November 2, 2004

POP after POP after POP


I'm reading ArtForum's "POP AFTER POP A Roundtable"

It's a beast, and like Santiago, I hope to haul this one into port before the sharks take their bite...

Here we go:

JEFF KOONS MAKES ME SICK." The words are Peter Schjeldahl's, and the occasion was a review in the SoHo weekly 7 Days, back in the '80s, before Koons was quite the museum-certified star he is today. In the course of the write-up, Schjeldahl would turn his conceit around, explaining how undeniable, unstoppable, finally essential the experience of the artist's work was for him. What makes Koons's art simultaneously so toxic and so compelling? And why is it both institutionally embraced and yet seen by many as an art of diminishing returns, a symptom of all that is wrong with culture today? Koons is, of course, one of the artists?one of the few artists?for whom, in any pure or immediate sense the oft-used designation neo-Pop has a certain self-evidence.

The present panel?and this special issue of Artforum?comes out of a desire to look back at the past several decades of artmaking and to ask where, when, and why we have evoked Pop art in its post- and neo- compounds?and what it is we mean when we do so. Is there something in the Pop paradigm?but also in the grumbles of Pop's discontents?that points to what is at stake in making art out of our contemporary world? How much does historical Pop (not just high New York Pop, but also British proto-Pop; not just the Warhol of the soup cans, but also of the films and the capacious art/life jugglings) tell us about the myriad ways artists work with, through, and even in pop culture today.

The mission of this issue is to consider the art/pop dialectic in its broadest sense?and to do so we convened an online symposium, the results of which are published in the following pages. Our seven panelists include contributing editors Thomas Crow and Rhonda Lieberman, artists Jeff Wall and Stephen Prina, curator and critic Alison M. Gingeras, cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen, and Artforum editor Tim Griffin. . ?JB

So begins an ArtForum discussion that goes on for ten onlline pages. Much of it is repetitive and there's much strutting about in it, but it is beginning... just beginning to direct our attention at the source of our long PostModern epoch. I just wish that attention was a little more critical that these esteemed people are willing to do... but that is what I intend to do in this post.

It's a big task, and it has put me off for a time. But today (ahem, and in the days to follow) I intend to take this task on and therefore get on with my life (it has wieighed a little heavily on me lately). I'm going to excerpt pieces of the discussion, discarding the drek and comment (what the blogosphere calls Fisking) on what remains.

Jack Bankowsky: Maybe my first question should be: Is there life after Warhol, and if so, what does it look like? Does it look like Jeff Koons? Do we like what we're looking at? To jump in headlong, consider the range of ways art and pop come together today. Koons's traffickings in the realm of mass taste largely take place in the form of objects and paintings. Whereas Murakami, in his play with and penetration of the Louis Vuitton logo, for instance, finds "art" in the realm of commerce and advertising. Finally, a meta-band such as Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw's Destroy All Monsters comes out of a lived relationship to pop music subcultures, while Alex Bag's samplings constitute a deep (if slapstick) archeology of the nuances of life lived through TV. What can we say about these various practices and the kinds of pop/mass material in which they trade?

Here's the establishing shot. I think he's correct in noting that the artists have saluted the primacy of Pop, especially Warhol as a fundamental expression of the PostModern ethos. Pop is king, and has been recognised as such since the early nineties. I remember the turning point and the flurry of articles and books rekindling his reputation. Before then, I think it is correct to say that Warhol was considered to be a washout or somehow dissapated in some way.

All of a sudden, everyone was extolling the hidden genius of Andy W.

Jeff Wall: Koons's work doesn't bother me, but it doesn't inspire me either. It's just very characteristic of this dominant ethos of contemporary art?what we are calling neo-Pop.

Curious, how Wall distances himself from Koons.

And "neo-Pop". To be Post-xxx is to be critical of, to be Neo-xxx is to endorse. Does he think this ethos is dominant enough to encompass his work too?

Here's what -I hope- is a relevent digression:

Grad school, 1989-91, Southern California. The first days, shortly after the introductory talk. We have to formally register, in the foyer of the building before a table with the secretaries and student assistants inscribing the forms. We were asked to identify the nature of our degree.

Echos of the oath I took as I was processed into the service so long ago.

"What will be your major?



Or Sculpture?"

I was delighted.

That moment was in a continuity with the moment so many years ago as I stood in front of Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Children" in the Prado.

