Monday, June 10, 2019

TWO VACUUM CLEANERS

Very few artists have been stirred by the challenges presented by a vacuum cleaner. 

Here are two:

Jeff Koons

Phil Hale

The mountebank Koons, mayor of Niflheim, offers the unremarkable insight that industrial design does, in fact, incorporate "design." His marketing genius can be observed at work in this presentation:



Renowned herpetologist Graham Peck has observed a comparable technique at work in the snake kingdom:  
There Is a certain power to fascinate in a snake's eyes and movements.... I saw a ground squirrel fascinated by a black gopher snake. The forked tongue darted out of the snake's mouth almost as regularly and rapidly as the needle of a sewing machine rises and falls. The squirrel seemed to watch it spellbound... I believe implicitly that all snakes have a certain degree of power to fascinate their victims to death. 
In contrast to Koons, Phil Hale uses a vacuum cleaner-- a routine object from daily life that you or I might step around-- as an opening to the unknown. His beautiful painting is reminiscent of the lines from poet Peter Viereck:
So many dark things are not night at all:The cupboard where the cakes and poisons are.... 
Hale's vacuum cleaner is a potent original vision. His powers of observation are transferred to us through his strong personal choices and probing brushwork.

Koons too wants to elevate our attention to a vacuum cleaner but he does so by placing someone else's design in a lucite showcase and shining a spotlight on it. This antiseptic presentation offers no original opinions in the form of composition or palette, creative distortion or expressive energy, angle or design. In fact, any contribution that wasn't stolen from the original designer comes solely from Koons' accompanying jabber.

Artists love to paint flowers and landscapes and nudes but they've been remarkably silent on the subject of vacuum cleaners. As Hale proves, there is meaningful content even there. As Koons proves, even if you come up with nothing meaningful there are still a nice couple of bucks to be made.

36 comments:

Richard said...

Did Industrial Design exhibits not exist in 1980 when Koons did this?

Seeing a vacuum cleaner or a pair of sneakers or a child's toy in a design exhibit is par for the course today, but I wasn't alive in 1980 to know if this was at all novel at the time.

kev ferrara said...

Artists often say they are just creating as they please, but they often reveal much by accident in their work in the throes of their seeming heedlessness. Just as when someone insists on explaining something or telling a story, often we learn more about them than they can help.

Phil Hale's Johnny Badhair work had personified stand-ins for his inchoate rage, fears, sense of mystery, and peculiar, often antipathetic, feelings about technology. And these feelings still come across even when they are merely objectified, rather than personified and narrated. These feelings must be something within him that he just can't shake, all looking for any outlet offered to get back out to the world. A great artist in my opinion.

Jeff Koons, similarly, endlessly reveals his sensibilities with his sterile and vacuous products. Though rarely as on-the-nosily as he does here with, literally, unused vacuums in sterile lucite boxes. Like every glitzy and chintzy work he's ever made and every manipulative word he's ever uttered, these "artworks" are gussied up nothings that suck for money.

Sheridan said...

It saddens me knowing that there is a segment of society that will listen to the clap-trap of people like Jeff Koons, and think, "Oh! Yes! I see it now! How silly of me not to see it before." My own personal opinion is that any art should be able to succeed or fail on it's own merits. No written or spoken narrative should be required to appreciate the work.

I would think that the vacuum manufacturers would deserve some (if not all) of the profits from such works, or at least have a legal case to do so. Maybe they donated all the vacuums as a marketing ploy. Jeff Koons does seem to be a regular vacuum cleaner salesman of the highest order.

Laurence John said...

Sheridan, i think art on the field that Koons is playing is part intellectual parlour game (started by Duchamp with his ready-mades), part luxury brand and part smug in-joke. it's hard to understand the motivations of someone who would buy such work, but i would imagine that seeing it as an investment, and status symbol for the lobby would be closest to the truth.

Damien Hirst's last exhibition 'Treasures from the wreck of...' which cost a rumoured £65 million to produce, seemed to be almost mocking the very people who would have the money to buy the luxury objet d'arts on display. it had almost crossed into Banksy-like prankster-ism, albeit on a larger scale. i think that a certain section of the 'fine art' world has become so detached from the reality of us ordinary folk, that it's almost impossible to follow the train of thought anymore, or to work out who the joke is on.

