Breathing Slowly

As I’ve gotten into the High and Low of Popular Culture my research has taken me back to MOMA’s show of the same name which was seen in 1990-91. What a freaking clusterf*@k of a show that was! But the catalogue is fantastic – it divides up the categories of low culture and links them to the Modernists works that were built around them. What is immediately apparent in the catalogue is the difference in the visual intentions of the Modernist artists to the intentions of our Postmodern artists. Modernists transformed the “low” culture creating new meanings through deeper visual and intellectual engagement in the work. Postmodernists appropriate without changing any visual meaning, they rely heavily on the context of how their work is seen hoping that that will alter the meaning of the found images. We’ll discuss this in the upcoming post.

Right now I’m still struggling in the studio and against the tide of everyday difficulty that is washing against my shores at the moment. I won’t bore you all with my personal details, but all of us are busy dealing with the political and economic tidal wave that is swamping the art world. Every conversation I have, everyone I know is feeling anxious and afraid about the immediate future. Artists especially have always been among the first to feel the heat of any historic burnout and this time is no exception. Many artists have shows coming up, and the once confident feeling that something will sell has been replaced with a grim determination to sell something. Right now you can bet that a lot of artists are applying to universities, and I’m sure these schools will have buckets of resumes to go through. It’s sort of like the the stock markets retreating to treasuries in times of trouble.

Jerry Saltz in his recent column lays it out:

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk….  

Jerry remains hopeful about the future in his column. I’m not so convinced. This time things are different in the art world. Postmodernism is still rampant and it remains mired in the clanking machinery of the art institutions. The growth of these institutions in the 90s and naughts was inevitable after the last downturn. In these new top-down art markets there are more huge collectors with deep pockets, and the market will try to protect the collected work purchased by those collectors. If it doesn’t then they (both the market and the collector) lose prospective future capital. It’s sort of like the Treasury rescuing the status quo on Wall Street without changing ANY of the regulatory mechanisms that created the situation in the first place. It is the theory of Too Big to Fail. Economics is now the guiding force of the art world. Additionally nothing has changed for artists. I will hammer the nail again – Postmodernism is the reason the art world and the art in the art world looks the way it does. It is Postmodernism that needs to be dismantled, and until that day, change will be difficult to find. 

At this moment I’ve also been thinking about a more personal history. We don’t talk about it much in the art world these days, but the 90s was a time when there was a huge flight backwards. Two things caused this – one was the drying up of capital, the other was the devastation of AIDS. After the recessionary fallout the art world adopted a corporate institutional business model to preserve itself, and we artists lost many, many great minds. Who knows, maybe Art would look a lot different today if things had played out differently, maybe Postmodernism would have been challenged much sooner. We’ll never know. When the art world got started again in the late 90s it was an extremely conservative reactionary place, and we’ve seen this game being played out in bigger and bigger venues with bigger and bigger paychecks through the last 10 years. Postmodernism and capital were one. In the end we are defined by the choices we make and the actions we take. 

I was sitting in my studio last week looking at a large painting that I’ve been fighting for months. There are ideas there that I’m finding difficulty facing – I don’t understand it yet. I’m sure many of you have had the same experience. I think this difficulty has a lot to do with the ideas I’m flipping around as I write HIGH and LOW. My experience of art and my life meld all the time – one feeds and informs the other. I learned to be a Postmodernist years ago, I changed in the mid 90s because POMO never set well with how I saw and experienced the world. We change to survive, we find new visions and new ideas to progress. Hopefully we advance. Maybe Jerry is right and we’ll find room to explore new ideas. It’s up to us. I’ll finish this post with a quote from one of the greats…

Maybe Rembrandt’s subject matter – the beggars and jews that he liked to go around with or observe – were just as ‘usual’ as cut-and-dry, as Vermeer’s interiors or Rubens’ fleshy nudes or our swirls of colour. They were what happened to be around, what one naturally painted when one got up in the morning and prepared simply ‘to paint’. I will admit to you frankly that I want to be on the artistic bandwagon. Sure, sometimes I go through periods of real despair, look at my picture and say to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?” But to go back to scratch – what scratch? As an artist I am what I am now, and couldn’t possible go back to representation, to the academy, which was where I started…. Bill Dekooning, 1957.

World Upside Down

The last few weeks have been OUT OF CONTROL. Henri has been scrunched, bunched, stretched and wrung out. We keep finding bits and pieces of the older articles and we’ll repost shortly. In my own studio I’ve had to deal with some unforseen headaches, problems and logistics that have taken a lot of time, energy and worry. This has all happened as my day job has become unmanagably busy in the face of the economic problems that are taking root. I’m very worried for many of my friends whose livelihood depends on a thriving art market. And even though I’ve hated the corporatization and institutionalization of the art world I’ve been very proud of my friends who’ve tried to take advantage of the good times – and some have done very well. The problem is that when you follow the herd usually you wind up going over the cliff with all the rest.

We’ve all been reading about the Frieze Art Fair, and the diminished expectations and sales. I won’t link because you all have already been to the various sites to read I’m sure. What has become apparent is that the market for new art has gotten very slim and stiff in the past few months. There have been a lot of warnings coming down the pipe, and we here at Henri have encouraged you all to save your money and hedge your bets. Artists who have been a part of this recent surge will have an extremely hard future. After the fallout of the late 80s nearly all the art that was popular and the artists that made that art simply fell off the planet, and if they were lucky, got tenure – which is part of the reason the art world looks as it does today. In the movie “The Big Picture,” Nick’s agent tells him that he won’t be able to find any work after his producer gets fired and his deal is scrapped – “they (the studios) just want to distance themselves from the stench….” Survival in the arts is the name of the game. Let’s face it – if Koons hadn’t planted that puppy in Germany back in ’92 – he’d be trading bonds.

