Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Pop Life: Art in a Material World

I'm not much of a fan of pop art and neither, it seems, is the curator for Pop Life: Art in a Material World at the Tate Modern. With room titles like "Worst of Worhol" and "Almost Infamous" for the YBAs, there isn't much sympathy for those artists who have come to dominate popular consciousness. Not that they would care anyway. Warhol, Koons, Hirst et al weren't out to make art that would impress those operating in the narrow world of galleries and critics, they were out to make art which infiltrates the marketplace and the media hype machine which supports it, the 'real' world as they saw it.

Undoubtedly, they were successful, many artists in the exhibition have become household names that would be recognised by anyone down at Argos. Plus the exorbitant price tags that their work generally commands is a clear sign of commercial success. But why Warhol and Hirst and not other artists? Why has the 'real' world gobbled up their work so voraciously and not others? Maybe Pop Life could answer that.

Looking at the work on display it seems that successful pop art has to be either iconographic, (working with easily recognisable images) or shocking (death! sex!), or ideally both.

In this pomo world where everything is flattened to the level of image, it is art that is simple and distinctive in appearance, easily recognisable and reproducible (quite like a brand logo) that is most able to wind its way through the various media. Simple iconic images can be easily transmitted through print without any real loss to its "artistic value". Warhol's famous self portrait can be photocopied a hundred times without it losing the main thrust of its impact but would an abstract expressionist painting survive such treatment? Iconic imagery is thus most suited and resilient to dissemination through the media.

But how does one get noticed in the first place? Paint household items! Kill an animal! Show your penis! Shock tactics are required to attract the media attention so loved by our pop artists. The pointing of cameras and the baiting of readerships with stories of wacky art opens up media channels for the pop artist, who then responds by shovelling images down those channels to feed the media machine the easily digested images it craves.

Controversial and easily recognised art (e.g. Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde) causes media buzz which then breeds awareness and fame/infamy. The artists, their work and the media icons derived from their work thus become artefacts of fame. As fame is extremely desirable for many people today, ownership or association with these artefacts is highly prized. The artefacts become glamorous (glamour being the perceived happiness of being envied). Wealthy people playing status games then purchase pop art works or commission artists to do vain projects. With money now involved, the price of the work goes up, pushing up its perceived desirability in the process. This self-propelled cycle causes a pop artist's work to reach ridiculous heights (witness Hirst's September 2008 auction). Although the recession means that these same heights might not be reached for a while, the pop art bubble will just inflate and deflate in relation with how much money is lying around.

Warhol and those in his wake have turned art into business and business into art. By engaging and infiltrating the market (and associated media machine), they have managed to use it as a medium to create work which embodies fame and fortune, with secondary importance placed on what the art object itself actually looks like. Those most adept at doing this have become brands in themselves, their names carrying exorbitant market value.

Are these successful artists self-aware? Do they comprehend the ridiculousness of this whole conceit? Perhaps, but if they were aware why would they complain? To them it may just be a big joke that brings in a load of money every time it's told.

Is that wrong? Should art be used for something else? Should art be used at all? What should art be doing? Should it do anything? Should art be moral? Is worthwhile art art which contributes to some moral or ethical project? Is reducing human suffering the highest purpose of art or even a legitimate purpose of art? Is pop art harmful? Can I ask any more questions?

I'm moving into the realms of art and morality which, as you can see causes me to use lots of question marks. Maybe I should get this book to see if it can answer any of those questions.

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