Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. © The Artist. Courtesy of Tate Modern.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World
At Tate Modern 


by Anna Leung

In 2004 Maurizio Catellan’s Ballad of Trotsky (1996), was auctioned in New York for $2,080,000. A taxidermied horse suspended high above the public, it appeared not so much dead as powerless and vulnerable, spelling out the end of ideologies. Catellan’s contribution to Pop Life is bleakly entitled Untitled (2009) as if there were no more to say, the connotation being that of flogging a dead horse. It is one in a series of Catellan’s taxidermied horses but in this case it is definitely no longer alive and lies stretched out on the floor impaled through its flank with a stake on which is written “INRI,” the inscription affixed to Christ on the crucifix tauntingly proclaiming him the King of the Jews. What has this got to do with Pop Life? What does this tell us about our age and about art’s value in our society? These are some of the questions this exhibition gives rise to, and Andy Warhol, who declared “Good business is the best art,” is the artist in the dock. The exhibition examines his legacy from the 1980s on and opens with three rooms devoted to late Warhol productions, including a room of silkscreened gemstones that ominously glow under the fluorescent lighting.

 

From the Romantics the avant-garde inherited the need to reveal a core of truth that was normally concealed behind the political and cultural accretions of the status quo. For this reason, notions of authenticity and sincerity ranked high as means to counter the inauthenticity of society. A good century after the Romantics, the Abstract Expressionists still recognised this transcendental aim as their ultimate aesthetic and ethical drive. Truth and Beauty were not yet riven apart but sustained each other in a state of high tension. This exhibition, on the other hand, shows to what degree, since the 80s, avant-gardism, or rather the avant-gardist artist, has become part of the social spectacle with creativity designed not to plumb emotional or psychological depths but to function commercially by creating a façade which often cynically appropriates the authenticity valued by the modernist avant-garde. Philosophically, Foucault was in the ascendant in the 80s, arguing that sincerity itself was never more than a social construct, and therefore highly suspect, while at the same time touting the theory of the death of the author/artist. Consequently, with concepts of originality and authenticity equally subject to deep scepticism, post modernist artists felt free to avail themselves of and manipulate styles and subjects from both commercial mass media and high modernist discourse. Warhol, and Damien Hirst a decade later, went so far as to quote themselves in a seemingly endless recycling of previous work. Jeff Koons moved from Wall Street commodities to high art PR campaigns which, using the female body as the perfect commodity object, annexed pornography as art. This art remains unabashedly macho in its sexual politics even as female artists elected to adopt the life style of prostitutes (Cosey Fanni Tutti) as art or make ersatz art porn videos. The distinction between art and life had become dangerously tenuous.

 

By the 80’s, then, the modernist divide between art and life was no longer operative. Avant-garde art and society had achieved a sort of belated reconciliation. However, whereas the progressive modernists' (the Russian Constructivists, Malevich, and Mondrian) envisaged reconciliation of art and life was sustained by a utopian faith in the eventual transformation of society by aesthetics and by design, in the 80’s this reconciliation took another direction with art increasingly appropriated by society. Art lost its anchorage in the utopian modernist trope of secular salvation. No longer safeguarded by its vaunted aesthetic autonomy art was co-opted as part of the culture industry. The traditionally oppositional, non-conformist avant-garde artist remained revolutionary, though unable and even unwilling to effect real social change. His or her revolutionary energy was reinterpreted as a display of creativity that proved society’s open mindedness. Avant gardism became a means for society to justify itself, a demonstration of the superiority of Western values, their health and continuing viability. Whereas originally the avant garde had as its aim to disclose the truth that was hidden by society’s façade, by the 80’s art had become part of the façade and, as Warhol, Koons and Murakami demonstrate in an exemplary manner, the artist had become part of the entertainment industry, adopting a gamut of complementary roles such as collector, publicist, curator, and retailer of merchandise. There is no artistic truth awaiting revelation or, if there is, it is a catastrophic truth. Fascination is attached to appearances but these no longer hold out the promise of a transcendental good. In fact it is more likely they point to fascination with radical evil, as in Piotr Ulanski’s The Nazis (1998), a wall featuring Hollywood actors in Nazi regalia.