Richard said...

> "any art should be able to succeed or fail on it's own merits. No written or spoken narrative should be required to appreciate the work."

Does a Rubens actually require less education to appreciate than Koons' puppy topiary?

Pop artworks are just fun. They require nothing more than an attraction to bright colors, boobs, or a general awareness of who's famous.

Conversely, many great masterworks do require a background education and literacy to appreciate. They require a fine palate and extended exposure to that sort of art.

Try convincing a 10 year old that they don't actually like "What Does the Fox Say", they really want to be listening to Vivaldi.

Try telling that soccer mom that she doesn't actually like that 20-foot-tall Balloon animal, she really wants to be contemplating a limited-palette painting of the Descent from the Cross.

The egalitarian theory of art doesn't lead to Rubens, Wagner, or Dostoevsky. It leads to Lisa Frank, Katy Perry, and Dan Brown.

The problem has never been the existence of an Art Establishment. Such an establishment is necessary to curb the baser instincts of the masses. Such an establishment has been behind the great artistic movements of western history.

The problem is that this era's specific Art Establishment is run by progressives. A disgruntled group of people, with a vowed mission to rewrite art history to erase the unique art accomplishments of one ethnic group and one gender.

Anonymous said...

Prediction - Koons will chime in here , admit to lurking this blog for years and get into an epic brawl with Ferrara .

MORAN said...

I've never seen that Phil Hale painting before. Is it from one of his books? It's awesome.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

The droll irony of Koons being given the most attention in this post.

Koons said...

Why would I get into a brawl? Everyone on this blog is already marketing my work brilliantly.

inmyoblivion said...

I didn’t take Sheridan’s comment about art standing on its own merits to mean the absence of an art background in the viewer, but that a particular piece of art shouldn’t require explanation. In that sense does a piece of art ever require a justification? When I hear people explain their mindset or process or try to convince me of a work’s quality, I’m often sold that it’s a novelty, but not that it’s art.

kev ferrara said...

Damien Hirst's last exhibition 'Treasures from the wreck of...' which cost a rumoured £65 million to produce, seemed to be almost mocking the very people who would have the money to buy the luxury objet d'arts on display. it had almost crossed into Banksy-like prankster-ism, albeit on a larger scale. i think that a certain section of the 'fine art' world has become so detached from the reality of us ordinary folk, that it's almost impossible to follow the train of thought anymore, or to work out who the joke is on.

Laurence,

Isn't this work a step up from a shark in formaldehyde? It's essentially fantasy art sculptures, isn't it? Why is this not Art? Aside from the fact that they are mostly 3D printed and so have rather blandly smooth surfaces (and molds seemed to have been made from 3D printouts and used to produce the works in various metals, plus malachite and crystal.) and Hirst probably had digital artists working for him who actually could do the digital sculpting... But what Hirst did was the equivalent of a film director. And I find it hard to dismiss the show as merely a prank.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Did Industrial Design exhibits not exist in 1980 when Koons did this?"

Yes, I heartily recommend the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, founded in 1852 as a "Museum of Manufactures," for a splendid collection of industrial design. More recent industrial design can be found at MOMA in NY. Traditional industrial design was fully aware of the "anthropomorphic" and the "masculine and feminine" aspects of design that Koons ootzes about in that video. As far as I can tell, the primary differences are 1.) Koons packages the physical item in layers of pretentious mystical gibberish; and 2.) Koons has successfully honed in on a category of the tasteless super-wealthy.

Kev Ferrara-- well said, especially about Hale. Whether his subject is an old vacuum cleaner in a closet or an epic human clash, his distinctive vision is manifest.

Sheridan-- Yes, although I think it takes a village; a collection of intimidated curators hedging their bets, ambitious graduate students and critics unhappy about being held to historical standards and looking for fresh meat, tasteless arrivistes who view collecting as a competitive sport, shameless auction houses and galleries monetizing art for shareholders-- Koons couldn't do this by himself.

As for your point about royalties for the manufacturers, not likely. While Koons is shameless about pilfering from other people, he is on the other hand quick to sue anyone he suspects is pilfering his own ideas.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I think your surmise about motivations is pretty good. I would also add cowardice and fear of being left out. I spoke with one of the trustees of the Museum of Modern Art who said there is genuine disagreement about the value of artists such as Koons but that if museums don't buy in, they may find themselves out in the cold later and unable to afford pieces when the market is at its peak.