Nevertheless, not only are we having an economic shake out, we are having an aesthetic one as well. The shows I’ve seen are disappointing at best. “Disappointment” is the main thing I’ve been hearing from the artists I know – regardless of how much everyone seems to want to like Elizabeth Peyton’s work. The problem for me is that I believe artistic ambition is in a wierd place at the moment. Those that have it seem to play at being institutional drones reworking Pop Surrealism for the umpteenth time, or they continue to repeat the endless list of outworn aesthetic ideas from the last 40 years. So what catches us, stabilizes us in this floating world is charm. Peyton’s work is packed with it. It’s like looking at the sketchbook of a 14 year old girl who has crushes on all the heart throbs of the day. It doesn’t have to be great, or moving, or wonderful, it just has to be filled with sincerity. In a world of blowhards and bombast – charm and sincerity always work.

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about High and Low for the upcoming post on Popular Culture. I’m discovering that making distinctions between high or low is extremely difficult, mainly because so many artists are aiming for the middle, in fact, it’s nearly all middle. It goes across the whole spectrum of our culutre. Sarah Palin’s appearance on SNL is a prime example – politics and showbiz fused in a way it never has before – especially during the “rap number.” The familiar televisual mechanisms of fame morphed into a new form of navy blue noteriety right before my eyes. She became a pure programmable avatar of a politician. It was apparent that anyone could inhabit this illusion in order to enter any program – SNL, CNN, The White House, Housewives of Beverly Hills – any program whatsoever – it was like a character from the Simms came to TV life. The stunning part was that there was nothing apparent but pure surface, like looking at Koons’ dog or Kapoor’s shiny doughnut. The form it took didn’t matter at all – only the shine. What was reflected was our own imbecility. One thing is clear – these are extremely difficult times for real ideas, because it means that one must confront the omnipresent Postmodern electronic world in a real way, a physical way with a messy uneveness. One can not be in the middle and expect to understand the edges – because the action is always on the edges.

Stay tuned…

Popular Culture – The Hero Myth

The hero is an important part of American Pop Culture. And like all popular things there are certain rules and regulations that must be adhered to in order that we, the audience, understand that we are looking at a hero. Hollywood is the best place to start and so I give you an unlikely hero in a very ridiculous and unlikely movie – Transformers. First in Pop Culture heroes, especially American ones, never seem to want to be heroes, they are forced to confront some horrendous situation. The Popular Culture hero never steps out to be heroic, he doesn’t go around looking for trouble. Second as the story unfolds we find that there is some connection between the hero and the violent destruction that is happening, usually there’s been some past unknown ancestor involved in perpetrating the current situation. Third and most important, the Pop Hero is constantly confronting the element of time. Time hones the action and time develops the hero, but by the time the hero must become a hero, there is never seems to be enough of it. There is only the life and death situation – time has run out. The hero in most of these scenarios is a reactive force, a passive weapon that flips into action only when activated. He is the every man confronted with the impossible situation – his life becomes compacted and intensified into mere moments in which he may act. You’ll hear cliches about time left and right…”We ain’t got time for this…” – “I’m too old for this…” – “If you take time to think – you’re dead…” The hero is improvising in this reactive state, he is an action hero. The Pop Culture hero is not a thinking man, he doesn’t plan, he doesn’t contemplate the situation, he doesn’t search for alternatives only a way out. The hero is always directly contrasted to the Pop Culture villain who is portrayed as the thoughtful one, an intellect – he plans, he contemplates, he devises. The hero is portrayed as youthful talent and potential, the villain as an intellectual plotter, a seasoned decadent with an angry, vengeful axe to grind. This Popular Culture scenario plays out in American life every single day in a myriad of ways, and it is now playing out in our current political season with Pop Culture references to heroism abounding. I’ll leave you to have a bit of fun with that….

Art Heroes
Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock is the art world’s version of an action movie. He became the first painter to be popularized through our “media culture” in this way. In addition to the art magazines – Jackson was also promoted and photographed like any up and coming movie star in every type of media available. There was none of the Surrealists’ intellectual pretense about the man, none of the mystery of art – just a matter-of-fact involvement. There was no planning of the composition only his preparation to act – he is the American workman at his job – an ordinary working stiff. Jackson tools up just like the action heroes we’ve come to know in our movies, but in a less militaristic way. First he puts on his boots, then loads the paint cans, dips the sticks, drags a cigarette – he gets down to it. Moving from side to side, the camera is in close, back out, a close up of his craggy face, in the voice over Jackson reads a prepared text in a self conscious way, tonal music cranks up – it’s the 1950s art world Die Hard version of an artist at work. He labors in the moment reacting to each instance, he moves, he improvises. Time is of the essence, he is in the painting, in the action. The physical nature of it all is a stark contrast to the European Plotters and composition junkies. But for Jackson this Popular Culture moment was also a moment of truth. After this day of filming he stalked into the house, grabbed a bottle of liquor and fell off the wagon for good. Later that evening in a drunken rage he yelled at Namuth – “You’re the phoney, not me!” Why did he feel the need to rail against phoniness, especially after such a display of painterly heroism?

But the display was the problem. Pollock was the first international artist that America produced. He was hyped as if he had stepped out of a John Ford western movie. An artist that exemplified the American ideal of the action hero. He was conscripted into art world heroism, he painted because he fashioned his talents into painting. He was nature, pure, exact and real and he said so. The phoniness he drunkenly raged against was the camera, the media that removed him from the direct experience of his work. He became an actor in front of the camera rather than an actual man at work. Pollock was not cut out for this, even though he sought it out. Fame is something artists court in many ways, and we shall discuss this in upcoming posts. To be in the media spotlight takes a different personality type than that developed and nourished by the ABEX crowd – one honed through familiar media iconography. Today we have many media friendly icons to guide the art world intelligensia giving the art world dependable avatars that any ambitious artist may embody. These avatars encourage us to act the part rather than be the thing in itself. The part we play is more important than the work we make. After Pollock this shift from work to personality embodied the new Postmodern world.