 

What Catellan’s dead horse tells us is that God is dead. Catellan reminds us that art shares with religion an ontological core that gravitates around the mystery of the unknown and the unknowable. Historically, an artwork was valued not for its artistry, though of course this was important, but for its sacred or ritual sacerdotal functions. Whether it was actually beautiful or beautifully executed was of secondary importance to its symbolic significance as a repository of inner values derived from some spiritual or religious practice. It is through this strange metaphoric transmutation of material into idea that art makes its quasi-magical effect.

 

Secularisation inevitably led to a devaluation of art. Its ritual value was gradually superseded by exchange value and from the nineteenth century its transcendent value was transformed into a therapeutic project. But with the 80’s, often referred to as the age of greed, as art became increasingly dominated by capitalism, even this genuine belief in art’s healing powers was truncated and the centre of interest shifted from the art object to the artist as celebrity and as superstar. Witness what Warhol does to Joseph Beuys, one of the last artists to still believe in the power of art to make whole and to heal. Warhol’s showering his silkscreened image with silver dust may be an acknowledgment of Beuys’s shamanistic powers, but it may also serve to neutralise them.

 

Pop art had already levelled the playing field in the 1960s. By blurring the distinction between high art and popular culture and transferring the visual language of commercial advertising art and illustration to high art painting and sculpture it created an art movement that was accessible, bright, and upbeat. As early as 1961 Oldenburg organised an art happening, called The Store, which would in his own words “create the environment of a store, by painting and placing …objects after the spirit and in the form of popular objects of merchandise, such as may be seen in stores and store windows of the city.”(Claes Oldenburg, An Anthology). In this way Oldenburg diminished the distinction between the art lover and the department store shopper and created a precedent for Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in the Soho Gallery district and Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas’s The Shop in Bethnal Green a good twenty years later. Oldenburg still exerted a critical influence in this two-sided practice: selling art objects while simultaneously questioning the rampant consumerism overtaking the Western world. Whether this was also true of Haring and the Young British Artists is open to conjecture, though towards the end of his life the subject matter of Haring’s comic book dayglo figures was becoming increasingly politicised as means of alerting the public to racial issues, such as apartheid in South Africa and the danger of aids and drugs. He died at 31 of an AIDS-related illness. Certainly the Haring room at the Tate, which simulates his retail store with its geometric black and white figures covering all surfaces, captures something of his aim to express universals in the figures of “the radiant child” (hope) or the barking dog.(danger/evil) while also serving as an actual outlet for his retailed goods, such as T-shirts and other memorabilia, right at the centre of the exhibition.

 

Of course the close relationship between art and money that the exhibition is premised upon is not entirely new and is not necessarily venal. In the Renaissance, financial principles mattered, as did status. Nor were Warhol and Koons the first artists to display such an acute understanding of the financial markets. To make it to the pantheon of great artists it has always taken a great ego and acumen in the fields of publicity and finance as well as an extraordinary eye. In the modern movement Picasso and Matisse understood from early on the principle of art as investment. But for the last half century artistic value has increasingly come to be equated with auction prices and measured not by its intrinsic aesthetic or cognitive qualities, but by success in the marketplace. Especially in the US, art acquired a certain glamour by dint of its blue chip potential. The art market mirrored the same get-rich-quick economics as TV soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, a sentiment echoed by ex-film star president Reagan when he stated, “What I want to see above all is that this remains a country where someone can always get rich.” Artists like Koons and Basquiat reaped the rewards of this mercantile mentality and the media hype that accompanied it while the economic boom lasted – it broke in 1987.