Richard wrote "Pop artworks are just fun. They require nothing more than an attraction to bright colors, boobs, or a general awareness of who's famous."

I suspect that at the beginning, when pop art was Brillo boxes and Campbell soup cans, it required a fair amount of explanation, perhaps even more than a Rubens. Later, when the financial stakes became astronomical, pop art became anything but fun. It was a bloodthirsty, cut throat competition arguing over provenance, authenticity, executorship over estates, behavior of foundations, etc. Whatever fun was there at the beginning seems long gone.

"The problem is that this era's specific Art Establishment is run by progressives."

I admit that this point baffles me. Are you suggesting that progressives have worse taste than other conservatives? That conservatives like "masterworks" and progressives like Lisa Frank? If someone commented that conservatives like homely middle American paintings of sad clowns, or Keane's children with big eyes but progressives like Stravinsky and Eugene O'Neil, I suspect you'd conclude, "Hmmm, this is not a statement about art or culture, this is a political polemic (and a dubious one at that)."

Anonymous-- I'd pay big money for a ringside seat for a brawl between Koons and Ferrara. Koons could call it "art."

Laurence John said...

Kev,

the Hirst exhibition purports to show 'treasure' salvaged from a 1st century shipwreck, and has a slickly made 90 min mockumentary (still on Netflix) showing the backstory. how is that not an art world prank ?

i think the only reason you're getting confused into thinking this is 'fantasy art' is because it's getting close to your own territory (content wise). did you miss that there was a female sculpture based on a Barbie doll with a 'made in china' logo on the back ? or the Micky Mouse sculpture encrusted with coral due to its hundreds of years on the sea bed ?

i suppose i'll concede that Hirst has created a 'fantasy found object' genre... basically Duchamp's 'found object' with a mock historical backstory crossed with jokey pop art references. not much different to what Koons was doing with the Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture, except that didn't have a piss-take backstory about being 'found'. the level of cynicism is about the same.

kev ferrara said...

how is that not an art world prank ?

Did anybody believe that Hirst was actually exhibiting a real trove of found objects from a sunken Greek ship named "The Unbelievable?"

Come now. I think not. It was understood by all involved and all interested to be a fiction from the beginning. The claims of the fiction being true were auto-nixed by the fact that Hirst's name is on the project and that he was working on it for a decade and that the objects are obviously fake. We didn't need even need to see Mickey and Barbie to clue us in.

To me, a fraud/prank would make every effort to authentically deceive the public for as long as possible. But this show is no more a deception than The Blair Witch project was. You walk in knowing it is a show, and then, if you can, you fall into the spell of the narrative and get carried away for a while.

In my opinion, even with the long backlog of just cynicism that attends any Hirst project, there are objects in the show that are beautiful in their own right. And the concept goes far beyond the simple mindless flaunting of the diamond skull. That was a provocation pretending to be an artwork. This show is more evocation than provocation, and I see it as a positive turn in his work.

i think the only reason you're getting confused into thinking this is 'fantasy art' is because it's getting close to your own territory (content wise).

I think the only reason you're getting confused into thinking the above constitutes an argument is because your brain lacks glucose. Eat a banana.

kev ferrara said...

I suspect that at the beginning, when pop art was Brillo boxes and Campbell soup cans, it required a fair amount of explanation, perhaps even more than a Rubens.

This is an interesting callback to an earlier point that good artworks self-justify. Warhol's work requires sustained exegesis-cum-hype because it is insufficient as art. Which, not coincidentally, makes it a perfect object of interest for the chattering ennui classes who would rather schmooze about appreciating than actually appreciate. Koons was pulled from the Warhol mold.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "In my opinion, even with the long backlog of just cynicism that attends any Hirst project, there are objects in the show that are beautiful in their own right"

the 60ft headless demon is impressive... how could it not be ? making something on that scale is a feat of team effort. any large cast statue is impressive for similar reasons. the majority of the sculptures look like the work of a fan boy comic artist / CG conceptual modeller / Ray Harryhausen obsessive writ large, in 3D. and their CG origin is apparent everywhere. but Hirst knows this. it's not exactly a failing on his part... did you think he wasn't trying to be kitsch ?

the sheer grandiosity (and technical expertise) only serve to underline how absurd his position is; Hirst is now - literally - reduced to selling gaudy expensive objects that look like they were created for some sort of billionaire's fantasy department store. it's almost like a self parody of his own position in the art market.

but, as i said above... who is the joke on at this point ? himself ? the art market ? the buyers ? the audience ?

kev ferrara said...

