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Avant-Garde Folk Art

Why oh why are we interested in celebrities? As a phenomenon, celebrity takes up an ever-increasing amount of cultural real estate. It rudely elbows aside far more dignified pursuits, has failed to launch much of substance from territory already annexed, and can hardly be said to appeal to our higher instincts. Yet rather than withdraw in shame, as would be the decent thing to do, celebrity has adopted the cocksure strut of an institution. Why do we accommodate the vulgar contaminant? If the Senate has been slow to convene a panel investigating this Troubling Misapplication of Cultural Energy, it’s probably because something about our complaints rings a little hollow even to our own ears. Celebrity may be blight, but blight too is organic. For better or worse celebrity is a homegrown cultural form. It didn’t develop by accident. Advertising, marketing, the movie star—more than once American culture has produced a conceptual art for the masses. Celebrity belongs on the list too and, intuitively, we know it.

Far from universal, the idea of a “conceptual art for the masses” is the product of particular pressures felt in particular cultures, and most acutely in America, the first conceptual country. America is an idea about place and a place that’s an idea, which distinction did cleaveth the new world from the old. The concept, in a nutshell, is that by law any two people should have equal access to public space; a king is not to have greater claim on citizenship than a commoner—the Constitution says so. “American culture” results from the triangulation of this novel concept and its ongoing negotiation with flawed human nature and the unpredictable evolution of communication technologies. American culture’s obsessive project involves identifying the Constitutional DNA, in all its demanding, idealistic detail, and developing strategies for implementing the model of egalitarianism hardwired therein. Thus the concept of the mainstream, thus the blue jean, thus the public library, thus television, thus Andy Warhol. Also thus, like it or not, “celebrity.”

The ingredients that go into celebrity have been fermenting a long while. In the middle of the 19th century our cultural narrative was squired about by P.T. Barnum, a showman extraordinaire who advanced American egalitarianism in ways we still contend with today. Hard-core Yankee Barnum identified and promoted a theatrical conception of citizenship which held that any one of us might be worthy of attention just for being ourselves. Each of us had a story (could a premise be more American?), and each story was worth telling (the European peasant was never shown that respect). Public life, in every country a stage of sorts, became in the world’s first conceptual country a stage upon which anyone was invited to step. All you needed to participate in this cultural free-for-all, and thereby have a place in it, was the willingness. Neither special skill nor art was required, as these would only bar some aspirants from the stage. Now you could be your act.

Barnum’s theatrical take on citizenship pioneered a conversion of the space of daily life into performance space. Questions about what, exactly, constituted a performance were only natural byproducts of that alchemy. When cameras and microphones came along not too many years later, the line between public and private, performance and the quotidian, smudged illegibly and permanently. Transposing the grammars of life—what life looks and sounds like, at least—onto preservable, reproducible media, these machines liberated the “stage” spatially as well as temporally. Now, “performance” could take place anywhere, at any time, and encompass just about any behavior. A few decades into the era of the portable stage and, voila, some actress picking up her dry-cleaning becomes An Actress Picking Up Her Dry-Cleaning, as reported by TMZ.

Adding the caps in that sentence, crucially, is capital. So powerful was the aura of magic bestowed by cameras and microphones upon works of narrative art that some of it spilled over, onto a queasy Purgatorio of scenes suspended between life and showbiz—a theater of celebrity—that itself could be bottled and sold as entertainment. In fact, celebrity activates and reads only within a thoroughly mediated, thus thoroughly capitalized, space. Celebrity is an essence by pressure of commerce distilled.

