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
Versailles art show hit by injunction bid
From the wet dreams of the marketing people behind Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami’s show at Versailles a descendant of the man who built the Versailles Palace in France is seeking an injunction to prevent modern works by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami from being shown there. The legal battle is fronted by Sixte Henri de Bourbon-Parme in defence of “respecting the chateau and ancestors.” The ultra-conservative royalist has united with a group, the Versailles Defence Coordination, to file the suit, in which they stake a claim for the “right to access to heritage.” Read more here
Prince Charles offers to oversee London architectural planning
This week in “What could possibly go wrong?” Prince Charles offers to take on key architectural planning role in the vaccum created by the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation that had its funding axed in the comprehensive spending review. The offer, announced by the foundation’s chief executive, Hank Dittmar, has been met with dismay by leading modernist architects who fear Prince Charles may use the role to advance his own traditional tastes in design. Read more here
Studio Manager Anne McIlleron talks about her boss William Kentridge
William Kentridge who is the focus of Art:21′s first feature length documentary (recently reviewed here and just broadcast on PBS this week) let his Studio Manager Anne McIlleron speak on what looks to be B-roll of the Art:21 documentary, its interesting but I am still of the opinion that William Kentridge wasn’t the best subject in the world to get this kind of treatment, just me I am sure. See more here
Kronos Quartet Interviewed
I cant get enough of Art Babble I admit and double so for the Kronos Quartet (which Duncan & I caught in concert last time they were in Chicago and were amazing) so when you merge the two together it’s PB&J perfection. See More Here
New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum died
Leo Cullum, whose cartoons kept readers of The New Yorker laughing for 33 years, has died. He was 68. Read more here
The art world’s own Bernie Madoff
Lawrence Salander Read more here
Google DemoSlam is previewed
Google has previewed a new site called demoslam built to encourage the creation and rank the best tech demonstrations on the net, part of me has long thought this was something the art world should have created a long time ago, free idea (hey get what you pay for) to whoever has the time and wants to put the work into it, Youtube was built for the Art world and a project like this (even though we all wish it looked like Vimeo). Have at it and God bless at this point I just want a life for a while lol. Read more here
Takashi Murakami at the Château de Versailles
Takashi Murakami’s new exhibit in Versailles has recently opened (closes December 12th if you are of the jet set type) and from what I have heard and seen it is a show not to be missed if for no other reason then it’s striking contrast and humorous seemingly paradoxical existence. read more here
Inaugural Art Loop Open Competition Begins
From October 15-29, Art Loop Open—Chicago’s new art competition (presented by the Chicago Loop Alliance)—will transform ten venues throughout Chicago’s Loop into interactive public art exhibits (200 artists in total) having the public voting on the winner with 1st receiving $25,000 2nd: $15,000 & 3rd: $10,000. It looks to be a fun and smart program to engage the general public (which I still think we could do oh so much more in terms of) but sadly haven’t given it much promotion due to not knowing exactly how to aproach it. I will be looking forward to seeing how it plays out and more so to year two.
From what i can gleam the jury process was pretty solid and most of the artists involved I have either seen, worked with, known or interviewed so I wish them all good luck and more so remind them to forget the prizes this is a great opportunity to rewrite the image of the Chicago artist with the general public so in short “don’t be obtuse, rude, impatient or a douche” also Check out Tom Burtonwood and Pamela M Johnson’s work here & here respectively. Read more here
Banksy does the Title Sequence to the Simpsons
Interesting Video on How Printing Ink is Made
Having been a child in the heyday of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood I grew up with a love of lilting jazz music & seeing how everyday items are made (plus hand puppets but thats private) so it’s interesting to watch just how what I spend most of my money & art career touching plus half of my business career fighting with is made. watch it here
Race & Ethnicity Mapped By Block
As a footer for this week there is a visual map done by Bill Rankin using dots to show the more subtle changes across neighborhoods in Chicago using block-specific US Census data. Called a “taxonomy of transitions” it is quite interesting both visually and mentally but then again I am a data & logistics wonk so might just be me. read more here or even read about music preferences on Last.fm by gender here if you are so brave.
The fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar square has been on our radar for a while and I am sure will continue to be so since the British government plans on using it as a compliment to the Turner prize or so by using it as a soapbox to debate and showcase contemporary art.