Are you suggesting that progressives have worse taste than other conservatives? That conservatives like "masterworks" and progressives like Lisa Frank?

I think it is clear that there is, and has been for quite some time, a significant segment of the left side of the political spectrum that sees performative transgressions and critique of societal norms, values, long-held virtues, traditions, institutions, culture, economics, and now even white skin colors as "important" cultural expression. To say otherwise is gaslighting.

kev ferrara said...

did you think he wasn't trying to be kitsch ?

I think the show wavers between kitsch and art. In some ways, the show is disjointed because any particular piece may fall fair or foul of that line.

We might take the show as a satire on the spectacle. A satire on, even, the great museums of the world (full of wondrous and pilfered gold and brass antiquities.) And, as satire, it functions because it has the skill behind it to create a reality of its own.

the majority of the sculptures look like the work of a fan boy comic artist / CG conceptual modeller / Ray Harryhausen obsessive writ large, in 3D.

Yes, but at least we can talk about whether it is good or bad art. And not whether it is art at all.

Richard said...

David says: Are you suggesting that progressives have worse taste than other conservatives? That conservatives like "masterworks" and progressives like Lisa Frank?

I'm suggesting that Progressives have a political vested interest in a less rigorous definition of good Art.

There’s incentive to redefine artistic quality, to create a new art historiography, in such a way that:
- Robert Johnson or Tupac get the same critical adulation as Bach or Wagner
- Alison Bechdel is more important than Kev Ferrara
- Helen Frankenthaler is more innovative than Austin Briggs
- The women of Gee’s Bend or Agnes Martin, are considered as having done anything worth noting at all

There are political motivations for progressives to define artistic quality in such a way that it broadens the ethnic, religious, class, gender, and sexual diversity of the artists (past and present) considered great.

If, alternatively, the Art Establishment were to still define great art in an honest and meritocratic way, it happens that history would show that most great artists were straight white men.

That doesn't mean, for example, that your blog is being "conservative" per se, just because the illustrators you celebrate are, almost as a rule, WASPs. It’s just a historical reality.

The politics is irrelevant at that point. People are free to disagree about why history went that way, or what should be done about it, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the Art.

Unwilling to accept that history, that reality, Progressives in the Art Establishment are rewriting “good” so that they can rewrite the history of good, and the history of who dun good.

Richard said...

Which is to say, that as long as we don't recognize that there are progressive political operatives at the steering wheel of culture, we can all be left to wonder "Gosh, how could they not see that this work is inferior to that work?"

How could they not see that our own Kev Ferrara is vastly superior to Alison Bechdel?

But as long as we're unwilling to identify the political motivations, for fear of that we'll fall into "political polemic", then we'll be stuck in this mire. We'll be stuck pretending that we don't know why things are the way that they are because we like to pretend that art history is immune from political reality.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

"Important" is a meaningless sales word. I don't think it belongs to a discussion of art. If you consider the history of the word, it is that very word "important" that has replaced "high quality" in chattering class catalog patter in order to sell innovative trash of the proper political attenuation. What matters is aesthetic quality in pursuit of the suggestive transmission of truth.

I don't think my name should be a part of your argument. I think Berni Wrightson or Neal Adams would better put the case. Thanks in advance.

Richard said...

I'm making a more extreme argument: we "personally" know someone who isn't famous, yet is significantly more deserving than Bechdel of the NYT Culture editorial.

It's a different argument if I don't use your name, you don't have a Wikipedia page.


On Importance:
I don't think the correct response to the hijacking of a word is to cede that territory -- whether importance, innovation, relevance, and so on.

Moving towards concrete and dispassionate language is a retreat. We should be moving towards language with implicit appraisals of value, virtue, or ideal. They'll high-jack the phrase "aesthetic quality" next, anyway.

You don't halt the decline by withdrawing, but by pushing back on the aesthetic "overton window" so to speak. Your work is more important, innovative, and relevant than Bechdel's, full stop.

