In December 2017, Elise set up to write about the importance of loving pop culture, and how it is perceived in academia, and Mayanne sent her a bunch of unedited thoughts she had saved in her notes app (that were, probably, never meant to be seen, or used). This is the result.
This is one of a series of articles that were commissioned in January 2018 in association with For Art History, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, have not been able to be published until now. We hope you enjoy them!
“I find myself cutting myself off because I’m convinced I don’t belong if I don’t spend 99% of my time reading obscure poetry smoking roll ups and thinking about William Blake… or if i’m not consistently reading classic theory books and in-depth histories of 1930’s New York and Paris. Do I know art if I don’t know everyone who’s ever been nominated for a Turner Prize …. and then it comes, the crushing feeling that I don’t have authority over my whole life and academic passions because I have spark noted most of the Foucault I know….”
It started slowly. A tremor under the surface. A shift here and there, a change in the wind. Did it start with Kim Kierkegaardashian? Or did it begin long before, in the cultural and theoretical references embedded within every line of Gilmore Girls. Suddenly pop culture is being re examined in a way which transcends previous accepted boundaries of high and low culture. Whereas the reality tv of the early 00’s was being consumed at face value, we are now entering an era of renewal. Academia now applies to more than just the topics confined to books on a university library shelf. Freud can be examined through the lens of familial relationships in Desperate Housewives and there is something to be said for the rise of tabloid writing in the late 90’s in relation to the self-confessional art of the YBA’s.
At the core of this however is a radicalism which, as of writing, has not yet been properly consolidated. Why is this? Why do we find it so difficult to validate popular culture as a genuine and radical interest to have?
For context, I am typing this out on my kitchen table. Tea next to me, my internet history essentially a play-by-play of post exam Simple Life viewing. After the stress of three weeks in the library, emotionally drained with my head stuffed into books and essays and paintings to memorise, I feel guilty. My break from the high intensity of studying is a hard pill to swallow and my love of popular culture feels unworthy and pale in comparison to Adorno or Jameson.
It’s been hammered into us. This dissonance.
The best example I can think of is how you can “watch too much TV” but you can’t read too many books.
As a young art writer and student of art history this dissonance has long troubled me. Before I had the right words to properly articulate how I felt, or the confidence, it felt like my life was split into two: My studies and my passions. It was like a dirty secret. Cursory glances at celebrity gossip sites, accidentally bringing up in seminars a reference to Paper Mag only to be met with blank faces because – Paper Mag? In relation to colonialist photography? Whilst these interests were hardly discouraged it was blindingly clear that within an academic art historical environment they just maybe didn’t quite belong. It wasn’t that they didn’t get it, it was that they didn’t need to or want to.
And yet pop culture and art history can be married so perfectly. In the wedding portraits of the Dutch Golden Age you see the forced affection of David and Victoria Beckham pre high end fashion fame. The recent OK Cupid adverts have their roots in the design and typography of female pop artists such as Sister Mary Corita Kent and Rosalyn Drexler. References are everywhere; on the wrist of Theresa May, in the catwalks of the GUCCI S/S 2018 collection. They’re in the wardrobe choices of Beyoncé or the black and white Studio 64 photographs pinned up on the white walls of the Tate.
So why then, within the realm of critical and art historical discussion, has popular culture been painted as the irreconcilable “Other”. What does the establishment gain from this and why is our reclaiming [of it] radical?
Among the most virulent of academic disciplines, the Western art historical canon has only until recent scholarship been held accountable for the omission of whole categories of art and artists. We see in Nanette Salomon’s “The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission”, a ‘Canon’ articulated in H.W. Janson’s, ‘The History of Art’, and centred around the aforementioned ‘Lives of the Artists’ by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari’s text is generally accredited with the title of ‘First’, either as a form of written Art History or exposition on Western European art, a claim which acknowledges its influence and privilege as that of a generative source. But it’s Vasari’s ‘Lives’ that introduced unto the world a structure or discursive form that in its incessant repetition and reproduction propagates the dominance of a particular gender, race and class as “the purveyors of art and culture”, the Gatekeepers. An art historian in this sense, is to be above society, or at to at least depict it in a way (as an artist does) which transcends living and instead ‘reproduces it’, is to be free from that society. That free agent is therefore clearly gendered, classed and raced; more specifically, he is an upper-class male. He is free from society because he controls it.
