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Shortlisted: Po-mo for the 1% and the Art of Selling Out

The contemporary art world saw an alarming share of celebrity interlopers the past year. In a must-read conversation with critic Ed Halter, Lauren Cornell of the New Museum attributed it to the expanded art market, one that “lured celebrity interest into its VIP echelons; rappers are reflecting on the canon; pop singers self-identify as individual […]

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Shia LaBeouf ‏@thecampaignbook Jan 10
#stopcreating pic.twitter.com/G1F3G9EITH

The contemporary art world saw an alarming share of celebrity interlopers the past year. In a must-read conversation with critic Ed Halter, Lauren Cornell of the New Museum attributed it to the expanded art market, one that “lured celebrity interest into its VIP echelons; rappers are reflecting on the canon; pop singers self-identify as individual avant-garde movements.”

Now, we all know Jay-Z wants a billion Jeff Koons balloons. Art collecting-as-sport for the rich and famous has only reached greater heights with each economic bubble that burst. It is  “…the most esteemed form of shopping in our culture today,” notes Rhoda Lieberman in the 24th issue of The Baffler. (For a short history of how the 1% commandeered the global art market, read “The 99 Percent and the Value of Art,” Visual Culture Blog.)

But conspicuous consumption does not account for all the recent instances of A-list high art dabbling. After all, 2013 was the year that ended with a Shia LeBeouf. I’ll be damned if that isn’t a readymade term for the public relations death-by-Twitter-bagged-as-online-performance art-piece disaster that it is: Shia LeBeouf (SLBF) offered a skywriting “apology” to Daniel Clowes, the zenith of his justifications for plagiarizing Clowes’ Justin M. Damiano with the short film, HowardCantour.com. SLBF admitted to the copy but claimed that failing to credit Clowes shouldn’t really matter because, you know, nothing is really original and Marcel Duchamp and stuff. (So it’s like fan fiction? Yes – and also plagiarism. Right.) A misguided interpretation ill applied to be sure, but more important is that a celebrity this daft even tried to play this card. It speaks to just how secondhand post-modern thought has become. By way of (as it happens, also plagiarized) apologies, SLBF is getting “meta” as validation for his backhanded fan fiction of an artist whose forte is steeped in modernist precepts.

It almost feels too obvious at this point to mention Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP a caricature of modernism declared to be an “#epicfail” across the board. But still, Gaga successfully attached herself to Marina Abramoviç, herself a transgressor queen – albeit one who, all too eager to oblige such as Gaga, may herself go down in history as the last of what we now know as a “sell-out”. For as mainstream culture veers toward an ad man’s understanding of avant-garde, “selling out” is emerging as a medium in itself. Yet Abramoviç’s use is more like what Ed Halter, in the aforementioned article, calls Pop Art in reverse: “using ‘art’ as content and spreading it through contemporary forms of mass media” — i.e. traditional methods of marketing pop culture to the mass public. Perhaps Abramoviç confessed as much in The Artist Is Present, the documentary film about her show at the MoMA that, through image shares and Tumblrs galore, ushered her name into ordinary dinner table conversations:

Performance has never been a regular form of art – it’s been “alternative” since I was born. I want it to be a real form of art before I die. Excuse me, I’m 63 – I don’t want to be alternative anymore.

Safe to say, Abramoviç succeeded in that goal. Whether the distinction is generational or just part of a trajectory we are now accustomed to (an artist can only become a sell-out, and not the other way around), contrary to all this are young artists of the net-art world, such as Ryder Ripps and Brad Troemel, who incorporate and embrace branded culture as simply given, like nature. “In an online milieu where everyone markets themselves, net artists have made selling out its own medium” — so reads the pull-quote in Whitney Mallett’s “Personal Ads”The New Inquiry.

In fact, the teens interviewed for Frontline’s documentary, “Generation Like,” don’t even know what the notion of “selling out” means. When asked, they offered literal definitions for what it might refer to – like, a sold-out show, or a store running out of something. For them, crowd-sourced visual currency and content generated by corporations are more like raw materials. There is no “us versus them” distinction. At the same time, inadvertent performative acts by celebrities are fulfilling the terms we’ve historically called for to substantiate art. Jerry Saltz essentially introduced memes to the canon when he said:

Probably only an art-worlder like me could assign deeper meaning to something as simple and silly as Tebowing. But, to us, anytime people repeat a stance or a little dance, alone or together, we see that it can mean something. Imagistic and unspoken language is our thing.

I’d like to take this opportunity to nominate Riccing for special consideration. You don’t get more conceptually sound than selfies of skinny celebrities in empty refrigerators.