Richard said...

Oh, plus, if I use you for the argument it couldn't possibly be mistaken for an empty compliment, since I think you're a huge jerk. If I would even say it about your work, I must be serious, right?

:-P

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Koons was pulled from the Warhol mold."

I suspect that's true, although the midwife was surely the post-Warhol disintegration of popular taste, the erosion of courage on the part of the critics and the advancements in the black arts of publicity. Koons had a couple of additional generations to perfect theft, shamelessness, self-importance and duplicity.

I am not a big fan of Warhol; I think he went off track when he encountered such little resistance mid-career and became sloppy and decadent. But I think his early work-- the Brillo boxes, the coke bottles, the gold painting of Marilyn Monroe-- was really good, and "self-justifying." (I feel the same way about Peter Max; before success killed him I think he did some fine work). I think Warhol's early works were a useful reminder that there is good design all around you, on Campbells soup cans and other things you ignore at the grocery store. If people had used that to break down the barriers between museums and grocery stores Warhol would've performed a public service.

David Apatoff said...

Richard and Kev Ferrara-- I don't think it's fair to criticize progressives for their failed experiments and misadventures unless you simultaneously criticize conservatives for their sclerotic restraint and closed mindedness. Both extremes can be disastrous for art. Both benefit from being challenged by their opposite.

The "societal norms, values, long-held virtues" that Kev describes were once innovations that replaced previous long held norms, values and virtues. Older values have been disintegrating in favor of new ones since the world began. With the benefit of time we can see that some changes gave rise to the golden age of Athens while others gave rise to the fall of Rome, but I don't think it makes sense to separate good quality from bad by dividing them into progressive and non-progressive categories.

Richard says that "Progressives have a political vested interest in a less rigorous definition of good Art," which may be true but there have been many eras when art has benefited from a less "rigorous" definition of good art. The arrival of Asian and African art in the west during the 19th and 20th centuries was a healthy infusion of alien values and had a huge impact on excellent western artists. The re-emergence of ancient Egyptian art in the early 20th century was a catalyst for art deco and a simplification of forms that had become too encrusted and ornate with the passage of time.

Most importantly, the great renaissances seem to have been encouraged by undermining traditional tastes by combining previously compartmentalized cultures.

Medieval Europe was hidebound and conservative with "rigorous" definitions of good art (with clear iconography blessed by generations of artists and sanctioned by the church). When inventors and explorers disrupted maps and authorities, when Galileo and Copernicus shook up the religious establishment, when traders returned from Asia and Africa and Islamic countries to break down the "rigorous" definitions of art, the result was the Italian Renaissance.

You think it's ridiculous that Tupac's vulgar noise is revered? I do too, but I also try to keep in mind that people leveled similar criticisms against the Beatles for their "electronic noise." I remember that Plato railed against the Athenian poets who swept the youth of Athens into a frenzy with their public performances of rap concerts at the Acropolis. This doesn't mean we should abandon all standards when confronted with something new, it just means that we should try to approach innovations with an open mind.

You think that Bechdel draws badly? So do I. But on the other hand, she came up with the germ of something that resonated, and with the passage of time it evolved into a better art form, such as the musical with wonderful songs like "ring of keys" or "changing my major." You just had to allow some time to get past the bad drawing .

If you believe "progressives" contribute substantially more than their fair share of silliness in the arts, I think you're not looking equally hard in both places. I don't think Frankenthaler is a better artist than Austin Briggs, but I do think she's a better artist than Jon McNaughton.

Richard said...

It’s interesting that you categorize The Renaissance as progressive. I’ve always seen that rebellion to a sanctimonious top-down hierarchy in favor of traditional wisdom as a reactionary movement. Like a more extreme version of the the pre-raphealites. I see the mining of traditional Japanese and African cultural wealth as a cross cultural version of the same. But that I’ll save that broader argument for another day.

Where I think you’ve potentially made a mistake is in language, not mental model. Whether those movements were liberal or conservative, they were never progressive. They were certainly rebellious, as either side of the political spectrum can be, but they never fell into affirmative action, giving obviously lesser works greater accolades because of their provenance. I’ve made peace with affirmative action in the university, I practice it in hiring due to necessity. I’ll never accept it in Art, and I think if you put your own politics aside for a moment you’d agree that you can’t accept it either.

kev ferrara said...

