts the artist’s humanity and existence. For the ABEX painter these actions determine the philosophic stance of being, the freedom of the painter. “The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value — political, aesthetic, moral…On the one hand, a desperate recognition of moral and intellectual exhaustion; on the other, the exhilaration of an adventure over depths in which he might find reflected the true image of his identity.” The ABEX painter creates himself as he creates the work. By the time the sixties rolled around these heavy ideas that held painting in stasis, and the uninspired academic ABEX works made by a younger generation did not fit. The world had changed, and art would have to change with it. For those artists who had struggled through the Depression and the War, the ABEX credo was the real deal, but the academy it inspired looked simply like every other style of institutional painting. Painters by 1960 were no longer living that philosophy. Life was not that harsh and studios no longer contained the drama of Being or Nothingness. The Postmoderns understood this and pilloried the pretensions of the old school.

19 Sixty will continue…

POMO Empire – 19 SIXTY

Debate 1960
Debate 1960
Postmodernism continues to hold the theoretical/visual art world in its grip. There has not been any serious challenges to its intellectual, perceptual or aesthetic implications since its inception. There have been many attempts at reactionary critiques and nostalgic returns, but that gets us nowhere. We wind up treading down the same visual pathways, seeing the same old ideas dressed up in contemporary garb. A new century demands new ideas, but unfortunately, the art world continues to experience its endlessly repeating “Ground Hog Day.” It’s time to for us to confront where we went wrong, where we began to circle, where we got lost, in order to find our way to an uncertain future. WE want imagination and adventure in our art, and in order to do that, POMO and what it stands for must go. We will begin our next series with the splintering of Modernism, the exhaustion and repudiation of existentialism and the end of visual reasoning. We will follow the leads all the way to 2008 with POMO suffering an equally ignominious and long overdue demise.

They called it the “Swinging Sixities” – Yeah Baby!

IN 1960 John Kennedy was elected president of the United States. It was a culminating moment and a new beginning for a country that was now the preeminent western power.

Debate 1960
Debate 1960
A perfect storm of world rattling events had finally come to a close. It seemed to begin with the stock market’s Black Monday in October 1929 which caused an economic collapse of immense proportions. The Great Depression lasted over a decade and plunged the world into economic misery. The 1930’s, reeling from poverty and collapsing governments, became ripe for political pillaging. The ever fearful bourgeoisie succumbed to the false promises of despots and fascists. Inevitably, what followed was a firestorm of clashing ideologies in the 1940s. World War II rearranged the power players of the world by finally destroying the 19th Century militaristic legacies that had been quickly regenerated in the desperate years following the first “great war.” 45 years of the 20th Century had been burned away settling old scores. America emerged from these catastrophes as the leader of the ravished western democracies, quickly setting up new boundaries of domination and engaging in a protracted “Cold War” with the Communist world. The generation that inherited this new world order, the Camelot Generation, was eager to begin to use the economic/political/cultural power of the new American Republic to redefine the world in its own image. And it all began with the first-ever televised political debate on September 26, 1960.

“…In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy’s smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.”

Keep in mind the idea of perception. How we perceive things is how we understand them. In the new lens based critique, the “culture of signs”, the “age of reproduction”, context is KING. Here is the first instance of the power of the cool image, the cypher, the avatar. Jack Kennedy was so open and easy that he could become anything to anyone given a certain context. He was the loving young father, the intellectual author, the handsome husband, the war hero, the world leader, the strong military strategist, the corporate point man and the civil rights champion. And he did it all without breaking a sweat.

Postmodernism, a newly ascendant theoretical model, was heralded and exemplified by Jack Kennedy’s televised appearance, his coolness, his youth and glamour. Postmodernism’s first public appearance riveted a nation hungry for a new type of leader, a new idea of power and a new acceptance of privilege. The art world began looking for art that could impart these qualities, and they found it in POP. Pop was urbane, camp, ironic and slick. It was an art of confidence, surety and splendor. Suddenly everything that had come before looked out of place, hard, uneasy, imperfect and OLD. The surviving ABEX painters were now deep into haggard middle age and tied to a corrupt European intellectual and visual heritage. Their work spoke of a different America, one consumed with the problems and dark philosophies of the Old World, an America fighting to survive. The new artists, on the other hand, were as light as the airwaves, as deep as a magazine article and as glamourous as movie stars. They were the Postmoderns, and they were programmed for our entertainment. A tidal wave of new art, new attitudes about art, and most importantly, a new academy of art came flooding into our world. This was the beginning of the POMO Empire.