 

By the 80s it is no longer stylistic revolutions that mark shifting paradigms within the art world but auctions prices. Art’s worth is now primed on its exchange value and this is the mark of its success. His early adoption of multiple images of dollar bills and saving stamps, coke bottles and soup cans, the wherewithal of daily life, would seem to indicate that Warhol had a good understanding of what the commodification of art entailed; it is then Warhol who prefaces this shift which results in the voiding of intrinsic value from the art work by eliminating introspective subject matter and the expressive touch. But psychologically it goes deeper than that. If Warhol’s artworks are purposefully devoid of self-expression this reflects a sense of the void within himself that will crave for some sort of compensation in the cult of celebrity and fame and the need to mix with the glitterati. But anxiety, I think, is never completely excised, the anxiety of being subjected to the gaze of others on one hand, anxiety as a prisoner of one’s own image on the other. For what has happened is that the artist is no longer a producer of original images but of himself as an image. Warhol becomes a living artwork selling the Warhol brand and fetishising everything he touched. Warhol openly admitted that he was obsessed by feelings of nothingness. “I’m still obsessed with the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing no one, nothing,” Mass production of imagery, seriality and silk-screening were all means of keeping the self at bay.

 

Certainly after the attempt on his life in 1968, Warhol’s Factory began to go into overdrive churning out commercial and celebrity silkscreen paintings. Increasingly bored by the whole process, much of which was delegated to assistants, Warhol put greater effort into “business art” and celebrity enterprises such as his jet set gossip magazine Interview and also leant his image to fashion and store catalogues. The paradox is that whilst declaring for the democratisation of art, bringing it to the level of TV soaps or celebrity magazines and conflating it with fashion, the artist as celebrity is no closer to the masses than any other kind of celebrity, and continues to inhabit a separate sphere. The fixity of Warhol’s stare, his famous blank stare that aims to conceal anxiety, ensures that the audience is kept at a distance. For in a society awash with images the artist can scarcely compete and feels the need to bolster his own self-designed image through osmosis with other star personalities – and vice versa. Koons, Hirst, and Dali before them, all created for themselves a culture of celebrity where socialisation counted as much as, if not more than, the art object. In this artificial world, reality is stifled because suffering is disavowed or made light of. This equally applies to Hirst, even if he seems to be dealing with big subjects such as life, death, and procreation, for he makes it seem as if they amount to nothing in a nihilistic world where nothing counts. Inevitably, though, when the mask is lifted, the presence of death prevails; as Warhol observed in 1978, “Everything I do is connected with death.” This, however, is only one side of Warhol, the one he hoped to conceal.

 

Jeff Koons’s world is even more saccharine, even more insulated from reality. By the 80s Koons had moved from minimalist consumer goods into kitsch and sexually explicit myth-making exemplified by his sensationalist photorealist bill board images of prelapsarian sexual congress with his ex-porn star wife La Cicciolini (aka Illona Staller). Much like capitalism, this series of pornographic high resolution photographs and sculptures facetiously entitled Made in Heaven (1989) tantalises through its commodification of happiness. Appropriating imagery that hardly needs art to make it successful Koons can also take on the role of oppositional avant-garde artist while in reality defusing genuine criticality with the ironic stance of the dandy. Suave, smooth shaven, and more plastic than Warhol ever wished to be, Koons sets himself up as eternally young, the bringer of the good news that we can all liberate ourselves from sexual shame. Telling us that we don’t have to live with unfulfilled desires he sets himself up as a late twentieth century equivalent of Gauguin, an equally good self-publicist and self-promoter who believed that by fleeing from civilisation he could recover his pristine inner nature. This is in effect Gauguin’s primitivism turned inside out, for there is no real intimation of feeling in this material world. Rather than turning his back on civilisation, Koons embraces a synthetic primitivism totally dependent on Hollywood. But what really shocks is not the explicit sex, which is, after all, to some degree camouflaged by its ambience of kitsch sentimentality, but rather his totally uninhibited, unashamed lust for celebrity.

