From Mn Artists, this is where the conversation about the arts and culture hits home, right here in Minnesota.
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 […]
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.
The impetus behind Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album, nostalgia for the way music used to be made and heard, is something that has been on the tongues of music aficionados for some time now. In a video posted on her Facebook page, she explains: “I feel like people experience music differently… I miss that immersive experience. Now, people […]
The impetus behind Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album, nostalgia for the way music used to be made and heard, is something that has been on the tongues of music aficionados for some time now. In a video posted on her Facebook page, she explains:
“I feel like people experience music differently… I miss that immersive experience. Now, people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in a whole album. It’s all about the single, and the hype.”
And so, Beyoncé initially released her new album online, only available for purchase as a full 14-song, 17-video package. Announced and released simultaneously, as word spread on Friday, December 12, BEYONCÉ triggered a pop culture news/media event of a sort only made possible by compounding fame and savvy viral marketing. Like the “high holidays of mass communication” of days gone by, “audiences recognized it as an invitation–even a command–to stop their daily routines and join in a holiday experience.” For Beyoncé and her eight million-plus fans, Christmas came early, abetted by smartphones in cubicles across America. She sold a record-setting 828,773 albums in just three days, a long weekend of Beyoncé-saturated new media. As Maura Johnston points out in Vice:
“…she essentially charged admission for the conversation. People talked about the record and discovered it simultaneously, making the discussion more electrified than, say, the chatter that ensued over the months-long span between the announcement and release of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP…”
The artist’s lack of promotion was a calculated risk, as was the iTunes-only delivery method of the new work. Imagine if she had produced the same visual album – a clever concept in itself — but allowed for the standard hype and first-week physical copies. Perhaps BEYONCÉ would have surpassed the previous first-week sales record, set by *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, which sold 2.4 million copies in March of 2000, a time when “physical music” was the default.
It’s worth noting that we now have something called physical music — as in, Walmart is “happy to be able to carry her album and support all physical music.” Here Walmart plainly aims to scoop up some cred with their support of things; this statement was issued in response to Target’s announcement that they will not be selling BEYONCÉ in their stores, citing as the main reason that her digital pre-release “impacts demand and sales projections.”
“Celebrity is scaling the concept in a way that’s not possible for others,” said Washington Post‘s Dominic Basulto of her new album. Let’s be clear: the concept is proving lucrative for her, and it’s unusually clever, yes – but it’s not new. A visual album? That’s been done — in 2005, by an indie rock band, The Sun (and signed to Warner Bros. at the time, mind you).* Their enhanced DVD album, Blame It On The Youth, had about nine years on this technological tide before Beyoncé rode in on it with such fanfare.
Here’s a peek at some of the frustrations The Sun’s 2005 iteration of the visual album concept was met with:
“I’m not just reviewing a batch of songs here, I’m reviewing a DVD that a good section of the buying public can’t even listen to without watching TV for an hour.”
“The problem is that not everyone wants to watch 45 minutes of video just to hear some songs, and even though Blame It On The Youth is supposed to be fully downloadable into MP3 players, there’s still a disconnect in the consumption process.”
Whatever The Sun’s missteps — not least being signed to a major label whose execs shit their pants over YouTube — the criticisms above, published less than 10 years ago, show just how quickly technology has hijacked the way people experience music. What The Sun did for art school kicks and adventures in multimedia, Beyoncé is now deploying (very successfully) as a gimmick to get people to fully immerse themselves in the whole of her album. As if that can’t happen through your ear-holes alone, you know, by listening to the music.
“I remember seeing (it) on TV with my family. It was an event. We all sat around the TV. And I’m now looking back I was so lucky that I was born around that time. I miss that immersive experience….”
Okay, so Beyoncé was talking about Thriller here, but in the spirit of the Christmas season, let’s see what happens if we swap Thriller with “The Yule Log.” Nostalgia for the immersive experience otherwise known as real life was, in fact, central to the comedic conceit of The Yule Log when it debuted on public access television in 1966: an artifact of the new ubiquity of television, an emblem of the original crisis of mass media consumption.
Look at us now: We love panda cams, Norway’s Slow TV is coming stateside, and innumerable live streams are always feeding, even when nobody is around to view them. And that sheer saturation of media manifests as something like an uncanny throwback. “The Yule Log” is available, even on my crappy cable plan, in SD, HD, and 3-D.