IN this series we’ll be discussing the legacy of the Postmodern 1960s. We’ll discuss the culture that came before, how POMO has re-shaped the art world, and why we continue to exist in its shadow. But more importantly, we’ll be exploring solutions, new ideas and visual provocations for the 21st Century. It is a new age and we demand a new Art! Stay Tuned!

Popular Culture – Academy of Paint II

In our first post on the Academy we showed a similar use of painting techniques and photo appropriation by three contemporary artists; Koons, Oehlen and Walker. All three were appropriating “public” imagery and then attacking that imagery with “paint” using brush strokes or hammy drawing to add levels of meaning to the appropriated image. This technique produces a kind of abstract figuration that attempts to layer social or political context over the “found” image ground. It’s fairly common in the painting world, the progenitors are Duchamp and Warhol. However, this academic technique is not limited to a random encounter of images and/or the meanings those images may imply. Appropriated layering has proliferated across all types of painting. Postmodernism rules painting’s theoretical roost, so to speak. In this post we’ll be discussing a POMO abstractionist that I admire to make and establish this point. Here abstract painting follows closely to the rules set by the POMO image appropriators, only more emphasis is placed on the layering of physical gesturing and the idea of painterly technique itself.

“I become more interested in ‘how to paint’ than ‘what to paint’.” The statement points to where he stands in his engagement with the history of images and the position of painting. For more than 25 years he has related to the changing state of reproduction: to the processes of picture making in all cultural realms, as well as to art’s recent and more distant histories. Revealed in Reproduction” Bettina Funcke

christopher_wool-_1Christopher Wool is one of the best POMO “abstract” painters working today. His work embodies all the principles of appropriation and contextual layering that POMO aspires too. His paintings are also exemplary of the current Academy of Paint. I am not a fan of Wool’s earlier word work which plays wholly into late 80s conceptual practices. Those word paintings look dated and stuck in time. However, his painting work beginning in the mid 90s consolidates and institutionalizes the Warholian painting practices we previously discussed in Overheads and Screenshots. Additionally, Wool’s work limits his critique to Abstract Expressionism through Pop, and as such he has maintained abstract painting’s unyielding connection to American Post-War painting in general and Greenbergian theoretics in the specific. He is the last strong Mannerist of importance in this line, and someone whose work we should all be reacting against.

“This body of work combines an array of painterly techniques, including spray paint, silkscreen, poured and rolled paint. Wool mixes these techniques into combinations that conflate printing and painting. In some works, painterly gestures upon closer inspection are actually silkscreened patterns, which Wool then exhibits paradoxically against paintings containing the original action. In others, Wool layers patterns on top of one another and then erases them with sign paint. Press Release 2001 Luhring Augustine”

Let’s have a look at how the process works. Wool begins his paintings with denial, erasing the image or the stroke. This denial is an emphatic first act, not one of vision, but tied to reproduction and opticality. Now I’m making this distinction because reproduction has become the academic starting point for ALL “progressive” art over the last 40 years. Reproduction is looking without seeing, it is a tacit acceptance of optical information, it is repetition. Wool’s first pass is either through the reproduction (the pattern, the photo silk screen) or the “found” stroke (usually in the form of a sprayed “graffiti” line). He stays within the monochrome, most likely black and white, in order to reduce visual excess, to stay on point so to speak. He then creates “layers of process” which suss out meaning through the act of painting. For Wool this meaning is exemplified in what is best described as a series of denials. First he denies the visual (which requires memory and dialog), then he denies color (which creates tension and complexity), then he denies imagery (scrubbing and/or covering the reproduction). You could almost look at this like it’s an aesthetic Ponzi scheme where the first tranche of investment is fed by the subsequent erasure of the latter investments, leaving nothing but a vast pool of vanished visual capital and endless denials of painterly culpability.

