Pop Life at the National Gallery reviewed

(Friday, 18 May 2010, 0340 hours) — For a number of reasons having to do with critical response to this story, I'm removing it from the front page and have already replaced it with a new, significantly shorter, version. I expect to say more about the editorial process which led to this, but not just now — it's a little late in the day for that, I'm very tired and I have a lot on my plate tomorrow.

Regardless of all that, this version will remain online for comparing and contrasting purposes and if anyone cares to do just that in a comment I'd be most interested in your take on the differences between the two versions.

'Art' of Onanism:
Pop Life mocks the National Gallery of Canada

"It's not pandering. We have certainly not lowered our standards or principles in order to have line-ups at the door." — National Gallery of director Marc Mayer, quoted in the National Post.

Well. Thank God that's settled! But the denial does beg the question, "Just what kind of standards did the National Gallery have before Thursday's opening of the "blockbuster" travelling show, "Pop Life"?

Lonesome Cowboy, by Takashi Murakami: theft as art, in the worst tradition of Warhol.
Lonesome Cowboy, by Takashi Murakami: theft as art, in the worst tradition of Warhol (Wikipedia.)
Jeff Koons tells it like it is in Volume 27, Number 3 of ArtForum, November 1988.  Image reprinted from the National Gallery's Sex Sells.
Jeff Koons tells it like it is in the November 1988 edition of ArtForum. (Image: Sex Sells.

It's not just that we expect our politicians and priests to lie to us, and our journalists to transmit those lies with straight faces; it is also that we have somehow come to habitually lie to ourselves, unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge that which is spelled out before us, unless some Authority does so first.

So concerned are we with our status in the eyes of those we accept as authorities or experts, we will happily gorge on shit and, chins dripping with the muck, we will grin excitedly as the last chunk slips past our teeth and beg for yet another serving.

* * *

The opening of the National Gallery of Canada's summer blockbuster, Pop Life on June 10 (on until September 19), was crowded with hipsters and art-students and those members of the bourgeoisie who feel it imperative to put in an appearance at such events.

The crowd milled about with all the electric excitement of a herd of cattle on anti-depressants.

The men and women gazed with bovine approval at a second-rate sculpture of a naked man's huge and hugely erect penis, eternally spurting semen into the air; at pages torn from third-rate 1970s-era pornographic magazines; and at poorly-lit, still photos of an "artist" having sex with a man who has paid her $20,000 for the privilege.

Not to mention at a "dead horse", symbolizing ... well, I forget just what it symbolized; there was a little card with several explanatory paragraphs typed onto it, but the words seemed to have very little to do with what we were looking at.

But most of the audience seemed to nod knowingly at one another, and they exchanged stock phrases such as "transgressing boundaries" and "challenging patriarchy" and (to quote from the exhibit's PDF accompaniment, Sex Sells) "...tread[ing] too closely within or against the lines of common decency", as if imparting to one another the wisdom of the ages.

Read more ...

One mama spider, one dancing bear
One happy mission, one happy accident

Paying homage to Louise Bourgeois.More photos here.

We had not meant to visit Pop Life, Raven and I.

Indeed, we hadn't known about the show at all until we went inside. We were in the vicinity in order to pay homage to the late Louise Bourgeois' Maman on behalf of an out-of-town friend and decided it was high time I paid my first visit to the National Gallery of Canada.

But Serendipity had its way with us and so it was we ascended the ramp into the Warholian decadence of "pop art", of hucksters and ad-men playing and praying on the vanity and insecurity of moneyed know-nothings who dare no aesthetic judgements on their own.

On Thursday, June 10, 2010, serendipity was, first, a generous trickster, then later, a plastic bitch.

And come closing time, we walked hand-in-hand into the dimnning light of a northern spring evening, away from the glass and steel gallery and into the arboreal splendour of Major's Hill Park. I asked what she thought of what we'd seen.

She smiled uncertainly and squeezed my hand.

"I don't want to say."

I pondered that a while. "All right. How about I tell you what I think you want to say, and you tell me if I've got it right."

Raven said yes and found myself ranting.

"I think you want to say that your intelligence has been insulted by a display of pretentious crap. That you didn't want to say anything because all sorts of so-called experts take this stuff seriously and you have a hard time believing you're the only one who's noticed the emperor is naked."

Raven laughed and, encouraged, I raved on. "Well, you're not alone. The Pop-Art movement was a racket, a confidence game, a scam. A bunch of shysters managed to convince a bunch of insecure pseudo-intellectuals that they were an intelligentsia hip to a revolutionary avant-garde when, in fact, they were being played for fools by commercial hacks who had learned to use multi-syllabic words to say nothing at all."