As appropriators we are a step removed – we can not assume that we are creators or innovators, however we are always able to portray one. Pollock and the ABEX avant garde were hard schooled in the idea that one developed one’s work, that one earned fame through one’s accomplishments. One didn’t strive to be famous, one strove to accomplish – fame was incidental. Popular culture is something else all together, especially as it is shaped by the lens. Popular Culture changes the relationships between what one does and how one appears, and Jackson understood that difference very well. I remember reading that he once confronted Larry Rivers saying that he knew what he was all about. The ABEX crowd understood that those that followed them would be products of the institutions and academies that were springing up around them. The rules of engagement are different. Struggle in the studio was being replaced by struggle in the media. Today artists are media savvy in ways never seen before. Damien Hirst’s recent Postmodern spectacle in the auction houses was designed for maximum media infusion. It was a Pop Culture event, one that stated it was changing all the rules while following those very rules. Hirst basically sold his “back catalogue” through the auction house rather than through the galleries. This event didn’t challenge the prevailing Postmodern aesthetic, Damien’s challenge was to the accepted business model. He wasn’t concerned with ideas about innovative art as much as he was concerned about business models. In the press surrounding the event we have the obligatory interview in the gallery which is neatly packaged as a sales pitch. How do we know this? He explains that time has run out – the series that have made him famous are coming to an end. The implication is that one should buy now – these are the last to be made. The hero now embodies time as a sales pitch rather than an encounter with one’s survival. The capitulation to Pop Culture is complete. In order to participate and understand today’s art world hero – one must be able to afford it.

The difference between Pollock’s generation and Hirst’s is the difference between style and brand. We will discuss this in a later post.

Popular Culture – Overheads and Screenshots

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol TV 199Back in the early sixties Andy made a shift. As a commercial artist Andy’s work had been hand drawn from photos in a labored, blotted “New Yorker Magazine” style – somewhere between Beardsley, Cocteau, Steinberg and high fashion illustration – which made for a comfortable living and gave him introductions to the “in-crowd.” But his ambitions, both personal and artistic, were much larger than illustration, and he knew that this type of work would never excite the new society that was just beginning to push forward. In the art world at this time artists realized that ABEX had become a form of mannered physical paint handling. The new artists were having a field day challenging the overblown rhetoric of the Action Painters. Andy was enthralled with this scene and had been trying to ingratiate himself with the new artists – particularly Rauschenberg and Johns – buying their work, going to openings and schmoozing with art dealers. He wanted to be a part of this art moment, however, he had yet to determine what his work would look like. Andy was not an historian, an intellectual like Johns or Rauschenberg. He would not, could not take on that past, not even the recent past in the same way that they had, and so his early works paid little attention to the history of painting. He knew that his work would have to be about this time, this new face of popular culture. For Andy, the great Postmodernist, painting would be different.

Andy Warhol IceboxLet’s start with Warhol’s dictum – “I want to be a machine.” But what kind of machine? Andy would use the mechanics behind the popular culture industry, and being a part of that industry, he was intimate with its functions. The production end of popular culture is a “readymade” tool in the sense that multiple mechanisms of production exist in depth, they are cheap and efficient to apply and they are readily accessible to everyone. For Andy it made perfect sense to use those familiar tools. He did not have to invent “the machine,” the technique or the style as so many Modernist painters did – the pictorial concept was included in the lens itself. In the printing industry most machines for reproductions are inexorably tied to lenses, and it is the lens that has been responsible for the massive proliferation of Popular Culture. Lens culture, powered by electronics, quickly became not only the means to capture images, but the means to reproduce, manufacture, manipulate and project those images as well. Warhol, who spent his youth transfixed by the endless photographic iconography produced by Hollywood, understood that these lens images are transformative. The lens brought fame, fortune, glamor and power to those who could control and frame their existences through its programs. Warhol’s bid to fashion himself as Art’s transformative machine starts with his use of the Overhead Projector.

What’s groundbreaking in these early works is Andy’s insistence on isolating banal newspaper advertising and realizing it as fullblown history painting. These paintings weren’t done in the academic fashion of realist painting where the mundane world is somehow made miraculous with painterly skill. Robert Henri‘s command to paint the everyday world is not the point. Nor is he commenting directly about the everyday events of his time as the Cubists did. They displayed high and low together by including actual newsprint in their collages in an effort to obtain a poetic visual metaphor. Warhol simply focuses on the banal image used to illustrate a product then blows it up to heroic painterly proportions. There are no value judgments, no poetic inferences about the image, no elevation of the subject, only lens reproduction and mechanical assimilation. Underlying this process is the facility of the lens machine, the easy way it can instantly change the context of an image. Warhol’s machine easily reproduces any illustration that has been created for use by other machines. Graphic line drawings of water heaters or windows, cans of peaches, soda pop, wigs or comics from daily newspapers, photographs of ephemera are all simply banal documentation, schematics, rudimentary image maps of mundane products. Once projected, Andy quickly outlined these images, his paint dripped, he scrubbed in some areas with pencil or color, he left others blank, he allowed his hand to unmake the reproduction while remaking the projected image into a painting. In one fell swoop the banal becomes a new art form, a glamorized event, a lens driven action painting reduced to its physical components. This process removes any ABEX pretensions to high art (such as “action” or “emotion”) through the offhand application of the paint and the scaled portrayal of the ordinary image. He traces outlines reproducing the image without contemplating the subject. In other words, he scans rather than contemplates – he isn’t visually quantifying the rising subject. He is simply another lens machine reproducing the banal by repeating a programmed process – a process of surfaces. These first works ushered in an era where the lens would direct the act of painting in a way that it had never done before.