I am not a big fan of Warhol; I think he went off track when he encountered such little resistance mid-career and became sloppy and decadent. But I think his early work-- the Brillo boxes, the coke bottles, the gold painting of Marilyn Monroe-- was really good, and "self-justifying."

I can't imagine you really believe what you are writing. These Warhols you mention are quintessentially mindless and cynical creations. They are momentary trifles akin to Pet Rocks, Pop Rocks, most of the dorm room posters offered through National Lampoon, and The Royal Teens' Short Shorts.

To the extent they have any aesthetic value, such achievement accrues to the names of the original designers and art directors, not Warhol. Yet people only know Warhol's name. The original designers - who you assert were purposely being elevated by his pictures - are strangely absent from anybody's memory. Funny that. So there goes your 'appreciation' theory. So let's skip the reaching and stick to lazy and cynical self-aggrandizement-via-stealing. (Similar to how Lichtenstein stole from comic book artists without crediting them, both precursors to Richard Prince's Gagosian-backed thievery.)

Those I know who were around at the time and hip to the latest cultural jive (pretentious and clueless college kids who didn't know that's what they were)... they just thought the soup cans and brillo boxes were cool and cynical fun.

The true appreciation for the branding of Brillo, Coke, and Campbell's is in the display of these boxes on shelves, in their purposefully positive psychological effect on the consumers of the era, in the consumption of the products over the long term thereby, in homes across the country, and possibly in the pages of design industry magazines and classrooms where they can be discussed technically. To revere them as works of art is pretension and/or ignorance. They are works of applied design and can only be accurately understood creatively and in terms of marketing as such. They don't have the linguistic/narrative/poetic structure of Art. They're shallow diversions that have been hyped up beyond all reason by the self-same marketeers you elsewhere decry.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "To the extent they have any aesthetic value, such achievement accrues to the names of the original designers and art directors, not Warhol."

I think that's largely true. It's more true with other pop artists such as LIchtenstein, whose thefts were worse; at least Warhol made no claim to the original design. You seem to suggest that the only way for Warhol to serve as "a useful reminder that there is good design all around you" is if we track down the art director or ad agency responsible for the Brillo boxes or soup cans and put their name on the placard or cut them a royalty check. I disagree. Warhol said in effect, "look at this: If you make this household product 3 feet tall or repeat the image a dozen times in a silk screen, you'll stop taking it for granted and begin to focus on the design of it. If you remove it from your pantry and put it on the wall of a museum you'll start to look at it in a whole different way." It's a nervy message, slightly different from the message or role of the original package designer. It's a message with which I am not unsympathetic.

Ultimately the art was not received that way. Ultimately it was captured by the fine art world and became a parody of itself. Warhol became rich and exploited the franchise. But in those first few decisions during the lean years I think interesting things were going on, worthy of artistic attention.

kev ferrara said...

The aesthetic effect of stacked brillo boxes is the same regardless of where they are located. And that aesthetic effect is solely what is Artful about it. The result of the work of the original designers.

The only thing that changes with the venue change is that people are now, one presumes, encouraged, after experiencing (whatever artful content there is to) the box designs, to pretend that they are inspecting the graphics in some elevated new way.

But such has nothing to do with Art appreciation because the boxes aren't art. It is merely the encouragement of amateur academicism about design. I say amateur because most people have no education in the principles of the applied arts, even those ostensibly educated in the arts. And so what one expects in the gallery setting is a bunch of would-be-sophisticates staring at scouring pad boxes pretending to have learned something revelatory about Art with a capital A. And then scurrying off to the free wine and some requisite smarty pants chit chat. If these culturistas actually needed "reminders that there is good design all around us" they're idiots. One either enjoys a design naturally, or doesn't. There is either a response or not. Academic appreciations of such stuff belong in design magazines, lecture halls, and exhibits.

This whole idea of "transfiguring the commonplace" by simply replicating or relocating it is a philosophical charade. No different than sampling in Rap, "homage" in comics, plagiarism in the essay, and Richard Prince's outright thefts. Hordes of virtueless thieves steal intellectual content and publish it online every day under the thin disguise of "fair use." "For educational purposes only" so these million liars claim as they tally up site clicks and youtube views. I suppose all of them are artists in your eyes.