Raven laughed harder and pulled me hard against her. "Thank you!" she said, "Thank you for saying it for me!"

She said she had worried that I might have liked the display and didn't want to insult me if I did; our relationship is a new one and doesn't seem to quite believe I'm okay with having my ideas challenged by an intelligent adversary.

Dancing Bear by Paul Saila
Geoffrey Dow dialogues with Paul Saila's Dancing Bear in the Byward Market. (Saila's Spirit Wrestler Gallery profile.)
Dancing Bear by Paul Saila
Geoffrey Dow reconciles with Paul Saila's bronze Dancing Bear in the Byward Market. (Saila's Wikipedia entry.)

But in this case we were in agreement. We had spent (or wasted) a couple of hours of our lives wandering through a prestigious exhibit of ... crap was the word we finally agreed upon. Le mot juste, if not le mot complet.

Still, though there is not much there worth looking at in and of itself, the exhibit raises some important questions, questions not raised by the dancing bear to whom Serendipity had, earlier and when in good spirits, introduced us.

Because in retrospect, what is most striking about Pop Life is how overt so many of the pieces were in their vapidity, how so many of the "artists" seem to be daring their victims (that's us, folks!) to stand up and say, pace Gertrude Stein, "There is no there there!"

Andy Warhol and his a-spiritual descendants are like the emperor of fable, except they know all too well their sumptuous finery is an illusion dependent on the willingness of the crowds to fool themselves.

Look again at the Koons "ad" from ArtForum, above, if you don't believe me.

It's right there in white-on-green:


Now, I don't want to give you the impression that the only visual art I find of interest consists of edgy giant mama spiders or of (arguably) kitschy and (definitely) cute dancing bears, but, as others have said, I prefer art which leaves its recipients free to, not to "dialogue" with it, but to talk with it and to create their own stories from the creator's groundwork. I am not interested (usually) in artwork that is a puzzle with but a single answer, but in art imbued, as Tolkien put it, with "the freedom of the [viewer] and [not] the purposed domination of the [creator]."

I prefer art which doesn't require an academic's foot-notes to enjoy, which tells a story, or expresses a mood or idea, not art that illustrates a thesis or which seeks simply to "shock" the sensibilities of its viewers.

And I despise "art" which despises its viewers (or listeners, or readers), because an elaborate joke whose punchline reads, "You are a sucker for having bought this," is not "art" at all, not if we want to continue using the same word to describe the works of Picasso or Van Gogh, of Virginia Woolfe or Samuel R. Delany, of Patty Smith or Leonard Cohen.

I know, my position is not one that hasn't been taken many times before. But the point will bear repeating so long as our ostensible cultural experts can't or won't distinguish chocolate fudge from, well ... you know what I mean.

Detail from Exaltations, by Jeff Koons
Detail from Exaltations, by Jeff Koons.
Andrea Fraser fucks for money - is it art?
Andrea Fraser fucks for money. (Image from ArtNet.com.)
Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, a paean to the gullibility of homo academicus.
Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, a paean to the gullibility of homo academicus.

Jeff Koons' narcissistic dalliance with the one-time porn-star and sometime politician Ilona (la Cicciolina) Staller, photographed in explicit detail is no more art than are any of thousands of amateur sex photos now easily available through the magic of digital cameras and the internet, nor is Andrea Fraser's documentation of her $20,000 fuck in a hotel room.

Artist as prostitute stops being an interesting metaphor when the artist literally becomes a prostitute and no amount of blathering on about how the john involved has become a participant in art can disguise what's really going on — unless we refuse our eyes permission to see.

So why is pop-art still taken seriously by anyone? Why is The National Gallery of Canada presenting a major retrospective on the movement?

I said above I believe Marc Mayer's assertion that the National Gallery has not lowered its standards in presenting Pop Life. Given that way back in 1990 the Gallery paid $1.8 million dollars for a tri-colour painting whose only virtue is that it is very big, it obviously misplaced its values quite some time ago and has long since substituted them for a mutually-beneficial and self-reinforcing series of "dialogues" between academics in search of a thesis and artists in search of an easy dollar.

And yet, the insulting banality of this exhibition does have a real-world applicability to our culture and our times which (almost) makes it worth the free admission I used to see it.

A culture of public secrets or
'It's a secret if I say it's a secret!'

Those of us who've come of age since the 1970s have never known a world in which most "secrets" were any secret at all. Instead, we live in a world of "deniability" and of a journalism which has mostly confused objectivity with ignoring blatant lies if someone in a position of power tells it.

And so most of us prior to 2003's invasion of Iraq were just as credulous about Saddam Hussein's non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" as were most people in 1964, when the North Vietnamese did not attack a U.S. Navy ship, despite the fact anyone with any interest at all in the former incident would have known Bush's war was based on lies.