What is left on the surface of Wool’s paintings are the reworkings of that very surface and hence the meaning of the painting is tied to the actions on the surface. He doesn’t create an image, doesn’t create a space, doesn’t move color, nor does he discuss anything outside the very acts of reproduction and painterly process themselves. The solipsism of these works is stunning. The final work is not about looking or seeing, but about tracking the physical nature of his process, and then determining how that process continues to push the surface forward. He is a Savonarola of painting, his work an effective Postmodern critique of the late 50s surface stain abstractions so favored by Clement Greenberg. Those artists, like Motherwell and Frankenthaler, pushed the watery paint into the canvas, splashing or brushing to create painterly effects and advance a decadent aesthetic of flaccid beauty. They remained tied to Pollock’s idea of the natural, that nature flowed through the artist and wound up “expressed” on the surface of the canvas. For Wool, alive today in a world of reproduction and the post-human, the focus of painting is found in the anti-natural or in the process of determining one’s existence in the face of the power of reproduction. The graffiti that customizes that reproduction, or in turn, the graffiti that becomes the customized image determine the surface. His is a “hard man” posture, one that accepts the limits of his pointed two prong attack. As a good friend once said about Wool’s work, “It’s as if Andy Warhol took steroids and turned butch.”

It’s also interesting that the various articles on the Luhring website and the photos on his web site are – for the most part – in black and white. Even when presenting visions of his studio life he denies us access to the technicolor of Oz. The tornado has yet to touch down, and Wool remains in hard scrabble Kansas where there is nothing but black and white work and survival. And truth be told, these are paintings about survival, about denying “excess” in order to make it through this endless 21st century challenge to the legitimacy of both painting and abstraction. Like chemo-therapy these works destroy the host to kill the metastasis. Now there are many abstractionists working today that do emphasize color, but their theoretical approach to meaning is not far different from the approach taken by Christopher Wool or Richard Prince or Warhol for that matter. The abstract, especially American Abstraction, does not have the liability nor the history of imagery. It’s emphasis has always been on tools, process and materials. Which brings us up from the depths straight to the surface. The continual comfort of Greenberg’s surface and side, the destruction of “natural” imagery and the endless emphasis on process are all hard at work, desperate to keep abstraction afloat.

In Postmodern America some would argue that Wool’s work doesn’t fall into the category of Popular Culture simply because there are no images outside of the painting itself. But it is the mechanics of the painting, the “How” of it that puts Wool’s work squarely in the Postmodern Pop realm. Our continuing discussion on Pop Culture has it’s fun elements, things we like, things that mean something to us, but what we want to point out is “the man behind the curtain.” To understand how something works is to understand what it does, what it means and the limitations it has. Wool’s focus on the process of denial is no different in scope than American Idol’s audition process. I shall leave the intracacies of that discussion up to you. The truth is we have other ideas about abstraction and its future, and we’ve elucidated some of those ideas in our other series. We believe it’s time to do away with the Postmodern academy, along with the reactionaries of Modernism that keep us hemmed in to the previous century. In the meantime we have a few strong Mannerist painters, like Wool, to challenge us and to react against. For the POMOs stuck in Kansas – the tornado is about to touch down!

Popular Culture – Bubble Culture

I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces? At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. There was no scandal or reversal, I assumed, that could sink the system. Michael Lewis “The End”

This exact quote could almost describe the state of the Postmodern Art World. Why? There has been no rebellion, no reconsideration, no thinking about the recent past in any form – Just unequivocal acceptance and slavish following of POMO’s theoretical stance. But things have changed exponentially in the last few months. The stock market has, for all intents and purposes, crashed. Not all at once, but over the last year we have watched it fall six thousand points or more. The market’s highs last year were in the mid 14000s, today, we are in the mid 8 thousands, and we are threatened with it falling further to nearly half of its former value. If you think this has no bearing on the value of art AND artists – you are sorely mistaken.