Richard Prince NurseWe might go on about Andy’s subject matter, but it’s been done much better by others. Glamor, fame, iconography, products, Hollywood, etc – these are all subjects of Popular Culture and we will take them up in another post. However, what we really want to understand is how Andy’s methods for transforming those Popular Culture subjects into “High Art” changed the way we interpret what art is, particularly in our Postmodern art world. As POMO has spread into our culture we have accepted and incorporated its most used technique – appropriation – into our everyday studio practices. Warhol was among the first to use this technique in such a deadpan way. Most all of his early images, the ones that were his subject matter, the ones that made him famous, were not produced by him, they were not lived by him. Those images were already public domain, public memories, false histories – easily reproduced, easily disseminated and instantly recognized. In Postmodern culture the found image is an accident, one receives it, stumbles upon it, but it is instantly known, because it is not distinct, it is not specific, it is generic, an avatar. We Postmoderns appropriate what we are not, we graft other public iconographies, other cultural memories into our lives. We present them as if they are our own, that we have experienced them, that we’ve lived them. As Hockney said in Secret Knowledge, “We thought we saw the 20th Century on the news, [in] film, and elsewhere, better than any previous century, although we could say we didn’t see it all – the camera did.” So it comes down to the idea that everything seen through a lens is a lived memory, that we know the the people in the image, that we can have the product, that we exist as a real component in this media. Art then is presented, contextualized through our collective experience – we appropriate and re-present the collective subjective as personal subjective – we become taste makers rather than innovators. The appropriation technique of using “found images” continues to be practiced in today’s art world. On the left is Richard Prince’s painting “Mission Nurse” from 2002. Prince executed this series of pulp fiction paperback covers as Andy did in the above examples. Today we have computers and photoshop to accomplish this task, so Prince may have used a computer and a printer instead of direct overhead overlays, but the lens reproduction and the conceptual approach is the same. His subject matter doesn’t move beyond the obvious Pop Culture associations – these illustrations detail pot boiler story lines, slightly risque media sexuality, banal and predictable figuration all wrapped up with a large gooey wad of nostalgia. Prince then resurfaces those covers customizing the reproduction. He handles the paint, he scratches the line, but ultimately, this painterly customization adds nothing to Warhol’s machine except empty painterly mannerisms. Andy’s conceptual practice in this case has been appropriated and reproduced – a Postmodern machine reproducing a Pop machine. 40 years separate these works, and yet, they both address the same conceptual issues of reproduction and lens based programming in the same way. Postmodernism and Popular Culture, are the collective mind, the false history, the always already, and what we continue to reproduce in our studios is this type of stylization and customization.

Warhol is truly a pivotal and protean figure in the history of contemporary art. With Warhol the concepts of high and low implode, there are no longer distinctions of meaning – every image can be manipulated, every image can be packaged. All the old requirements for innovating and making art are completely beside the point. We will be covering this in our next post on High and Low.

Popular Culture – Defined

The first part of this series is defining what Popular Culture is and maybe what it does. This is a nearly impossible subject. Popular Culture ranges over so many subjects and aspects of the economic, political and cultural aspects of our everyday lives. We buy, we dress, we vote, we chat and we live through this vast sea of images, blurbs, products and narratives. It is an enormous program, a societal construct that organizes our existences, creates human networks and defines cohesive communities. In the 21st Century Popular Culture runs through every aspect of our society as it never has before, thanks in part to the online world, and the seemingly endless proliferation of technological advancements and product placements. For instance cell phone network technologies now cover nearly the entire globe allowing for instant communication and information sharing. And as these handheld devices have become more ubiquitous and technologically complicated the amount of programming applications that stream “culture” directly into our everyday lives has increased exponentially. Aside from contacting your friends across the globe (from nearly anywhere at any time) you can access the New York Times, Financial Times or the London Times on your cell phone. You can purchase popular music and see entertainment videos with the same handset, and very soon, more of us will be able to directly purchase goods and services using this handheld computer as a wallet. What all this technology is for is not necessarily the betterment of one’s intellect (as we are made to believe in the constant publicity surrounding the torrents of history, learning and information electronically available to the masses,) but more likely, it is used for the quantified movement of products and services, the tracking of financial information and the ultimate commercialization of lived experience.
Popular Culture is the “face” and object of all this programming. It is the collective subjective – a quick immersion in our desires, our needs and our aspirations. In a walk through Times Square you can get a taste of Popular Culture and the societal power that drives it. On 43rd Street one can look up to see two immense electronic screens streaming constant images and information from around the world, one from the NASDAQ and one from Reuters. The NASDAQ screen is the most compelling and forward-looking, because it has fused with the actual architecture of the building, wrapping around a turret on the side of the building. Pictures, videos, news, commercials and financial information are pumped into the physical world around it – they emanate from the structure itself. The building houses Conde Nast, the publisher of fashion and lifestyle magazines, Skadden Arps, one the largest and most powerful corporate law firms in the world, and the NASDAQ broadcasting facilities which dispenses financial information to millions through subscription viewing. The Reuters screens look more like an after-thought on the architecture, but it pumps out animated news information, images of the latest entertainment and sports icons, and beautiful pictorial videos into the Square. Reuters, too, is a power media player. It is one of the largest news clearing houses in the world. It is also one of the very few institutions that determine what will be seen, what is important to know, and how it will be examined, noticed and understood by the data hungry masses. All of this information reaches billions of people everday, every second in every country. These Wizard of Oz screens broadcasting the images of our Popular Culture mask the legal, political, financial and cultural powerhouses that reside within the same block. This is just on 43rd Street. CBS, ABC & MTV along with Disney, ESPN and the US Army also reside in the Square creating a confluence of popular culture-shaping electronic programming power. Those giant moving images are the masks of power. What we see, what we are allowed to see is the thin veneer, the surface that is Popular Culture.