Similarly, the secret "black site" prisons currently operated around the world by the United States are "secret" only in the sense they are not on any official maps.

It may be it was a justifiable error that most Americans were taken in by the lies of 1964, but there is no excuse to have been taken in again in 2003.

(Yes, my examples reveal my political biases; so sue me. Or compose a list of your own open secrets, according to your own political tastes. Examples are strewn all over the place.)

In much the same way, the pop-art movement's contempt for its audience has also been a blatant open secret. One need only look at what is on display to realize that, if you take their work seriously, the artist thinks you are an idiot.

Really, it's about that simple. Pop Art is a blatant scam that dares the suckers to notice how they are being taken in, how much they are being taken for and how loudly their victimizers are laughing in their faces even as they take their money.

(But) "Isn't it ironic?"

Jeff Koons, Fingers Between Legs (1990).
Jeff Koons, Fingers Between Legs (1990).

You could make (and I'm sure many have made) the argument that the Pop Art movement was itself the work of art, that its mockery of its victims was a commentary on a deeply dis-functional culture and society.

It might even be true.

But so what?

A genuine satirists does not take sup with his or her targets day after day, year after year, decade after decade; and it is no easy task to stay and outsider when the beautiful people make you rich, when they make you one of them.

But a con-artists does all these things — and while a con may be many things, and might even — very occasionally — become a work of art, it never achieves that state because it is a con, but in spite of it.

I don't deny that the Pop Art movement, like any other socio-economic phenomenon, is worthy of study, but I see no reason the National Gallery of Canada ought to be hosting it.

And the Pop-art agenda has been no secret since Andy Warhol realized he could make a fortune by making copies instead of creating art back in the 1960s.

Warhol proved that craft didn't matter any more, that the rubes couldn't tell why (some) of Picasso's paintings are brilliant and others merely scribbles; generations of artists, academics and so-called critics have played at the same, sometimes lucrative ponzi scheme in which both "artist" and clients have a vested financial interest in keeping the game alive.

Once enough of us admit that "Fingers Between Legs" is a work of "art" no better and no worse than any number of pornographic images free for the downloading off the web, the whole illusory edifice would collapse under the weight of its own pretensions.

The Pop Art movement made no bones about what they were doing, kept no real secrets about their intentions: to sell crap to idiots and call it art.

Despite the "advertisement" above in which Koons "tells it like it is", I think Pop Art mostly failed to fool the masses, and possibly they didn't try very hard; after all, the masses aren't going to pay thousands of dollars for a knock-off printing of a bunch of Campbell's soup cans and many of us won't even enter a gallery if it's not free-admission Thursday.

But the intelligentsia loves to believe it is "in" on some esoteric journey of social deconstruction and paradigm-shifting, transformative exploration of class and gender pre-conceptions in the accelerated monism of post-industrial, pari-racial Western decline and rebirth — and ain't nobody gonna tell 'em all they don't even understand what those words mean!

Because who wants to admit they've been played for a fool?

Julie Doucet explores her ambiguous feelings about a man's sex.
Julie Doucet explores her ambiguous feelings about a man's sex. (Wikepedia entry.)
R. Crumb's truth in advertising: self-indulgent, not self-important.
R. Crumb's truth in advertising: self-indulgent, not self-important. (Wikipedia entry.)

To be fair, not every piece I walked by at the Pop Life exhibit was utterly without merit. Some displayed a sense of humour and there was in fact more than a little craft in evidence. But not enough and what there was seemed to buy into the general aura contentless mockery, unashamed theft and vicious contempt for my intelligence.

Finally, if you think to accuse me of writing all this because I am offended by the sight of enormous ejaculation penises or nipples, by images of blow-jobs, buttocks or wide-open split beavers, or that I believe "art" stopped when Van Gogh re-defined the night sky, then think again.

No, what offends is that these cynical hucksters and pornographers, Warhol's monstrous spawn, have made a life as cultural vampires, drawing whatever blood they can from their weak (though admittedly willing) victims.

What offends is that the victims themselves, rather than being ashamed of their own gullibility and so eventually disowning it, act instead like drug addicts in denial and seek to share their "pleasures" with others, spreading their unacknowledged misery with whomsoever is willing to puncture their skin with a dirty needle.

As two counter-examples, may I suggest you seek out R. Crumb's ruminations on his twisted sexual imagination (sample at right) and Julie Doucet's frankly surreal dreamscapes (at left) are both, in their own individual ways, well-crafted meditations on subjects Pop Life's contributors seem mostly to mock. Hell, time might even declare their work to be Art, not in spite of the fact there is no single key that unlocks their work, but because of it.

Spread the word!

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