The current work that is on display at the plinth, Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is slotted to be taken down in 2012 and the fight to see who gets the spot in time for the Olympics has begun. Here is a quick rundown of the shortlist via UK’s The Independent (my money is on Katharina Fritsch) :
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset A sombre wit underpins the serious nature of work by the Scandanavian couple who have collaborated since they met in 1995. They have made work in memory of gay victims of the Nazi regime and, in 2005, they built a Prada boutique in the middle of the Texan desert. Whatever their proposal for Trafalgar Square, we hope they don’t lose their sense of humour.
Mariele Neudecker German born, 45-year-old Neudecker made her name with sculptures of landscapes, placed inside glass vitrines. Self-contained worlds, that come out of the Romantic tradition in art – although her work is anything but traditional. She used the cry of seagulls on London’s Millenium bridge in 2008. And she sank a boat and a house underwater that question our relationship with the environment.
Allora & Calzadilla Allora and Calzadilla are an artist couple who live in Puerto Rico. Their work is usually political and they have a strong reputation in the UK. At the Serpentine gallery in 2007 they made a large chamber, like a war bunker, and inside musicians played military music. They work in many mediums, using film, sound, sculpture, performance and photography.
Hew Locke Locke’s work explores colonial themes in an exuberant kind of pop art. He has played with ideas about the British royal family. Princess Diana became a voodoo doll and he covered a figure of the Queen Mother with skulls. He critiques the past, looking at how our world interrelates: from African wars to empire, pop culture to Shakespeare.
Katharina Fritsch Like the Surrealists, Fritsch is known for artwork that makes the familiar appear strange and uncanny. Born in Germany, Fritsch has represented her country at the Venice Biennale and had major exhibitions at London museums. Giant rats and monochrome men wearing suits appear in her work, which have popular as well as critical appeal. She is a mature artist and her proposal will be polished and spectacular.
Brian Griffiths An eccentric sense of adventure runs through sculptures by Griffiths. A graduate of Goldsmiths college, the British artist has used old furniture to construct an elaborate wooden gyspy caravan. His work plays with myth as well as history and his sculpture comes from an imaginary world as fantastical as a child’s. No doubt, his proposal for the Fourth Plinth will be made from old junk but his idea, we hope, will contain a touch of magic.
- Also Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) has been greenlit to start construction on it’s $150-plus million development project in University Circle later this year and be completed in 2012. Read More Here
- We talked a while back about the Guggenheim’s Youtube partnership entitled “Play” where artists were invited to submit their videos to possibly be part of a juried exhibition later this year in every one of their museums. Well that jury list has been announced: Takashi Murakami, Ryan McGinley, Douglas Gordon, Marilyn Minter and Shirin Neshat, artists known for their work in a variety of mediums; Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer; Laurie Anderson, the performance artist, musician and filmmaker; the music group Animal Collective; and the filmmakers Darren Aronofsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Read More Here
- Sorry but I have a hard time calling something revolutionary or defying categorization when it’s been done for over two decades in general and over a decade by Michigan Avenue Ad houses. Its akin to saying an artist doing Matrix style bullet time video leaves you speechless if it was done in 2040. Film is sequential still frames that create motion, find something to write about NPR that is actually Art if you want to be breathless NPR not a music video esque work done in After Effects. It’s only slightly annoying when Artists speak of their work as revolutionary, interdisciplinary or an exciting hybrid that redefines a genre since it’s hard to promote as a artist but it is greatly annoying when a publication ruberstamps such hyperbole as true. I know it’s the NPR blog but….. still. Don’t Read More Here
Alexandra Seno takes a good look at the coming third year of Magnus Renfrew’s Art Hong Kong (art HK 10) which opens this week (May 27 to 30) and tries to push the idea that Hong Kong not Singapore & it’s Art Singapore sets the beat for Art Culture in Asia by showcasing 150 from 29 countries (out of allegedly 300 applications).
With artists that include Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, British sculptor and Turner Prize winner Antony Gormley, Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe, Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami and Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art curator Yuko Hasegawa.
Atendance is expected to be high considering there was a 30% jump last year to 28,000 visitors. Still small by international standards London’s Frieze Art Fair for instance, draws over 50,000 visitors but a interesting fair to keep an eye out for. More can be read here
In Mini News: The Museum of London reopens it’s modern galleries after a £20.5m refurbishment