Pop Face

Content is what shows up, what we experience, what moves us, what we talk about and what we blog about. Content is the ephemeral, the incidental, the unknown element in the program itself. What will catch on, what will capture the imagination, what will drive the society, what has meaning, what will be sold? One minute we all watch American Idol, the next it’s Lost. One minute we love Jeff Koons, the next it’s Damien Hirst. So much of the unknown element that strikes a chord in us is driven by something deeper, something not necessarily quantified. It is what we desire without knowing why. It is the thing that entices us. Once we fall for this unquantifiable allure the machinery of the popular kicks in. Repetition is the ultimate goal for this programming. Repetition is the road that leads to the palace of success. We are inundated with images, phrases, slogans, jingles and packaged information in order to continue to foment desire in us. Once activated our desire can be mined for money, power or fame until like financial debt instruments, oil futures contracts, political catch phrases or Matthew McConaughey it bottoms out beneath our collective consciousness. Aside from the business that happens around the mechanisms of Pop Culture, something unaccountable has also transpired. We have created a kind of false history, a history of false events that impact our real lives. This cultural success in itself is not easily understood, but its effects can be easily tracked. What begins with the search for the X factor, the undefinable, always ends in the same way.

Through the years as technology has become more sophisticated so has the idea of controlling Popular Culture and its manifestations. Not just in what is presented, but how it is presented, how something gets to be popular, how it makes money and creates influence. Advertising, publicity and production all go hand in hand to create a roadmap for this content. The program is there ready to go, always already, waiting for the next unquantifiable thing to be slotted in. Those things that seemlessly fit into the code, proliferate quickly, those that don’t either morph into something else that can be used or fall away. It’s the seemlessness in the unquantifiable that creates the facility in the program. And we, as consumers, as viewers, as participants get wrapped up by the facility of it all. Let’s face it, the ease at which we can obtain and attain popular culture is astounding. It is far more than our personal preferences – that annoying jingle in your head, the half remembered commercial images or wearing corporate logos – none of this was “chosen.” The workings of this culture are more involved, more manipulative and they exist outside of the comfortable individuality that we believe determines our likes or dislikes. Just as the unquantifiable is the beginning of the program we are the end-part of that delivery system, the end-part of the program itself. We complete the circle in the programming of Popular Culture.

So What About Art?

Clement Greenberg’s critical writing was a long polemic against the power of Popular Culture. He was the last great Modernist art critic. He wrote about the rising materialism of American Postwar painting and laid out the end game that eventually left advanced painting in a no-win situation. The end finally came in the early 1960s as a new culture was proliferating in America. Unfortunately for Clement this newly rising tide of Postmodernism quickly sunk the withering power of the Modernist avant garde. With electronic media, consumer culture and the influx of new corporate money came the idea that high art should be no different from Popular Culture, that today’s Popular Culture would be tomorrow’s High Art. Any pretensions, any aspirations, intellectualizations or visualizations about what “high art” could be was made instantly redundant – for Art it was the end of history. The avant garde was dead, the expression of a greater or higher culture was passe, and artists were now machines producing in the now, “bringing home the bacon.” For these new artists the popular culture was The Culture. The harder artworld would begin to cultivate this change using corporate business models to create markets and build institutions. It would develop its own Popular Culture industry. As artists pursued this new Pop attitude in their studios Postmodernism provided both a theoretical base for the elevation of Greenberg’s hated Kitsch and an institutional backdrop for the new face of contemporary art. Postmodernism allowed artists to develop a mass-market public image based on the business executive while recontextualizing the process of art making as a process of production and R&D. It was a spectacular and decisive paradigm shift. We’ll discuss this shift in the next post – Overheads and Screen Shots

Before We Go On

As I’m working on the next Popular Culture post I’ve been getting a bit of flack about how I’m approaching the subject. A few of my friends thought this would be a more sociable, chatty series of posts on coolness. So I thought I’d try to clarify a bit. I believe that it’s the actual delivery systems that have a great deal to do with what’s Popular. By this I mean anything can be made popular simply by its facility (facility of understanding, facility of use, etc) – how easily the “product” can be delivered. A quick example can be found in the destruction of the music industry as it once was set up. After electronic delivery systems dismantled the actual physical production involved in delivering music, the need for support industries fell apart – stores to sell it, transportation to deliver it, plastic to make it, machines to press it, label it, artists, photographers, etc. to design the packages – well, you get the idea. Music is now uploaded and downloaded through electronic devices. By so doing it has created a new clearing house for music – namely iTunes. That’s a lot of pop cultural power in the hands of one corporation. The amazing thing about iTunes is that every era of Pop is now available without any differentiation, every era and style is contemporary – the idea is context. So the bricks and mortar recording industry is drowning in waves of technology as we surf the deluge on ipods stuffed thick with contextual Pop music at 99 cents a download.

I’m also intrested in the idea of the Tipping Point put forward by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes something popular? Gladwell discussed the idea of 3 types of entities that would be involved in the process – connectors, mavens and salesmen – all of which have their counterparts in the art world. These are the “street level” folks that create buzz – that all powerful term that will have us groping in our wallets in short order. We see it come about in waves every couple of years in the art world – usually timed to Biennials and fairs. The amount of buzz surrounding these Pop gatherings has reached epic levels in this century as money has become more and more evident in the making, publicizing and selling of art of all kinds. A good recent example is Damian Hirst’s attempt to circumvent his gallery market by selling his excess production directly on the auction market. The compilations and complications of insider dealing and outright publicity spin is amazing in its baldfaced bravado. But these machinations follow a predictable path, and whether for good or ill, this will be yet another fiscal success for Popular Culture.