About a month ago, the nation collectively focused their attention to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. CBS did so, in part, by streaming the network’s original four-day coverage of the historic event on its website. During an episode of As The World Turns, the second-longest-running television drama of all time, CBS first broke the news in 1963, interrupting a conversation between “Bob” and “Lisa” about Thanksgiving dinner — a dispute likely still unsettled when ATWT ended 54 years later (soap opera jab!). Networks were not equipped for quick video changeovers. At first, it was just the audio:
“CBS NEWS BULLETIN” appears on screen
Here is a bulletin from CBS news. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.
More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously. President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called, ‘oh no’, the motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS news, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS news for further details.
The “continuous coverage” which streamed on CBSnews.com last month — dubbed “As It Happened”, and which you can buy for $35.99 on Amazon.com — would begin moments later, with the President confirmed dead. Until then, with nothing more for CBS to report, whoever was home at 1 pm on Friday, November 22, 1963 (watching the one and only program on television at that time of day) was abruptly thrown back into the simulacrum of the soap — it’s a juxtaposition that must have been as jarring as it was unprecedented.
In the absence of news, a swinging clock pendulum reappeared on screen. Midway through a commercial for Nescafe Minute-Brew coffee, a voiceover delivers the line: “Anybody can make a coffee more instant, but Nescafe makes it more coffee.”
Here’s to making things more coffee.
*This doesn’t matter, but for the sake of full disclosure: The Sun are from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and I appear in one of the videos. Further unnecessary clarification: the video I’m in is not the one with people masturbating.
“I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss the point of its effect, the punctum.” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida Aside from its use as a sexting medium, what is […]
“I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss the point of its effect, the punctum.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Aside from its use as a sexting medium, what is Snapchat? More precisely, what is a snap? A self-deleting multimedia missive sent using mobile technology: it’s a standard spy trope without the smoke, sparks, and (dire) content; visual communication inspired by Perez Hilton; one-to-ten seconds of a photo, or video – MS Paint captions optional – and then it’s gone.
But there’s more.
Tech pundits entered into a frenzy after Snapchat reportedly turned down a $3 billion, all-cash acquisition offer from Facebook; most were unsure why a social messaging application based on media impermanence could be thought to be worth more. Instagram, ever-popular across age groups, sold for $1 billion in April of 2012; the majority of Snapchat’s users are 13-23 years old. Assuming an older demographic would never embrace such an anti-archive, the question of the moment was: Will a youth user group hold steady for the app, thereby justifying the Facebook snub? Commentators answered: “no.”
But perhaps Snapchat’s decision to forgo the buyout didn’t solely rest on the loyalty of teenagers. A mobile editor at ReadWrite sees the app fitting in perfectly with the current Web era: It’s mobile, it’s visual, and it comes with the implication of privacy. Granted, with the right tools it’s always possible to retrieve data, but a social network noted for its discretion is unprecedented. Bearing a warrant, the NSA only has access to “unopened snaps,” messages stored in a server – Snapchat’s own dead letter office – as long as their recipients opt to ignore them. And even those messages have an expiration date: apparently, an unopened snap disappears after 30 days. And no public or private timeline of opened snaps exists — this is a large part of the app’s charm. There are good reasons to think a shift beyond the teen demographic is in play.More and more, the digital realm is the default for communication; the digital is also our de facto collective archive. There’s a wealth of history just in the residual traces such communications leave behind: the metadata of our emails and web surfing, on reverse-chronological timelines like you find on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These platforms are, by design, archival and yet we, the users, rarely access them as such. With a ceaseless barrage of incoming information, the stuff of even our recent past isn’t so quick to entice. Instagram photos are rarely revisited; we hardly engage with them when they’re newly posted. Rather, how we make use of the media of social networking amounts to something much more like interpassivity. We take pleasure just knowing that such archival platforms are there, keeping record for us.[/caption]But Snapchat doesn’t allow for passive engagement. To view a snap, the recipient must press and hold their screen for that 1 to 10 seconds. This guaranteed share of attention is priceless given the increasingly pervasive distraction of the digital lifestyle – what writer and software expert Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention”. Snaps are targeted and personal; recipients are deliberately chosen (88% are sent to one person). As such, snaps are a throwback, a return to the qualities of communication inherent to speech. Snaps are a moment truly shared, in (simulated) real time.
And why not? It’s not like anyone is going to go back and look at it again. Digital images have yet to be valued like their tangible precursors IRL. Temporary social media seems to posit the idea that creation of a more meaningful digital communication requires embracing that ephemerality, making the proliferation of here-today-gone-tomorrow missives even more disposable.