Economically we’ve experienced one bubble after another and in this year alone we saw the deflation and depreciation of real estate, financial institutions and commodities (like the hedge fund run on oil and food staples over the summer.) We’ve seen it in our own art world with the recent deflation and depreciation of the auction houses, art fairs, and the reputations of many currently hot artists. The last amazingly OTT moment for inflated money in the art world was the Damien Hirst auction in September. If ever there was a manufactured bubble in the culture markets surely this “straight to auction” moment was it. The press surrounding this fire sale of warehoused product was immaculate, and the hype went off without a hitch. The principals walked away with millions – I’m not sure I believe the inflated figures – but they certainly cleaned up.

The “art” that was sold had little to offer aesthetically – there were no new ideas from Damien – it was basically the spinning out of tried and true art product under a brand name. But the artistic victory, the critical victory, was in the fact that “art” in the hands of a truly branded and successful artist, could in fact, be sold as nothing more than a desirable prestige commodity, like a gulf stream or a house in Palm Beach. Additionally, the amazing and radical part of the hype surrounding the pre-sale were the comments by the artist himself. He stated that he would not be creating any more of these types of works – this was it. The perception he created was one of a determined and enforced scarcity. It was a conceptual tour-de-force of the soft sell at work, and it put to rest the idea, forever, that art was an elite, avant garde activity. With one press release Hirst managed to bring to an end the old idea of High Culture by integrating its historical machinations into our everyday existences. Unlike the intellectuals of the 50s who dreamed of an “artless” culture where art would be lived everyday by the populace, Hirst and the Postmoderns dream of a business culture where the business would be lived and practiced by the artists. Up is the new down!

Perceived scarcity creates hype and bubbles. And it is the perception of those bubbles that is the calling card of the elite classes of all stripe in the 21st century. Perceptions are the life blood of the media, they are the focus of society, and they are the endgame of Postmodern theoretics. Perception is, for all intents and purposes, the power guiding the new electronic media. How we perceive or how we are perceived is the ultimate game, and it’s being played out before our eyes, through the screens and lenses that proliferate our myopic world. It is this manipulation of the endgame that leaves us breathless and desirous as we chase after the feigned scarcities of fame, fortune and history. Bubble culture is about these perceptions and manipulations. And it sings to our ego centered souls. However, we are not tethered to the mast nor are we deaf to the the siren song that drives us mad with desire. We artists have crashed on the rocks, done in by our outsized “business” ambitions.

In the new year we will continue the Popular Culture series examining the machinations behind the scenes as we have been. Our first in depth series will begin in January with a discussion by artists relating to the difference between Style and Brand and how fame or recognition can drive those two very different approaches to making art. Stay Tuned! Exciting Times Lie Ahead!

Popular Culture: Academy of Paint

I recently came across these images by three well known artists. All seem to be working the same ground in the same way. This is Postmodernism at its zenith. And it is what continues to stop painting’s advancement in its tracks. Albert Oehlen‘s painting is from a show at Max Hetzler’s Gallery. Where, incidentally, there is also a show of Jeff Koons‘ recent paintings. I only bring this up because of our last post which featured a short discussion of Kelley Walker. We mentioned the checklist of the academic tropes that continue to plague painting and they are the basis of his painting. Once I saw these other jpegs I thought that the similarities between Walker’s work and these works were just too close to not deal with the issue in some small fashion.

1036.0.html.jpgAll of the images use computers and lens based pictorial information. In Oehlen’s painting it’s advertising, in Koon’s painting it’s erotic images that have been downloaded, printed and then blown up again to reveal the dot printing. Walker’s painting is from a men’s lifestyle magazine cover. Each of the lens based images becomes a ground for the “painting” that steps into the foreground. This technique using the materiality of “paint” has been the fall back position for many years now – otherwise known as the “overlay.” now this technique is a particularly insidious part of Postmodern practice because the overlay gives the work an appearance of depth. Not in a visual sense, but in the sense of meaning. The overlay becomes a critique of the meaning of the image providing a context for the image to be understood in a different light. The problem with this technique is that it is the preferred choice when customizing an image, in other words, it is an academic stylistic device.


