Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pop Envy


We had another knock-down-drag-out last night. It was brutal.

Kobus the Radical Militant Poet and Mirek and Post-Modernist Gonzo DJ/Novelist ganged up on me with the ridiculous claim that, as Mirek put it, “Pop is here, in the middle, like this – like this glass here on the table, and like this bottle of vodka, and like this espresso cup, here in the middle, and art is all around it, like this, here, just like this, all around it.”

I wasn’t having any of it. I explained to them patiently and clearly that pop and art are best defined by their audience and thus can only be seen as separate and equal – equal in the sense that both are valid expressions of the human soul but pop is cool while art is uncool.

I patiently explained the history of both: art coming out of an elitist tradition which put the artist at the beck and call of his ruler/masters, which is still true today (a poor man never bought a Picasso; evening the case of artists like Maplethorpe, who are subsidized by the state even though they appear to pose a threat it, are anything but working-class artists).

Pop on the other hand comes out of a democratic tradition: it is the people who support and buy pop, and pop speaks directly to the people. Mozart could never have said the things in his operas that Springsteen can sing in his songs. Art serves the state and/or the status quo of the educated, privileged elite; pop serves the dirty masses. There’s no way around that.

The only thing they could bring against this shattering argument was that pop and art influence and inspire each other, which is certainly true. Liechtenstein is certainly elitist art (look at the price of his paintings) and is unthinkable without pop. Kobus mentioned that the split-screen effect used in matinee movies many years ago and again in Stars Wars and other modern films was inspired by split-canvas of modernist artists, and that is certainly true of many movie-making techniques.

But it bugs me that Liechtenstein got all that money and fame and the original comic strip artists like Irv Novick and Russ Heath had to keep churning out comic strips for a pittance all his life. These guys were successful, but they ended up not only sending their own kids to college, but Lichtenstein’s as well. If Lichtenstein has respected the pop culture he was turning into art, he would have bought the rights to the originals. But of course for him, comic book art is found art, like trash on the sidewalk that only becomes value once he has copied it. That just drives me nuts. Sure, I like Lichtenstein, but there is an irony and distance to his work that disparages the comic strip. It is not a homage to pop culture, patronizing of it, it is a kind of cool elitist slumming.
The guy who half-buried the Cadillacs in the desert created art, yes, but he did not respect the Cadillac. On the contrary, he was criticizing material culture. When Springsteen sings about a car, he respects it, even glorifies it. He experiences the car as the simple man goes: as a part of his life.

The artist experiences the car, any product in fact, as the elite does: as a potential threat to his status. He wants to be seen as standing personally far above the material world, as a critic of capitalism while reaping the rewards of capitalism, and in fact so do his customers. The buyer or subsidizer of art depends on the profits from car-manufacturing but at the same time does not want to appear as a superficial materialist, so he employs artists to distance himself from the material world. The rich man who has a vacuum cleaner in a glass case in his living room is a man who wants people to know that he views his own wealth with irony and distance. The working man who has a vacuum cleaner in a glass case in his living room has a problem.

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