Since 2010, Chicago artist Jason Lazarus has maintained an archive of images deemed “too hard to keep” by their owners. The project initiated with traditional photography in mind. He’s interested in the kind of picture that brings pain when you come across it while cleaning out a sock drawer, or on moving day, but which resists an easy toss to the trash can; it’s the kind of photograph imbued with a resilient, if uncomfortable, nostalgia too potent to discard like you do the empty detritus of your life. It bears saudade, as the feeling is close to being named, in Portuguese:
“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”
Getting rid of such an image requires a deliberate and ceremonial act, like burning. And that is where Jason Lazarus steps in. Too Hard To Keep (2010-present) is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, as part of Jason Lazarus: Live Archive, the first West Coast museum exhibition for the artist. As the exhibition text states, “This concept is remarkably similar to the Jewish tradition requiring damaged scrolls, books, and other texts that bear the sacred name of God to be placed in an in-between space, called a genizah (Hebrew for ‘storage’ or ‘hiding’).” The in-between-space Lazarus maintains consists of snapshots. Whether seemingly innocent, ambiguous, or obviously tragic, these photos carry the same mysterious charge as a Polaroid found on the street — except here, the significance of the unknown is guaranteed, rather than merely guessed-at.
As of October 9, 2012, he’s accepting cell phone photo submissions for the project, banking on the sender’s promise that their personal copy of the image will be deleted. That’s too bad. When Too Hard To Keep began in 2010, at the precipice of smartphone ubiquity, it was precisely that distinction between the physical and digital photograph that made Lazarus’ concept so compelling. I submit that a photograph that is too hard to keep does not yet exist in a digital capacity. Maybe it’s just that not enough time has passed to bestow on these images such depth of feeling; maybe it comes down to the fact that a digital photo can be deleted in a hasty half-second. Maybe my rejection of the idea boils down to the idea that there are just too many of them for any one pixellated image to carry such significance. Maybe the truth is digital images just can’t be held, can’t be kept.
Caveat Emptor, an exhibition of forged artworks confiscated by the FBI, came and went this past July-turned-August, inspiring 100% more conceptual intrigue from the art world than the Bureau would ever burden themselves to consider. In what was essentially a foyer for the 2013 International Conference on Cyber Security held at Fordham University, curators Daniel […]
Caveat Emptor, an exhibition of forged artworks confiscated by the FBI, came and went this past July-turned-August, inspiring 100% more conceptual intrigue from the art world than the Bureau would ever burden themselves to consider. In what was essentially a foyer for the 2013 International Conference on Cyber Security held at Fordham University, curators Daniel Small and Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock worked with the FBI Art Crimes division to gather 13 paintings – all knock-offs — for display in the university’s Center Gallery. As a body of evidence, the selection sampled the range of skill involved in the realization and jurisprudence of art fakery. Some works, like “the Chagalls” by masterful art forger Ely Sakhai, were credited with accuracy. But more often than not, the counterfeiter’s identity had either eluded the FBI or wasn’t made available to the public. Such works are only credited with the name of the artist whom they were imitating.
Here is spectatorship laced with cognitive dissonance. You need to throw your usual visual thinking strategies out the window. What are we looking at? These works are evidence of a criminal’s craft, but are they anything more? Inadvertent conceptual art, maybe? As Fordham University’s description states, “The exhibition’s cohesion is challenged by the tension between the paintings’ initial renown and their true makers’ anonymity.” And that’s exactly what makes the exhibition compelling.
A semantic hop and a leap from forgery is parody. On view until mid-September at the University of Memphis Art Museum are the “parody paintings” of a relatively unknown artist, the late Carroll Cloar. As he employed various styles and movements into his tempura (and later, acrylic) paintings, Cloar’s body of work would be resolutely difficult to categorize but for his subject matter: domestic scenes of the Depression-era rural south. Looking at his parodies of famous works by Édouard Manet, Piet Mondrian, Willem deKooning, Morris Graves, Yves Tanguy, and Albert Ryder – all playfully executed throughout the summer of 1960 — reveals something further. The works confirm the depth of his erudition — not only in literature, which he often spoke of enjoying, but also his fluency in the visual arts, a subject about which he often kept mum. Most active from the 1940s to 1980s, here was a guy who left New York City, at the very time it was the epicenter of the avant-garde, to move back to the Mid-South and paint scenes of yesteryear. The parody paintings bring subtle details throughout his oeuvre to new light, particularly his sharp art-historical awareness and wicked sense of humor.