There are two parts in this process to determine the context. First the ground/image carries some form of public consumer meaning framing the conversation for the artist. The second part is the “painterly” critique – smearing the image – drawing attention to certain parts of the ground or trying to connect the meaning of the ground to the meaning of the “expressive” smears.
These examples use classic Postmodern techniques. A program is chosen, the artist then customizes the discussion of that program like chat show hosts. The ground is a question taste, choice. Just as one would choose any product and define oneself through that product. The defining self, the subjective is then seen through the painterly critique.

Here are bits of the press releases.
Oehlen: In his recent paintings, Oehlen’s use of irritating advertising posters through the combination and overlapping of their terms and themes is carried to an extreme. One poster, which is supposed to connote luxury and seduce to Christmas shopping, disappears under the word hur€ (whor€); another, an advertisement for English Courses offered by the British Council in Spain is subtitled with the French word merde (shit) – isn’t swearing the first thing you learn in a foreign language?
However, those who would only see a simple condemnation of consumer frenzy or European language amalgamations fall for Albert Oehlen’s scheme. Figurative elements rub against each other and are processed until they lose their contextual meaning and become pure form. Hereby, the pictorial flow is not lost. On the contrary – Oehlen’s reduction of colour and form bring out the different dynamics combined on the canvas. Quick dashes of colour that are decelerated by milky taints emphasize the complexity of each painting.

Koons: Koons’ paintings convey a bursting energy and declarative precision. He uses film stills, photographs and other print-related images; collages and manipulates them together digitally, before achieving the final composition by inserting abstract and figurative elements. The image is accurately and elaborately painted onto the canvas while Koons takes crucial care of every detail.
The titles, together with the roughly pixelated background and abstract linear motifs of the exhibited paintings are part of the Koonsian erotic cosmos. References to art history can always be met in Koons’ work: from baroque painting to Marcel Duchamp or as in this body of work, Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World.

Walker: Using the cover of African-American lads’ mag King, Kelley Walker gives consumerist response to media provocation. Succumbing to the temptations of Hollywood beauty Regina Hall, Walker offers his enduring lust in the form of lewd and raunchy ‘splatter painting’. Drawing ironic entendres from the humorous Pollock reference, Walker’s expressionism is actually made from squirting popular brands of toothpaste over the image, then scanning it into his computer. Raising complex issues of race, gender, body image, and representation, Walker offers one abject product to counter another, rendering them both infinitely more appealing.

Each of these artists are intent on creating new contexts for the imagery that drives consumer culture through the lens based electronic world. Every image, every pixel is part and parcel of the digitization of consumer society and the proliferation of that programming. And like that programming these images give an illusion of choice or personal involvement as if the image has been crafted specifically for the chooser. This is how desire is created in the advertising world. It is a desire for the image, desire to make the image, the product, part of one’s life. The Postmodernist must maintain his distance from the image, from the meaning of the image in order to continue to desire that image. It is the distance that makes the context. In Oehlen’s case he wants to remove meaning from the advertisements in order to create a context for a traditional formal scene. Koons wants to connect the found imagery to art historical models eroticizing and elevating the ground as high art. Walker hopes to do something similar adding a political/cultural critique. What remains is the image and the subjective “expressionism” of the artist. And it’s the “expressionism” that defines the subjective critique. Pouring, smearing, dripping, gooping, you name it – the fall back position is the fluid, the seminal, the exposure of the mechanical workings that created the image. In order to personalize, subjectivize the critique the artists “wear” the image, they use it, they express themselves through it. It’s this use-value of the image, the appropriation of that image that gives the work the illusion of a personal style (…it is mine because I chose it.) This is nothing more than the shoppers mentality ingrained in post-industrial consumer society. Ultimately this POMO strategy is the difference between desire and passion, between distanced critique and physical involvement, between the societal and the personal. It is part and parcel of Postmodern theoretics.