KoonsI am interested in how Pop Culture plays out in the work we see. For instance can we actually understand the difference between placing pictures of Cheerios in our paintings or using another artist’s style to depict those Cheerios as Jeff Koons uses Jim Rosenquist’s style without irony or acknowledgment? Is it the Pop Culture he is addressing or is it the Pop Artist? For the Postmodernist these questions do not matter, because all culture, high and low, is now Pop Culture. There is no difference only “differance” – context. Recently in an ironic turn of high and low an academic philosopher became a Pop Culture star – Harry Frankfurt. In all honesty the title of this work probably had a lot to do with his “get factor” on the talk show circuit. In his extended essay “On Bullshit” he led a salient critique on Postmodern ethics. Mr. Frankfurt’s contention is that bullshit has no connection to truth and it matters little to the bullshitter if something is true or false. The concoction of bullshit is simply an attempt to buttress one’s viewpoint. It isn’t a lie, because a lie implies that there is a truth. Bullshit and its “truthiness” is determined through context. And in all truth (no pun intended) for those of us who are following the political news, we have just witnessed two massive spectacles of steaming, sticky, gooey Popular Culture Bullshit. Both of these events were presented exactly as any televised event is presented and the similarilities, to say, the Superbowl telecast, were astounding – complete with play by play commentating, replays, computerized telestrator, corporate sponsorship, player interviews and on-the-field reporting. Sporting event or political event – the rising subject has no meaning in the era of Pop Culture.

I believe these are some of the contributing Pop Culture factors in how we make art today. I plan on expanding these themes as we go on. I hope that makes it a bit clearer for those of you who think I’m out of my ever lovin’ gourd. I’m sure I’ll be throwing in a few references to those fun things, but I’m a bit of a mechanic – I like to know what’s working beneath the hood. More to come later this week….

Pop It Out

The Keith Haring Foundation, which Haring established, also serves as his estate and provides grants to nonprofit organizations that assist children and AIDS-related causes. It has also transformed Haring’s art into what is essentially a brand, with merchandise from cookies to coat racks.

China was Pop. It still is. It’s still a nation of uniforms, but of more and more kinds of uniforms. I saw outfits with matching corsages on department store salesgirls, the slate-gray shirts of guards stationed at luxury high-rises and the Chloë Sevigny T-shirts that teenagers wear on Beijing streets.

The lure of motorcycle week in Sturgis is the surrounding Badlands countryside with its miles of open road. But it’s also alcohol, drugs and sex. My other plane conversationalist was a Texas woman coming in to help at her family’s barbeque booth. Dorothy’s husband called her down in Austin the night before to complain of the couples coupling nekkid on his picnic tables at the Chip. The evening will be more than a mere military tribute to John McCain.

In this absence of a clear-cut sartorial zeitgeist, “Designers are focusing more on their own brand identities, despite what everyone else is doing,” explains Stephanie Meyerson, Director of Youth Culture at trend resource agency Style Sight. “Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Prada—all have an unwavering sense of brand vision and creativity, regardless of fleeting trends.” It’s an evolution that, though great for creativity, has made the editor’s job of pinpointing “the new black” much more difficult.

Pop Culture is everywhere at every time. It is omnipresent in everything we do, everywhere we go and available every time of the day or night. But what is Pop Culture? How does it work in our lives? How does it work in our culture – economic, political, societal, but mostly in our world, the art world? We intend to examine the nature of Pop Culture in this series. But we intend to do it a little differently. We want to see how it works in the context of our technologies and how that effects how we come to understand our lives. Ultimately we want to see how this filters into the art that we make and that we see.

Many art movements had their basis in new theoretical proposals – the beginning of the 20th Century was littered with one “ism” after another. But Pop Art had something more. Postmodernism began its hegemony as the combined juggernauts of media and technology merged. Popular Culture is the driving force, the friendly face of Postmodern institutionalism. We can begin to define Postmodernism in art with the success of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art in the early 1960s. The old school critics and defenders of so called “high culture” immediately dismissed it. But what they didn’t understand was that America’s, and indeed, the world’s understanding of life was going to be driven by the new electronic media that was just appearing on the scene. Andy was the first to paint with photographs rather than from photographs. He was also the first to use media images and media presentations exclusively as the compositional basis for his art. He understood the power of fame, immediate immersion and blank celebrity. Rather than build on previous art styles and art histories Andy brought Pop Culture directly against the “high art” of Greenberg’s precious Pure Painting. He “blew up” popular culture to a larger size. Warhol’s art upended Modernism and opened an art dialog that has lasted nearly 50 years. Today, Warhol’s paintings look like art, they look like classical painting, and we are used to what they do and how they go about doing it. We accept them and take them for granted, just as we do computers, mobile phones and chat rooms. Warhol’s Pop has become inured in the academy in a way that Greenberg’s formalism never could be, because Pop is how we exist. Pop is what Art is, and Postmodernism is at its theoretical base.

But what exactly is Pop today? Do David Salle, Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel and other 80s stars continue the line of Pop Art? Are Christopher Wool, Albert Oehlen, Charline von Heyl and other current abstractionists Pop artists? Are John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Elizabeth Peyton using Pop art to define their images? How does it all work? How is this different in this time? And most importantly, we’ll be looking for “it” – something that might be so different, so appealing. Those are some of the questions we’ll be taking up in this series over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Change Happens…

n the NYT there is a story by Motoko Rich on how the internet is changing reading habits. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. Gioia of the N.E.A. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.” In other words what is changing isn’t just reading, but critical thinking which demands “sustained, focused, linear attention….” This breakdown of depth involvement is part of the Postmodern lexicon. Surface, surface, surface…which plays in the art world like food pellets in a rat experiment. The highly refined and intricately manufactured surfaces and styles of Postmodernism, even when inflected with theoretical asides and historical assumptions, are scant on real engaging visual depth. To see, to look and understand takes no time – understanding is superfluous to meaning. There is no pleasure for the looking only the eternal signatory – the come hither gaze of crowd-pleasing Postmodern celebrity. We “get it” immediately and yet we can never be a part of it, never actually participate. Is it any wonder that so many of the surfaces of Postmodern sculpture are reflective, mirroring the wierdly warped images of ourselves as we stare at the objects in front of us? What you see is what you see.