But parody, and satire, seem a bit dated, eh? The terrain of the politically marginalized and oppressed has taken to technology these days. We hack what we hate and can reproduce all that was previously untouchable in culture for our own mantles, to embrace in sum or piecemeal, as we see fit. The hacker ethic – decentralization through openness and sharing – is revolutionary despite its tacit sanction by prevailing establishments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 3-D Hackathon enterprise has even made high art available for free download…sort of. First, you have to download this software and own a 3-D printer (now available under a cool $2K). And you would need to be satisfied with the resulting high art hack looking like a jailhouse soap-carving of the real thing (bathed with once or twice). It’s somehow fitting: We’re using a primitive technology in its nascency, creating by-definition derivative work from our cultural memory. Imagine an uncanny valley of cultural objects — much like the inverted classical bust-casts of sculptor Christian Gonzenbach or the art objects of Matthew Plummer-Fernandez – created through a process of running pop culture through algorithms.
“Somewhere between the gift shop and the gallery” are five high-resolution 3-D Van Gogh prints. They are called “Relievos” — created courtesy of FujiFilm using a patented “Reliefography” process. These reproductions recently went on view at the Gallery by the Harbor in Hong Kong. Some say they are educational things! That they will aid the blind in experiencing heretofore inaccessible aspects of art. I say they are pretty neat-o. While the current “poor man’s” version of 3-D printing may be imperfect, recall what is commonly known as the first photograph, Point de vue du Gras by Nicéphore Niépce. Now compare it to the quality of pictures you can take with your phone. You do the math. As artist/scientist Shane Hope says, “It’s one thing to push pixels or plastic around. It’ll be another thing altogether when it’s atoms.”
On August 2, Death Grips didn’t show up for their official Lollapalooza after-show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge. While they have always been a band whose sound is haphazardly categorized (“punk noise rap” seems to be a leading contender) everyone can agree they are “disruptive:” It’s a major reason why their fans love them. And while […]
On August 2, Death Grips didn’t show up for their official Lollapalooza after-show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge. While they have always been a band whose sound is haphazardly categorized (“punk noise rap” seems to be a leading contender) everyone can agree they are “disruptive:” It’s a major reason why their fans love them. And while Death Grips didn’t actually perform that night, what they offered as such gave those fans a platform in which to engage in their own disruptive behavior – from tearing up a toy drum set to getting lippy on Twitter.
It is not the first time artists have flipped the script on stage, but a stunt like this always leads to a lot of knee-jerk, armchair analysis. The most ironically-charged of which came from Noisey, a website powered by content barons Vice Magazine, in a piece which explained how Death Grips’ not playing their show “isn’t punk”. But it is precisely these sort of conventions that art and philosophy are blessed to challenge — and something Death Grips is especially adept at.
Such is a key concept of Gilles Deleuze. Therefore – if one must engage in such taxonomy — we should categorize Death Grips as Deleuzian. But if that’s too pretentious for you, at least don’t compare them to punk —Everyone knows that Death Grips are a “UK DIY/Post-Punk” band. (Is calling them a “UK DIY/Post-Punk” band even more absurd than holding them up against a convenient definition of punk? Absolutely. Can I make a more apt comparison – that they are more like a UK DIY/Post-Punk band – and still prove the point that genre signifiers therein are built to be destroyed? I sure hope so!)
I have to admit, the link just above shows my cards a bit. It links to my blog, where even a casual reader (Hi Dad!) can plainly see I have been hugely interested in Death Grips for some time now. And had I been at Lollapalooza hoping to see them, I would have been miffed, too — but only for, like, .1 seconds. Because, as Marilynne Robinson says in the aforementioned Vice’s recent Fiction Issue, “If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.” Her point is this: In the corners of your own unique thought, the experiences that happen to you — rather than the sort that are planned out in itineraries, bought and sold like tourism — are more valuable in the long run. That is, you read your life in the events that unfold in the moment, as they will; move on, and repeat.
I say this despite the fact that I live in a mid-size city in which art exhibitions and musical acts of note do not pass through often (Doug Aitken’s cross-country Station to Station isn’t even making a stop). The concept of being there comes up a lot: Why can’t I be there? It sucks they don’t ever come here, etc. But I suspect that sense that we’re always missing out somehow, never in the thick of significance, is emblematic of this moment in contemporary culture.