Painting is stuck dealing with these issues, and it has been since the 1960s – see our post on Overheads and Screenshots. The Academy of Paint continues…

Popular Culture – The Middle Brow

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new “twists,” which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch. The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts. Clement Greenberg “Avant Garde and Kitsch

My work will use everything that it can to communicate. It will use any trick; it’ll do anything – absolutely anything – to communicate and win the viewer over. Even the most unsophisticated people are not threatened by it; they aren’t threatened that this is something they have no understanding of. They can look at it and they can participate with it. Jeff Koons

…the story here is about catering to a much larger public than the small elite who used to define a country’s mores…The new mass culture has become the most important culture because, in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. How many listen matters more than who listens.  Fareed Zakaria  – The Post American World

During the fin-de-siècle of the 20th Century artists were determined to be seen as the new communicators of an advanced culture. In their self conscious attempts to appear connected to the history of Modern Art and their own fast-changing electronic times artists began to appropriate the deluge of information and imagery that was reaching a critical mass in the Popular Culture industry. The combination of electronic imagery and the academization of art history meant that making art became a self referential enterprise, one in which its history was reformulated as a giant Pop Culture entertainment. This media friendly barrage of images and pop-theoretics has opened up institutional pocketbooks and advanced the profitability of the corporate art world. As “difficult” art has become more accessible to the masses “advanced” art has changed its practices preferring to move away from innovation in order to embrace controversy  –  for instance, look to the practical differences between Picasso’s or Matisse’s stylistic innovations versus Koon’s or Serrano’s pornographic representations. One is about style change the other is about creating recognition or communication. This change of focus from innovation to controversy has a great deal to do with art and markets, the marriage of Surrealism with popular imagery, the end of avant garde practice and the rise of Postmodernism. Middle Brow culture is now so pervasive and ubiquitous in our society that it has taken over the focus of advanced art-making and has expanded the demographics of those who participate in the culture itself.

Museums have led the way in this march to the middle with blockbuster shows of formerly avant garde works of art. In these shows the difficult becomes accessible as the theoretical work is “synergized” with the products made for sale and the “selling” of the show itself. Advertising levels difficult aesthetic concepts into sound-bytes and buzz words. It also promises an “experience” of culture much as one would experience a thrill ride at Disney World. With each new blockbuster enterprise the theoretical lines between what the work means and the meaning of the products sold begins to disappear. A good example of this is the Metropolitan Museum’s (I’m not picking on the Met – this goes for most all of these institutions) penchant for placing seller kiosks at the end of each exhibition. After making your way through the show you emerge into a room filled with memorobilia of the experience – catalogues, key chains, scarves, plates, post cards, playing cards, greeting cards, jewelry, and assorted bits and bobs usually displaying one or more of the works from the exhibition. Suddenly the imagery of the visual work has been extended into the realm of saleable reproductions making that image the focus of a product, an accessible idea or concept. This extends the exchange value of the one-off by separating the imagery from the object.

Separating the image from the object opens a different dialog about the meaning of the image itself. Additionally, breaking up the imagery from the object makes money in the same way the corporate raider sells off the assets of the takeover target – the parts are worth more than the whole. Meaning becomes fuzzy as aesthetics and marketing merge in the selling of the product itself. The shopping process goes somewhat like this – you, as a spectator of the show, essentially have been browsing and shopping while taking in the exhibit. This idea is something with which we POMO citizens are very much at ease. To see art, or for that matter any object, as a part of the process to purchasing would have been considered a Low experience, but this is no longer the case. Art as commerce has none of the low connotations that used to be associated with the monetary valuation of things. The concept of “exchange value” has become so large and encompassing in our everyday lives that every economic, political or cultural transaction is now part and parcel of the workings of this aspect of Popular Culture itself. We no longer look to distinguish how we might experience Art. We accept that it must “communicate” as a desirable product to everyone immediately. 

Popular Culture is Middle Brow, because it rarely rises above being an entertainment, a product for sale or some sort of memorabilia of an experience. Now there are shades, gradations of involvement within the middle brow – from low to high – that detail nuanced engagements or in your face confrontations, but its main reason for existence in all its forms comes down to its exchange value. This is different than either High or Low culture, both of which offer a real critique of the theoretics of culture, politics, and economics. High and Low are contra-forces to the Middle Brow, a rebellion, or in the extreme, a revolution. They emerge from a personal necessity, an artistic stance. High or Low define a moment when concepts clash or freedom manifests itself physically. The Middle Brow, on the other hand, is the status quo. It may indeed offer a critique of itself, but it does so while offering itself as a market commodity. It stays within the confines of the theoretics of Middle Brow Culture itself – its value lies in the fact that it is self-perpetuating, self-regulating and self-organizing.  Middle Brow critique wages its changes through popularity and audience size. It prefers to renegotiate known precedents rather than dismantle or change concepts. Ultimately these critiques and upgrades are actions of compliance, adherence and integration, and part and parcel of the flow of capital and the stability of markets. It is the rule of commerce that guides the changes within Middle Brow Popular Culture.