Laurence John said...

David: "I think Warhol's early works were a useful reminder that there is good design all around you... If people had used that to break down the barriers between museums and grocery stores Warhol would've performed a public service"

i don't believe that was the intention though. there are many examples throughout history of artists turning everyday things into art. things which previously would never have been thought fit subject matter for high art. Durer's 'large piece of turf' from 1503 for example. much of the work of impressionism was of everyday scenes previously considered too dreary or commonplace for looking at in a gallery.

you can argue that Warhol was moved by the 'good design' of the items in the grocery store, but i think the intention was much more knowing.

when Duchamp showed the urinal in 1917, he wasn't moved by it's beauty. it was a provocative and ironic act. he could have picked almost any other everyday mass-produced object. it was about the idea, not the form of the object. Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes are just a continuation of the same train of thought. an everyday, mass-produced object recontextualized. what Warhol adds to the Duchamp ready-made formula is flat mechanical reproduction (screen printing).

it seems obvious to me that Warhol was making a calculated move to reference Duchamp via pop art's commercial / consumerist imagery, knowing very well that the mechanical and repetitious reproduction would generate a lot of attention / controversy in an art world that had been championing abstract expressionism's hand made / gestural qualities.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Well, a "Renaissance" is a rebirth, just as "radical" refers to returning to the "root" and "revolution" means circling or revolving back to where you started from. So in one sense, everything now popularly associated with the term "progressive" could be characterized as "rebellion to a sanctimonious top-down hierarchy in favor of traditional wisdom," but then there would be nothing left to disparage as progressive. Your definition would hollow out the extremes on both sides, so we'd all have to get along together because we'd recognize that the enemy tribe isn't all that different from us. Karl Marx's definition of revolution would pass muster as just plain "rebellious." Welcome, comrade!

I'm not sure what you mean when you write, "Whether those movements were liberal or conservative, they were never progressive. They were certainly rebellious, as either side of the political spectrum can be, but they never fell into affirmative action, giving obviously lesser works greater accolades because of their provenance." Are you suggesting that "progressive" is coextensive with affirmative action? Or that liberalism does not involve affirmative action?

But OK, let's accept progressivism as a philosophy specialized around affirmative action rather than the broader liberal agenda. I'd like to think that this blog is fairly tough minded about artistic quality, regardless of its social or economic origins. Much as I love the guerrilla girls, I have no doubt that the vast majority of known artworks of distinctive genius have been created by white males. I also have no doubt that the vast majority of great illustrations have been created by white males. I do my best to disregard not just race and gender but the art establishment's caste system, which means I judge advertising art by the same standards I apply to the art at Miami Basel. It means I want to judge comic art and illustration on a level playing field with the Museum of Modern Art and see who prevails.

And yet, perhaps because the playing field starts out so slanted, I catch myself putting my thumb on the scale from time to time, to offset the unwarranted institutional advantages of the pretentious and the unjustly enriched. I've talked here about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted." I'm more skeptical of art forms that are more readily acceptable to us because of press agents working overtime. I've tried to speak up for talented but humble cartoonists who eke out a living because they haven't cultivated an audience of tasteless investment bankers. Does that count as affirmative action? I try to resist the temptation but I'd have to plead guilty from time to time.

(CONT.)

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- (CONT.)

As for the Italian Renaissance, I think it would be difficult to find a more clear cut example of a "progressive" (in the traditional sense) art movement. Nobody can say with certainty what gives rise to such events, but we should be able to agree that science is the one field of human endeavor where "progress" is undeniable. The Renaissance was the great flowering of the age of exploration, where the measuring and mapping and navigation of the world transformed our culture: Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and Galileo's and Copernicus' re-invention of the solar system and the invention of the astrolabe for navigational purposes (launching explorers around the world, not just Columbus to America) changed our consciousness of our role in the world, raising questions that had previously been answered by "tradition." The older, theological maps of the world were not abandoned because of polemics, they were abandoned because scientific progress worked better. The embrace of the human body in Renaissance art (as opposed to the stingy mortification-of-the-flesh style of European medieval art) was at least partially attributable to the twin inventions of oil paint and soap. Michelangelo and other artists fought religious restrictions on the study of cadavers, to bring us the science/art of anatomy. Perspective was invented. Even today, da Vinci remains the prototypical blend of scientific progress and art. The new ways of looking at earth brought us globalism, including cross fertilization in art. It brought us curiosity that completely overwhelmed an establishment whose conservative instinct was to protect "inherited facts" and traditions. Perhaps most importantly, it brought us new uncertainty about our place in the universe, which gave new legitimacy to subversive questions about the legitimacy of the establishment.