 

This is pseudo avant-garde art that cheerfully cannibalises the therapeutic element of modernism’s original blue print for a transformed society. Everyone can be free to make their fantasies into reality. “Embrace your true being” Koons seems to be saying, just as Warhol seemed to make creativity easy, and President Reagan preached the glorification of greed. There is, though, another side to this equation: the eagerness with which museums and collectors bought these highly priced cultural products as ‘Reaganomics’ precipitated a stock market boom and corporations realised the public potential of subsidising the visual arts. Charles Saatchi made a similar impact on the generation of Young British Artists in the 90’s. Much of the Young British Artists’ work reflects a popular disquiet with the culture of violence, sex and drugs that,according to the media, prevailed in British society. But what marks them is that this focus is overlain with a cool, laid back, overriding sense of irony that ultimately protects while allowing the artist a stance of criticality and subversion. Using a minimalist language, Hirst’s productions are consummately staged; but once past the initial thrill of horror at living in a Godless universe, we are left with little more than an opposition between the perishability of once living organisms and the permanence of inanimate stuff, especially gold and gemstones. The Kiss of Midas (2008) literally transforms once living butterflies into dead trophies captured on a gold support. There is some truth behind this: the artist glamorises everything he touches but also deadens it. Hirst parodies one of his own trademarks while taking on the mantle of avant-garde oppositional artist. Like Warhol, Hirst plagiarises himself, rebranding his own image by recycling, for instance, his own spot and spin paintings. Tracey Emin on the other hand has marketed her traumas, creating self-confessional works in a language of primitivism laden with a certain victimhood bravado. Both court a notorious celebrity that has become part and parcel of being an artist.

 

The fixation of the artist as self-promoter is not confined to the Anglo-Saxon cultures but is dramatised in German artist Martin Kippenberger’s short life. Recreating his Paris Bar, the centre of his manifold operations, we are given an insight into the freneticism with which he employed a real eclectic mix of styles and movements, taking on performance (a stint in a band) and installations as well as paintings, photography, and posters to declare himself an artist and to declare the passing of art - for his was essentially a valedictory energy. His production of self-critical self-images has been likened to an epileptic fit since he was continually parodying himself and other artists, for instance the aged Picasso (in Y front underwear) but equally Beuys for his pseudo martyrdom in the name of a Germany cleansed of its Nazi past. What makes its mark in his case is that besides or despite the multi-sidedness of his artistic career he continued to paint and to sculpt.

 

Kippenberger was much loved and much mourned when he died in his early 40’s. He was seen as West Germany’s heir to Warhol having his own version of Warhol’s factory which he dubbed “Kippenberger’s Office.” Takashi Murakami, on the other hand, is very much alive and busy with his mercantile retail production, which goes from Louis Vuitton luxury handbags to smiley flower stickers selling at £1.96 in the Tate shop. His manga inspired cartoon vision is designed both to shock and to celebrate popular Japanese culture and completely blurs the frontiers between fine art and merchandise. The life-sized fibreglass school girl Hiropon (2001), at the entrance of the show, from whose ample breasts streams forth a skipping rope of milk, is no longer accompanied by her masturbating punk companion Lonesome Cowboy (1998) which sold at Sotheby’s for $15,161,000. Murakami is so over the top that he defies good taste and yet continues to seduce with his oriental gentleness and self-directed humour. His work even seems to reassure, and prompted quite a few giggles and smiles as if part of the “anything goes” appraisal of the contemporary art scene.

 

Pop Life begins on the main thoroughfare of New York and ends in the Akihabara district of Tokyo. High Art, having long abandoned its ivory tower, has taken to the streets. The first room opens with a video of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2007 that featured Jeff Koons’s Silver Rabbit, which now stands guard beside a red tinged blown up image of Andy Warhol. It may be my imagination but both seem to radiate something malevolent. The last room, devoted to Murakami, features the Hollywood actress and pop singer Kirsten Dunst as a giant fairy princess showering fairy dust on bemused passers-by in Akihabara, the centre of Manga production. Carnival and fantasy, once disparaged as kitsch, are now elevated as a high art form that can produce “a feel good factor” in our societies of the spectacle.

 

The original title of the show was “Sold Out,” which proffers an intimation of the curator’s intentions. It is difficult, however, to assess to what degree Pop Life is compliant, complicit, critical, or death wish celebratory. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as long as the wheels keep on turning – or would that not constitute a crass abdication of belief in the potential of critical virtues and values which continue to inform an aesthetic experience of art?

The exhibition Pop Life: Art in a Material World will be at the Tate Modern, London, from 1 October 2009 – 17 January 2010. For more information, visit www.tate.org.uk

© Anna Leung 2009

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.