The Illusion of Change

Popular Culture’s illusions of innovation are constantly promoted and disseminated to the public in order to reboot taste and fashion or to create larger market share. There is always the promise of the New. Popular Culture especially in the Middle Brow is always “new.” In order to maintain this marketing illusion it must constantly erase the recent collective memory – “…that’s so last week” – which it will revive again sometime later as nostalgia – the reworking of junk bonds, the musical hits of the 90s, a return to elegance in fashion. Popular Culture is always returning to things it destroyed and discarded. The endless forgetting of historic meaning and original purposes generates something we call the New New – which is really a reformulated recontextualized precedent. The changes of fashion in Middle Brow culture have always been administered in this organized way, and this manner of contextualization is now the intellectual technique most used in the academies and corporate institutions that support culture itself. It is nothing more than an illusion of change or innovation. Acceptance is the ultimate goal by those who determine culture in the Middle Brow and market acceptance fosters imperative connections between statistical economics and Popular Culture. More is always better and how one gets more is always on the table. This quantitative commercial imperative has proven to be problematic for the cherished concept of an advanced culture, particluarly in the Art World, where the idea of the masterpiece or the singular art object, the one-off is connected to achievement and greatness. 

For the Art world this is where Postmodernist theoretics comes in. POMO institutes both a critique and a re-classification of culture focusing mainly on the contextual interpretation of meanings behind that culture. For the painter or the sculptor ALL culture is fair game – a vast resource for recombination.

For the postmodernist, art was a cluster of images and materials to be manipulated. The fragmentation of modern life was not a bad thing, in fact it was liberating. The aesthetic attributes of quality, artistic integrity, and beauty were held to be meaningless – products of outmoded meta-narratives. Artists sought to redefine art and “the artist” in a way that emphasized multiplicity of style and viewpoint. The postmodern artists appropriated symbols and images freely in the creation of eclectic art.” WHAT IS CRITICAL POSTMODERN ART? By Leonard Koscianski (2002)

Postmodernism did away with the avant garde, the masterwork and even the making of art to create a new type of post-artist, the Auteur. 21st Century mannerism is born. Postmodernism exists only as technique, a professional method used in the practice of one’s profession. It is a theoretical tool that allows Middle Brow imperatives to retain and maintain their connection to Popular Culture market economies of all kinds. Art becomes a media spectacle, an experience for commodification and an entertainment – something that anyone can participate in – it communicates.

The Postmodern artist works within these systems of commerce and culture. He critiques the system as he perpetuates those very systems. The Postmodernist doesn’t develop theoretics, doesn’t offer a competing system, doesn’t innovate against the grain, doesn’t challenge the systems. The Middle Brow artist becomes the embodiment of Greenberg’s idea that the once historic New can be constantly looted or mined to create the New New. For instance contemporary Abstract Painting has lapsed into a mannered reclassification of its short history, it feeds endlessly on itself – the geometric, the hard edge, or the expressionist – you name it, each new Auteur customizes the previous innovation without changing the initial premise of the primary visual innovation. Ultimately we find ourselves standing before a highly mannered very polished professional art object that has little meaning outside of its historical contextual relationships and the fetishized materiality of its making – a customization of a reproduction of an established theoretical visual idea. The Auteur makes art for a marketplace, for institutions, the artist makes work for himself and posterity. We are in the realm of a new Kitsch based on market acceptance and modeled after the morphing digital download – an electronic kitsch.

In the end the new art world and art economy is based on Zakaria’s dictum “how many is more important than who.” Is it any wonder that ambitious artists raised in the electronic media world, schooled in POMO institutions and let loose in the corporate art markets gravitate to the Middle Brow Pop Culture world that grounds this entire enterprise? We will look into these practices in the coming posts when we discuss the differences between style and brand.