I'm not suggesting that the Italian Renaissance was politically radical, but I'm saying that "progress" revealed the limitations of the traditional world view and created the tools (including the open mindedness) necessary to cast off the confining legends of the past. T'was progress that opened the floodgates.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The aesthetic effect of stacked brillo boxes is the same regardless of where they are located."

Well, that's true if you regard art as just the physical object, but I view art as more of a two part invention, requiring both an object and a perceiver, and I think the "aesthetic effect" depends upon the relationship between the two. It matters that Manet took under appreciated, invisible workers and painted them for the walls of galleries. It matters, as Laurence John points out, that Durer devoted his genius to a 'large piece of turf' in 1503. It matters that dozens of Dubuffet paintings of the soil beneath our feet now hang in resplendent museums.

If an artist finds enchantment in the commonplace, and successfully persuades us through his or her art to see it too, that is one of the greatest services performed by art. And contrary to your assertion, I believe a great deal of that depends on "where they are located," on changing the context to make a statement about their worthiness so people perceive them in a different way. If Warhol's Brillo boxes were placed in supermarkets, people would not notice them and they would have no effect whatsoever. If you draw a large piece of turf on the sidewalk, the location completely changes its meaning.

To say that "such has nothing to do with Art appreciation because the boxes aren't art" strikes me as circular reasoning, but this is something we have disagreed on before. You think we can keep art pure by doing sentry duty around the definition of art. You think we can "build the wall" around the southern border of art, while I think of art as a much more porous (and fun) enterprise.

Laurence John-- As you can tell from my answer to Kev above, I am on the same page with you about "artists turning everyday things into art. things which previously would never have been thought fit subject matter for high art. " I think your examples are exactly right. Where we differ is in your view of the underlying "intent" of the various artists.

You fault the intent of Warhol or Duchamp because you think they are being provocative and ironic rather than appreciative of the underlying beauty. Of course, if I were Kev I'd say it is the self-justifying physical art object, not the artist's underlying intent, which should govern here.

My reaction is a little different: I'm not sure why you think that artists such as Manet focusing on the working poor aren't being provocative or ironic as well, and why being provocative or ironic isn't just as worthy as celebrating beauty? I agree that Duchamp could have used any other mass produced object, but his choice of a urinal put a far sharper point on his statement about art. (By the way, there is a revisionist school of thought that says Duchamp chose a urinal at the suggestion of a woman artist, but that once again the white patriarchy hogged all the glory.)

I agree with you that there were a number of ingredients in Warhol's choices, including mass media and popular culture, consumer goods and other relevant considerations in addition to the colors and design of the brillo box. I don't find this a reason for fault. I do think that visual artworks, quite apart from their political or philosophical content, need to respect visual forms. I think the original designers of the brillo box did that and I think Warhol did too. I lost respect for Warhol when he later gave up on that. By then his factory was bringing in wheelbarrows full of money and he didn't need my respect.

Tom said...
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Tom said...


- ‘As you can tell from my answer to Kev above, I am on the same page with you about "artists turning everyday things into art. things which previously would never have been thought fit subject matter for high art. " I think your examples are exactly right.”

David I’m sure I’ve asked you before. Have you read Heidegger’s, ”Origins of the work of Art”? Where he writes about the struggle between earth and world, and Van Gogh’s painting of A Pair of Shoes?


Maybe Koons is the Edward Bernays of the art World. The artist who has run the most successful public relations campaign to convince us that he is the “artist of our time.” Running a big time PR campaign is demanding full time occupation leaving him little time to make art. So he has a full time staff to produce the works of art while he does the heavy lifting of dealing with the general public. It’s a full time job, in and of itself, to quote the title of one of Bernay’s book, too, “Crystallize Public Opinion.”

Then again when a country messes with its money supply, which is a measure of value shared by a whole society, as much as America has in the last 40 years, is it any surprise that the value of things and persons becomes greatly distorted.

To quote John Ruskin, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”