Monday, October 27, 2008

But, What is Art?

The cliché in the title most often refers to the ultra-precious art critic who superciliously hides behind posturing to avoid the risk of a definitive stance. It is also a phrase that evokes effete wine and cheese gallery show openings, with competing artists' and patrons' bitchy gossip about each other. All of these have recoiled in horror whenever I have made the philistine suggestion that the art of our time is commercial.

Think of it for a moment.

Recall three or four posters on buses or billboards, selling whatever it was. Couldn't you connect immediately with what the images were about, with the thousand subtle messages in every detail? Couldn't you do that without Sister Wendy explaining what each item meant?

That was how the contemporaries of Leonardo or Giotto reacted to the paintings that today are in museums. The contextual message was obvious.

In the Italian Renaissance, the established (though weakening) worldview was European medieval Christianity, a world of Christs and Madonnas and of ferocious biblical events. That view was propagated in a largely illiterate society through artifacts sponsored (as in paid for, just like modern commercial sponsorships) by the Church.

The maecena, or patron of the arts, shared this worldview. The world had been created by God, who had called certain patriarchs and prophets until Jesus Christ, who had then called upon certain saints to give witness to the truth. All art illustrated the commonly held narrative.

But that's not all.

Renaissance art rarely attempted to be historically realistic. People from antiquity are dressed as Florentines or Parisians dressed in the 1300s, 1400s and 1500s. There's some interpretation, often veiled for fear of the Holy Office of the Inquisition: Michelangelo painted on Hell's denizens the faces of some cardinals he found obnoxious.

What's the difference? Our narrative is about our god, money, and the power, pleasure and freedom it promises to give us all. Every commercial poster, every TV commercial is really selling the uniquely American mythology that everyone can be and have all they want.

Get X (a BMW, a certain deodorant, a certain credit card) and you will be a beautiful woman or be surrounded by them, on a beach near crystalline waters and be envied and admired by all. Note that I used "BMW." Does any reader not know what a BMW is?

And the technique!

The modern, sophisticated television commercial conveys a whole contextual storyline in seconds: we know immediately she's his wife or he's her father. There are emotions: women fall in love with their cellular telephones, or think that their "chocolate" color is appetizing.

Andy Warhol, perhaps one of the first people to recognize commercial art, where he started, as art, and put the message in the following way:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
That is why you can go to some foresaken village in the Peruvian Andes of the mountains of Afghanistan and find, somewhere in or outside the general store that red circle with 1890s lettering that reminds everyone in whatever language that the product offered is "the pause that refreshes."

Sure, in our current economic crisis, those who did not realize that mythologies are, well, myths, are suddenly discovering that, just as God and theist religions have their shibboleths, inadequacies and downright fantasies, Mammon will not, in reality, solve all your problems, or even be there when you're in trouble -- any more than God will.

My point is not about money or religion, but about art. When archeologists of the future come upon your skull or mine and mutter, "ah, primitive man!" they will find ubiquitous among our artifacts a circular red metal emblem.They will thereafter write endless papers on the meaning of the words "Coca Cola" in the art of the ancient past.
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