I was thirteen. I had already been drawing in the margins of the history books by that time. A year before, I had read The Agony and the Ecstacy, and the immersion and struggle in contending with the medium of art, be it Architecture or Painting or Sculpture. I was ready for both moments.

"Mark me down for Painting."

I had just finished a righteous architectural education. I went to what was regarded as the toughest school for architecture in the West Coast, I apprenticed and I won my license. It was that, and a stint in the Navy that was what I thought as a fair substitution for an art undergraduate degree. All the while, I began to focus on Painting as an ultimate objective, painting in earnest early in Architecture school.

And what of architecture? I love it. I will take any opportunity to design and build a great building. It's just that those opportunities don't grow on trees... and Painting was waiting.

Plus, one has a possibility to make an Architectural statement with one good building (sadly, many architects toil for a lifetime without the opportunity to ring the bell), but Painting requires a body of work. Those positions are not interchangeable.

But I wouldn't change it if I could. I was having a lot of fun with it all.

My interlocuter had a smile on their face (Funny, I can't remember who it was, or even which sex they were!), hands clasped in what began to seem like anticipation. The veritable catbird seat.

"Well, don't you know we are living in PostModern times? We can choose more than one media and as artists, we should work across media anyway. Art is bigger than Painting, Sculpture or Drawing."

Oh. Here it is again, what I had seen in outline in undergraduate school. What was once radical-leading-edge and progressive (archtiectural terms: Stanley Tigerman's sex buildings, Archigrams's walking buildings, Venturi's Las Vegas and the beginning of Deconstruction in Architecture... now virtually chiseled into the virtual pediment of the very real institution.

I received my first lesson, a trick question.

Neo-Pop has four main sources: Duchamp's discovery that anything can be art if it is so designated;

I remember a moment in Architecture school where my old friend Troy and I were installing an exhibit in the school gallery. I was thinking about this idea, that anything can be art if so designated. Spirits were high and conversation was fast, and I was looking at a trash can full to the brim. That too, can be art... so I tipped it over to designate it so.

Oooh, so transgressive. The school guard began to take notice. The idea was so exhilarating, so encompassing, so apparently liberating... and ultimately empty. This indexical nomination can be capricious... and sure, the burden of proof hangs on the character of the owner of the hand that indicates art... but there are so many hands pointing out there. Now, it may be art, but that doesn't make it good.

Beuys's proclamation that everyone is an artist;

More fingers pointing at art stuff... actually, art ideas. More of this later.

Warhol's assertion that making art is the same as making any other commercial product; and finally (also from Warhol) the idea that, since there is no essential difference between creating art and creating anything else, artists can share in the wider recognition that other makers have enjoyed and do not have to be restricted to the esteem of an elite.

People we used to look to as artists?those who had unusual abilities and the unusual intuitions that seem to be somehow connected with these abilities?are not looked to as much anymore. Artists today work as "creative directors," employing skilled artisans to make things according to their specifications. Other abilities have come to the fore, one of the most important of which is the ability to sense meanings in the wider culture and to contemplate the evolution and significance of those meanings and the products that express them.

A beautiful idea. The trouble is, when art approaches the real world, the real world is far more interesting, deeper, convoluted, invested...

A strange idea. A reach into the classical idea of artist as orchestrator, artist as CEO.

A familiar idea. The separation of art from artisan. A divorce of idea from the material. Casper shed his mortal coil and flies in the PostModern sky. More on that later as well.

The creative act here is to find a means, a form, or a format to make those meanings available. The form and the technique are usually drawn from the original's production process?a film (or a moment in a film), an architectural trope, a social situation of some kind?like remaking the HOLLYWOOD sign and erecting it near Palermo, or re-enacting a fragment of a performance by a famous film star as a video, or making gigantic sculptures that are enlargements of toys.

Neo-Pop art is based on this discourse about meaning, about the relation between the first and second appearance of things?the first as some mass-cultural event, like a news photo of a car accident, and the second as that photo as a painting by Andy Warhol. But it's probably an open question whether the second appearance is more meaningful than the first?a question that should probably be asked more often in the face of the deluge of second (and third, and tenth) appearances.

The bolded last sentence is my emphasis, the first glimmer of critique. Do subsequent appearances in fact bring a diminished meaning? Can we find more gold after the rock is crushed? And if we can, is there enough to make the effort worthwhile?

