Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “…at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.
Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina Abramović, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most can’t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.
Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing a half a million dollars to ‘free,’” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”² This “confusion of values” intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.
Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:
1) High Art (elite)
2) “DIY” or “Low” Art
3) Commercial Art (consumerist)
“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.
This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series, the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.
This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.
The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs, & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.
Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.’” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing. Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.
“Where does form end and content begin?
American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”
Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney Biennial & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).
There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.
I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original “What is Contemporary Art” e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on “Altcomics.” All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.
2.© Murakami, Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137