O Brother Where Art Thou?

It takes a big man to acknowledge when he agrees with Blake Gopnik.

Paddy Johnson's post about controversy at the National Gallery of Canada led me to "Pop Life: Art in the Material World," Jack Bankowsky et al's solipsistic exhibition at Tate Modern.

"Pop Life" used Warhol's collapsing of fine art and commerce and his cultivation of an artistic persona as a hook for showing whatever by a bunch of usual market suspects, celebrants of the conflation of art and consumptionist life: Hirst, Murakami, Koons, Kippenberger, Prince, it brings on a three-years-ago haze even typing them. Anyway, what joy, this trophy show opened in Ottawa this summer.

Sold Out? The legacy of Pop Art: Is it avant-garde or is it kitsch?

And I'll be damned if Blake Gopnik didn't steal the show and win the "debate" co-sponsored by the NGC and Walrus Magazine. Not that the question, "Sold Out? The legacy of Pop Art: Is it avant-garde or kitsch?" ["Yes, yes and yes, so?"] was any more enlightening in 2010 than it was in 1962 when the Met asked it. Or that Gopnik's sparring partner arts editor Robert Enright ever stood a chance against Gopnik's Washington-honed, knee-jerk counterintuitiveness. Maybe if there'd been any kind of level-setting at the get-go about what kitsch was, and why it was good, bad, good-bad, or bad-good--but no, this whole thing was DOA.

Gopnik began with a counterintuitive [!] ploy, declaring late works by non-Pop artists--Bourgeois' spider, Serra's torqued ellipse, Christo's Gates--to be the kitsch, manufacturers of the popular, comfortable "Art" experience, and the Koons, Hirst and Murakami to be the expectations-confounding avant-garde.

Which is interesting as far as it goes, but he didn't really take it anywhere. Instead, Gopnik went on to argue with breathtaking cynicism that it's not Hirst's diamond skull, but his auction; not Warhol's paintings, but his entourage; not Koons's vanilla porn photos, but his career that are the real Art. It's not the playa, and not even the ball, but the game itself.

It's an incredible position for a critic to argue, that Avant-garde Art is not just a luxury good, but a luxury lifestyle! But if a life spent selling eight-figure sculptures to a handful of billionaires while simultaneously marketing any number of bridge collections to the lesser Basel masses is the pinnacle of artistic achievement, then why isn't Koons', Murakami's, and Prince's dealer Larry Gagosian in the show? Or Bankowsky's husband Matthew Marks?

After the wrap-up, the post-debate handshake, the houselights coming up, Gopnik actually went back to his mic and invoked the name of his brother who, with the late Kirk Varnedoe, had actually curated a major exhibition exploring Pop's disruption of cultural boundaries, "Hi-Lo" at MoMA: "If anyone here came thinking they were seeing Adam Gopnik and Michael Enright tonight, you can get your money back at the front door."

Sold Out? [walrusmagazine.com]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: August 17, 2010.

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