Mark Bowden’s article in The Atlantic this month, “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones,” surveys the psychological effects that drone weaponry has on both our nation’s offense and defense. A 19-year old pilot admits to feeling weird about delivering deathblows without being in any real danger himself. And Bowden muses on the directionless rage that citizens elsewhere, targeted in such attacks — like the Yemeni protesters that recently burned a drone in effigy — must feel when their neighbors are killed by unmanned aircraft.
Welcome to Google Earth. Here, you can (virtually? literally? figuratively?) scream across the sky by way of satellite maps to hover atop Spain’s Prado Museum; one click is the price of admission, then it’s your choice between 14 ultra-high-resolution reproductions of the museum’s best masterworks. It’s part of Google’s Cultural Institute initiative: in particular, the Art Project, which, has resulted in reproductions of art’s greatest hits, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to be made viewable in ‘gigapixel’ format. That’s around seven billion pixels, son – and it reveals more detail than the human eye or any museum guard would ever allow you. And it’s yet another kind of stimulation than what physical proximity, in real time, inspires. Those feelings are displaced here; for now.
Now, where is my Black Google Earth at?
“If consensus is the tyranny of the majority, there can be no radical consensus.” – Lyotard “Obviousness is always the enemy of correctness.” – Bertrand Russell “A picture’s just a hedge against death, always was.” – Andrew Berardini Let’s start with something unquestionably genuine: In a public love letter from an artist to his medium, […]
“If consensus is the tyranny of the majority, there can be no radical consensus.” – Lyotard
“Obviousness is always the enemy of correctness.” – Bertrand Russell
“A picture’s just a hedge against death, always was.” – Andrew Berardini
Let’s start with something unquestionably genuine: In a public love letter from an artist to his medium, Martin Scorsese’s “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema” in The New York Review of Books tells film’s essential history while distilling its working components. It begins with Scorsese endearing us to what he took away from viewing The Magic Box with his father in 1951. One of the film’s central characters is a lesser known cinema pioneer, William Friese-Greene. Although he died a pauper, a young Scorsese sensed that one could not altogether say he was unhappy. He’d given his life to his passion.
“But what would you rather be: Overpaid or underrated?” Recently – precisely, the time I found out “performance art died” — it hit me that I’d been misinterpreting this sentiment. The quoted lyric appears on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s a Jay-Z line. I took it as a rallying call for struggling artists to keep their heads up. I did this in spite of knowing that Jay-Z has admitted to dumbing down his music to draw more fans.
And that’s not to be confused with “smart dumb”, as outlined in this piece for The Awl by Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s notion, properly understood, serves to distinguish contemporary art brut practice from both its impostors and those found wandering aimlessly close by, as well as offering it a nice defense from hackneyed criticism. See Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut In Preference To The Cultural Arts” for comparison.
Goldsmith anoints Andy Warhol as the prince of smart-dumb. And if you liked the latter’s 8-hour silent film Empire, you’ll love The Figment Project – a live feed of Andy Warhol’s gravesite organized by the Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam. If you can get your hands on it, you’ll find a perfect counterpart to the project in the winter 2010 issue of Film Quarterly. Joshua Clover’s column, “Marx and Coca Cola: An American Movie,” poetically compares the live YouTube footage of the BP oil spill to an avant-garde film.
The surveillance aesthetic seems to be going mainstream. Edward Snowden on the front page of The New York Times last Friday sure signals it, but perhaps the trend was inevitable. Snowden’s likeness appeared the only way his situation allows at the moment – courtesy of a scan of his Russian asylum document, complete with photo ID. It isn’t so much the artistic decision of the newspaper that’s of note here, but the fact that such photographic material is used at all in their pages, or that CCTV, Google Earth, and surveillance-type imagery are, more generally, becoming widely available for public view.
Just think of what we put up on social networks: selfies, embarrassing party shots, flattering photographs, etc. When Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took a turn on the cover of Rolling Stone, it was a glamorous Facebook photo the magazine used. Whatever editorial intent lay behind that decision, the photo was not well received. What’s more, if an image can be misread, one has to assume there is some proper way to read it. New types of imagery are saturating our collective image bank, each with unique coding. We need to learn how to decode them all to really know what we’re looking at.
A bulletproof case for visual literacy to be taught in schools is in the introduction to Camille Paglia’s most recent book, Glittering Images. Scorsese backs it up in his aforementioned essay as well:
Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten – we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling something.