“But to come back to the gaze, I relish in having something my boyfriends will never quite understand, enjoy, connect with on the level that I do. Something that is truly and only for me, or something that is for me, and others like me. Likewise, I relish into knowing there are things that exist and that aren’t wholly for me. Like, I can still access it, and it’s ok that it wasn’t created for me, you know. I think there’s something precious, valid and extremely important in it. I don’t think that’s something we should fight but something that we should embrace and encourage. Loneliness is one of the hardest feelings around and i don’t think art should try to make it even harder.”
Art and the appreciation of art was for the few not the many. This dissonance is harmful because it directly caters to a conservative approach to art history. It means that historically to be accepted into the gated communities in which high culture was held, was to shun the cultural habits of women, people of colour and the working class. It is easy to forget that we are not yet a century into sustained social change in the form of liberatory politics. That we are still in the process of licking the wounds sustained from a millennia of oppression and that culturally we are still learning to digest that – albeit at hyperspeed. The pop art movement, mainstream and uniformly rejecting the boundaries of high and low consumption was arguably the first in a wave of artistic movements that threatened the hierarchical status quo of the art world.
Adverts were reinvented as art gallery fodder. Cinema became a single shot of Andy Warhol ft. a Big Mac and women artists were exploring consumer culture and female sexuality under the masculinist medium of canvas and paint.
If ‘low culture’ was where the margins of society gained exposure then low culture became a rich resource for radical interventions within art history. We see these threads in black culture, queer culture, the clubbing scene of New York in the 80’s, the family albums slid underneath beds or perched up in attic rooftops. From the 60’s-00’s the radicalism of popular culture has been ascertained by artists and creators. Yet this influx of radical low culture consumption remains maligned within academic, art historical circles.
“I find myself ashamed that I spend so long listening to the same Ke$ha song, or making an elaborate list of all the Makeup Revolution highlighters I want to purchase, instead of watching a “”good”” film, or of reading a “”good”” book, or of writing something great (and not a journal entry – which is a valuable use of my time but still i look down on it). I know that I’m not one-dimensional of course, and that I need to relax too, but the shame stays with me, as if even in boredom and relaxation I should be wholly consumable. It pursues me into my private and professional life on several levels, within academia and within the contemporary art scene.”
The tide within aspects of academia is certainly changing however. The likes of Bourdieu, but more importantly, writers such as Hito Steyerl, Zora Neale Hurston and The White Pube are shaking up the academic and critical establishment through a renewed focus on popular culture and academic value. From essays on Love Island to the harsh reality of corporate sponsorship and neoliberalism within the art world, these writers attest to the idea that pop culture remains a radical subset of the academic discipline.
In an increasingly socially conservative world, it is important to remind ourselves that there is a radical onus in consuming popular culture. To read the essays of Laura Mulvey and consume Ru Paul’s Drag Race on a suspicious online streaming site are not mutually exclusive interests. To write good academic work no longer means having to remove yourself from wider cultural society for fear of not being taken seriously enough. It hurts me to think of the self conscious writer I was two years ago who felt completely at odds with the discipline I was so hungry to break into. It was a watershed moment, to realise that to write well and be a good art historian does not mean I should shun away from my pop cultural interests even if it risked not being accepted or seen as valid.
By reclaiming popular culture we are denying the right of privileged, elite individuals to decide what is worthy of art or art criticism. The historical discursive forms of viewing art or determining what is art are outdated, old fashioned and simply cannot exist within the hyper-visual, multimedia world in which we live. A new tide in academic thought tied to pop culture is about to crest, and it is just as valid and as necessary as what came before.
Embrace this radicalism, delight in how it transcends institutional glass ceilings and never apologise for it.
“Existing within the Tabloid Art History community is like, if you love it, then I’ll welcome you with open arms and happy tears. But there’s a fierceness in how we stand by each other when someone has a problem with it and tries to pass this on to us, like it’s our problem to deal with their discomfort. It exists with authority and creativity, and it delivers something clever and playful and attuned to contemporary culture. I’m ok saying this and reminding myself of it. We work hard and I’m proud of it – but it exists for no one’s gaze but our own. If I feel out of place anywhere in the art world, I remember TAH, I don’t need to be enough or “in my place”, I exist within myself and that’s enough. I don’t need to co-opt to anyone’s methodology. It’s allowing me to rethink my art historical work in a way that does not have to betray who I am or where I’ve come from, and it does not demand me to purchase a whole back-to-school reading list to be considered worthy of attention……”
Featured Image: Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, dir. Robert Lukedic, 2001.