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.

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