But what if, when we are thinking critically, we discover that what we see is not what we see. Which brings me to another idea that Henri & Co. have been throwing around in regards to the state of the Postmodern. What is Popular Culture?Postmodernists are extremely fond of heaving this giant behomoth of contemporary creative fecundity straight into our faces as if it were a justification for what they do, but what does it mean, what does it do, what is it all about? We’ve had a few discussions, but I believe the answer lies deeper than Britney or Lindsey, reality tv and summer comic book movies, Koons and Murakami. Greenberg was adamant about kitsch – the mid century definition of pop culture. “Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. 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.” You may preferVirginia Woolf’s discussion of the “middlebrow.” “They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige. The middlebrow curries favour with both sides equally. He goes to the lowbrows and tells them that while he is not quite one of them, he is almost their friend. Next moment he rings up the highbrows and asks them with equal geniality whether he may not come to tea.” But these are from discussions of culture based in the electric 20th Century. What about today, the electronic 21st century, are things really different and if so how? We’ll make an effort to puzzle this out in upcoming posts.

Figuring It Out – Part 8

You can never do too much drawing. Tintoretto

It is necessary to keep one’s compass in one’s eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges. Michelangelo

There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see. Leonardo

It is not enough to know your craft – you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us imagination is worth far more. Manet

An art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t an art at all … feeling is the principle, the beginning and the end; craft, objective, technique – all these are in the middle. Cezanne

The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape… Picasso

Every good painter paints what he is. Pollock

During the 1960s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered. Warhol

I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it. I think that the art world would probably be a tremendous reservoir for everybody involved in advertising. Koons

Because it’s visual art, a lot of it comes from childhood experience but then a lot comes from the visual language – in advertising and stuff like that – which is around us. Hirst

I thought we’d start with a bunch of loaded quotations pointing out the changes in the way artists talk about art. Loaded because the change has been dramatic. We’ve moved away from a discussion of direct human experience to one of a second hand media experience. There’s no denying that advertising has become a constant in our electronic culture, and that advertising drives a deeper economic idea – consumption. We are constantly barraged, constantly aware, interminably desirous, eternally shopping. The desire to consume is the burning fuel of our everyday economic lives. It is the reason the electronic world – a sleek, efficient vehicle that drives directly into our desires, our subjectivity, our collective imagination – has become the constantly shifting ground for corporate business. The product at the back of these business transactions, the thing in itself, the rising subject does not matter one jot to the functions of advertising. It is the programming that sells anything to anyone at any time by creating and fermenting desire. What we as artists have become infatuated with is this very idea of desire. And as art has become more of a business we’ve fashioned art as a giant machine for creating desire – buying and selling – a transaction – and that program – has become – in itself – the art. By concentrating on and maintaining desire we have turned away from the focus of visual interaction – passion. Passion demands involvement, demands emotional connection and demands that we create a vision. Over the last 30 years this idea of vision has changed just as the quotations of artists have changed.

In the movie the “Black Robe” we can see how cultures clash. Though there are outward similarities to human experience, technologies change the underlying logic of how we relate and understand our lives. The most telling difference in the clip on the left is the example of the written word – the construct that enables the ephemeral, the spoken idea to appear to any that can read (about 4:50 into the video if you want to skip through.) How we understand and relate to one another is always directed through the constructs of our social networks. Our culture has gone through a recent redefinition as well, only today, it’s being directed by the way computers work. I have made a great deal in this series about the WAY that we see, how we interpret what we see and the meaning behind it. Postmodernism, the theory behind most media encounters, encourages precedent, it emphasizes the ground over the subject, it manipulates desire, it keeps us at a distance. Postmodernism promotes processes of stylization (fashionable adjustments) rather than changes of style. And followed to its logical conclusions we wind up like Jeff Koons believing in “advertising and media completely” – minds constantly erased of memory, rebooted, always upgraded to work seamlessly with the New new.

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted. Karl Popper

DO we see as we once did? Absolutely not. We can not. We don’t have the capacity any longer to do so. We use our senses differently in order to understand what our culture presents us through the means it is being presented. But when we remove those extensions from our nervous systems what happens to our understanding? When presented with a concrete reality of a thing, a rising subject directly in our physical vision how do we understand it? For instance the other day I watched a wireless phone commercial detailing the services available. One of the features is a GPS device that tracks one’s movements on an electronic map allowing one to “find your way.” Never mind that the fellow is in a city full of people of whom he might ask directions. He consults his electronic device, he receives information through the computer. He never has to ask, knowledge of his physical situation is never questioned – he is of a piece with his technology blindly led by the computer. The map, the abstraction becomes the territory, the reality that he moves through. He is a cypher, an avatar within the abstraction. Taleb calls this a Ludic Fallacy. Without the extensions we must find another way to navigate the outer world and become a part in it. We must understand and remember the landmarks, navigate the pathways, make logical assumptions, interconnect with the people around us. The false surety that sense extensions incorporate into their abstractions and the illusion that this technology is the final arbiter of our knowledge creates the fallacy that nothing “worthwhile” remains unmapped, everything can be predicted, everything is programmed or programmable. Abstraction since Postmodernism has expanded this illusion of control by manipulating narratives, recontextualizing history and employing outright sophistry. Postmodernism is a form of plastic contextulization – “Wildensteinism” – a drastic manipulation of information in order to confound individual perception. But in the fleshy reality of the rising subject the clock still ticks, the heart still beats and entropy runs through it all. Outside of the Postmodern ground there can be no real control, no contextual hold button, no denial of the obvious inevitable.