Alison Gingeras: To me what Maurizio Cattelan puts forth in the HOLLYWOOD project has nothing to do with the Duchampian readymade, with the object or the aura of fame as evoked by the object-sign. HOLLYWOOD was about Cattelan positioning himself as an impresario who had digested and built on Warhol's own "business art" legacy, taking it further to put his finger on what makes our contemporary world tick. Filling a privately chartered plane with curators, dealers, journalists, collectors, and glitterati during the height of the Venice Biennale and flying the "art world" to a garbage dump in Palermo to witness his "sculpture" was the crux of the piece.

Cattelan carefully deployed his own celebrity to create a highly visible frame for the exclusive event, capitalizing on the art world's desire to partake in it. I would argue that this work was the culmination of years of careful orchestration of his public persona.

Jeff Wall: Yes, and my question is about the legitimacy of art's aim being to "put one's finger on what makes society tick." The value of such an endeavor?as art, as opposed to some other activity?is not self-evident to me. There have been (and are) other artistic aims.

Bravo Jeff Wall! (emphasis mine)

This is the crux of the matter: the idea that art proceeds in sucession with each development eclipsing the last should have been itself succeeded by an idea of art proceeding in augmentation. Isn't both-and better than either-or, a cardinal virtue of a progressive creative mentality?

It's strange that PostModernism is seen as the successor to Modernism when it promises to enlarge and not necessarily supplant what has gone before. It is the popular idea of a necessary supplantation that irritates me so.

Thomas Crow: Well, Koons's appeal has mystified commentators for decades now (at this point, he has enjoyed nearly twenty years in the limelight) and led in each instance to the default theory that he, like Warhol before him, erased any operative distinction between commerce and the old, disinterested, aesthetic ideal, enacting a "euphoric celebration of art and the market?business joined hands with creativity."

The problems with this mindset are huge and disabling. For one thing, it equates the commercial and the popular while remaining stubbornly behind the times in terms of the actual evolution of marketing techniques.

Oh. I had hoped that he would have found the easy equation of art and commerce to be huge and disabling. But didn't Warhol merge one into the other? I would like to suggest that the possibility of an equation is only apparent, a device of artifice. Warhol was not driven by consumer demmand, despite the wonderful story of a bored and listless Andy asking his friend what he should paint one day.

"Paint what you like. Paint money."

Andy painted what he liked, not what the consumer (collectors, are they consumers?) liked. And sure, he silkscreened photos (or rather, his assistants did the task) of glamorous collectors... but by that time, he was Andy Warhol, and his expression was no-expression, artifice again. Didn't he like glamour too? And when he was late in life and infirm, didn't reach for images of car accidents and think of death?

And why would an easy equation of art and commerce be huge and disabling? Maybe we will come across a succinct Thomas Crow answer later. My quick answer is that art occurs for it's own sake. Call it curiousity. Call it affinities made vivid. Commerce occurs as a transaction. FedEx and Home Depot (or Bauhaus) seek a perfect match with consumer demmand. Art must form a bubble and then its' artifacts, its' concrescence, can be then traded among the avid.


Jack Bankowsky: If Murakami's art ends up looking and feeling like the old Pop world, are there artists, ways of working, that deal with the "new digital culture of commodities and advertisement" more decisively?

Stephen Prina: Artists cannot locate themselves "above the fray" since they are embedded in the capitalist system, but, as Alison demonstrates, there are different ways for artists to give form to their positions as subjects.

The redeployment of a strategy of Warhol's does not necessarily reap similar results decades after the fact, which makes the perpetual phase-shifting of Martin Kippenberger all the more effective.

Diedrich Diederichsen: What Kippenberger shared with Pop artists is his quasi-religious faith in his ability to create a world that would negotiate with another world and yet be complete, like the Church or the Communist Party. The main difference is that he was not a man of singular objects but of narratives and contexts. His strategy was so contextualist; he would constantly force you to look at the next image/object, and then the one after that, since nothing was ever complete. This contradiction?and complexity?makes him for me an artist beyond the Pop art aporia.

#1: with commerce more decisively?

#2: ...embedded in the capitalist system? Art can bubble forth with or without commerce. Art is not qualified by commerce... is it? Of course not.


Posted by Dennis at November 2, 2004 6:35 PM

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