I have discussed this before in other posts, but it bears revisiting. Vision has irrevocably changed, and I believe that we have to develop a new way of using our senses in order to find a deeper understanding of 21st century life. First these electronic extensions aren’t going away, in fact, they are becoming more invasive, more saturated in our encounters. Vision has been amplified while becoming more easily directed and blinkered through electronic programming. Lenses have become more powerful and can pinpoint and read license plates from satellites circling the globe. Computers and lenses programmed to interpret sound, heat and x-rays can see through your body while creating 3 dimensional maps of your inner workings. Camera’s cover nearly every 10 feet of many urban landscapes mapping and documenting the flow of people, commerce and money through every city. Online we abstract and capture every second of our lives and instantly upload and broadcast those intimate moments to millions of people. Many of us can no longer remember even the simplest details of our lives without the aid of our electronic extensions. There is no time to incorporate the rising subject into our being, no way to physically remember anything, no way to contemplate or process one’s emotional connections once the abstraction takes over, no way to physically see as we once did. The all encompassing ground has become the focus and director of all of our relationships – economic, political, cultural and personal. For those of us wanting to unplug, to emerge from the ground – it is imperative that we find a solution….

In Touch
Michelangelo torsoI have been extremely interested in Tintoretto’s admonition to draw for a number of years. I believe this solves a deep disconnect in today’s visual practices. Drawing has been limited as a basic planning tool in the POMO environment. Now there’s nothing wrong with this – I believe this shorthand is imperative to finding new ideas, but I also believe that drawing as a full blown activity for making painting is no longer practiced in a way that realizes visual form and space. Drawing should work in several ways. One should be able to visualize and document abstract form within the rising subject while translating that form into an encounter with emotional visual content. This is a visceral physical way of engaging which demands real concentration, interaction and memory. It is a way to grapple with one’s mind allowing the eye to feel while the hand defines. In Michelangelo’s torso on the left the emergence of the forms comes directly from the line, the value and the negative spaces. First the line that defines the outer form moves from indecision to accuracy – in parts of the outline Michele is feeling his way around the muscles, the line shreads and shapes the contour. Then suddenly the line becomes decisive and full, as if he finally understood his way around the form. The values push the torso into a reality raising it out of the second dimension, filling up the idea of a human abstraction with the visual depth of the actual rising subject. Finally the spaces ignite through the intimate areas between and around the full forms, the “negative” space becomes the defining last feature as the ground recedes. But if we look further we can see a deeper abstraction – the process of mark making – which is a 20th century predisposition – in the cross hatching defining the form. We find that as Michele questions his relationship to the rising subject he has “zoomed in” on the right hand – seperated it for deeper study, committed it to a deeper memory. He wants to understand not only how he sees it but how he feels it.

HorsesThe photographer Steve Durbin’s series of horse photographs are a good example of how the lens approximates the directed drawn vision just described.Steve writes – “This ongoing study of horses, with subjects close and constantly moving, called for a radical change in technique: camera handheld, zone of focus narrow, click rate high. Animals loom into the frame, the arrangement of shapes an ever-changing collage. I try to capture configurations that have an abstract appeal, while being portraits of individuals or sets I am coming to know.” Steve is working between the lens and the idea of drawing as I see it. He is in close, an intimate part of the photograph and the composition itself. The lens pushes into the rising subject and as it does other areas fall back out of focus. Similarly in the drawing above the line falls away, the forms flatten into the abstract ground, the cross hatching empties. These are similar processes. The difference is in the composition. The photograph of the rising subject fills the vision, in the drawing the figure is placed within the larger context of the ground. This is part of the point. Today technologies allow us a visual intimacy and immediacy that was not part of the distanced viewing of classical western vision. This intimacy is something we have to come to terms with.

Now I must allow for my inner nerd and ask your indulgence for the clip on the left. What I want to point out is how the camera is working in combination with the computer. First it never stops moving, and as it moves, view points change dramatically heightening certain moments and pushing other things quickly into the background. Additionally, the speed of the lens captured movement is slowed or sped up to enhance this visual focus. From the drawing and photograph above you can see that these visual applications (both eye and lens) have been pumped up. The point I am getting at is to see how this programming works on our understanding and involvement in the visual experience. Programming changes and enhances visual intimacy and quickly sets up a physical imperative within the viewer. It’s why when you’re in a theater watching this sort of movie you can see the audience swaying and moving along with the action on the screen. In painting I believe that defining these sorts of mechanics are imperative to finding a new visual experience in paint – one connected to both vision and lens based programming. In my own work I put the viewer in close to the rising subject – compose like a photograph, draw like a draftsman. I draw with paint to push form and ground into movement. I let the drawing move into and away from the ground emerging again at a different focal point. The compositions are constantly moving beneath the touch of an eye. I want to enhance the tactile qualities of vision without resorting to the 20th century fallback – the physicality of materials. But mostly I want the intimacy of the life around me to come through in the paintings – both abstract and figurative – thought and feeling. Vision is about living, feeling and thinking.

fragment_1Copying lens based images in paint (either figurative or abstract) is not the same thing as understanding and employing the ways programmed lenses and fleshy vision work. For many of us reality isn’t defined by the constant flow of advertising, media images, programming or historical models, but through our intimate relationships, our emotions and our thoughts. We don’t have any real connection to passing encounters with products or fashion, though we may find those things interesting and fun. Life is so much thicker and more alive than the surface of things. We can no longer afford the premise that what we see is what we get. We hunger for visual relationships that move us, inspire us, demand our attention and involvement. Postmodernism can not do justice to our everyday lives. POMO is a tool for obfuscation and sophistry and it’s being used to sell products, politics and unfortunately art. Its high time we began to find new ways to engage in our changed visual experience. While we play at the surface of things we lose the understanding of things. So I’ll finish this post with a quote from one of the greats which explains my position perfectly…

“I am unable to make any distinction between the feeling I get from life and the way I translate that feeling into painting.” Matisse