Consequently, luxe and privileged as the space of media attention and commercial opportunity may be, the celebrity’s journey is, ironically, a highly constrained and constricted narrative. Whereas the movie star, a personality-concoction from an earlier phase of the media age, was encoded by a palimpsest of narratives—Bette Davis reading as a certain kind of woman and Cary Grant as a certain kind of man from the stories they appeared in—the celebrity is confined to a mono-narrative of success defined, quite narrowly, by good relations with capital. The celebrity strives to emulate the abstract, fluid condition of legal tender. (It is an odd ambition for human beings to aspire to model themselves on money, but there it is.) What the celebrity can and cannot do or say is handicapped by the need to keep unobstructed all conduits to commercial opportunity. The movie star had represented a style of being human—smoke a cigarette this way, wear your hair this way, love this way, live by this code—and, through the power of representation, had granted permission to follow suit, while the mono-narrative of celebrity only registers movement up or down a golden ladder. If the celebrity is a conscious symbol of ascent to the dreamland that money can buy, he’s also an unconscious symbol of the corseting of ways we might be human, imposed by business civilization.

We do live in a business civilization. All challenges to that reality have faded, with the result that gradually our sense of agency has been colonized by a business aesthetic. Once upon a time movies had impact as popular art. Now it’s the weekend box office tallies that make the nightly news. In the art world, auction prices are displacing all other content. Everywhere, now, successful art is art that succeeds, and you’re either capable of creating stuff that participates in that narrative or you’re not. From the business aesthetic has emerged an entrepreneurial model of art: first seen in Warhol then Koons, Hirst, and Murakami, and most recently in a school of high-volume lite painting dubbed by one wag Opportunism. Encumbered as they are by the intellectual gamesmanship of the art context, though, in the matter of content today’s brand-obsessed visual artists are downright sentimental compared to the celebrity.

The celebrity puts the most painfully contemporary materials—fame, mass media, publicity—toward the most uncompromisingly profane ends: attention, opportunity, self-advancement. “Pure” celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton aren’t film or television performers, they’re walking, talking, media-exploiting LLCs. They are their product. (Barnum would be delighted.) By design they have nothing to say, the better to glide frictionlessly through the hyper-capitalized space that is their natural habitat. Celebrity, strategic and meta-entrepreneurial, is nothing if not a realist art. Paris and Kim endeavor to have no other content than the system which presents them.

Fifty years ago Daniel Boorstin identified a “morally neutral” dimension to celebrity.1 The news since Boorstin’s day is that celebrity has learned to embrace the neutrality that the emulation of legal tender demands, and to work it. Celebrity has evolved into a medium, wielding performance, context, thematization, and audience as materials. It’s to be distinguished from classical fame, which derived from talent—the singer, actor, athlete, comedian—and played out accordingly. Beyonce’s fame, a subsidiary of her song-and-dance act, is of the old school variety. Kim’s celebrity is not. The new breed, of which Kim is the leading figure, sites the performance within the mechanisms of attention. To wed as tabloid theater from which one profits commercially is to site performance within the mechanisms of attention. All celebrities perform celebrity but some—Kim, Paris, James Franco (as an actor his approach is self-consciously “artistic”)—commit acts of celebrity. A handful have explored the medium with an ingenuity sufficient to raise celebrity to the level of a folk art, with rules, values, and an integrity all its own. To occupy public coordinates sans the movie star’s prophylactic of fiction imbues celebrity with fresh capacities; once an endpoint, celebrity status is newly a starting point for a style of public life in business civilization.

Like any other medium, celebrity, once attained, admits authorial treatment, replete with all the idiosyncratic goals and perverse methods to which authorship in any medium lays claim. What holds our attention isn’t the traditional, multivalent talent of the entertainer but, instead, the spectacle of the interface between, in the foreground, a representative of a thoroughly capitalized theatrical site and, in the background, the characteristics of that site.

These latter are hardly arbitrary. The architecture of the national media theater is determined, naturally, by the tricky mechanical devices that underwrite it. Where a camera and a microphone may be enjoined to make a record of history—here, small “h” history: the partial, imperfect Record of What Happened—they also may be used, alternately and with roughly equivalent impact, to construct and relate fictions under the rubrics of art or show biz. Cameras and microphones cannot judge; they “believe” everything they’re told.

Placing cameras and microphones at the center of our culture raises this curious attribute to the status of a cultural determinant. The stable, constant, core characteristic of the national media theater can reasonably be described as journalism crossed with show biz, i.e. not what do we know but rather what might we know and when might we know it—in a word, a “tease.” The tease has no off switch, but the proportions comprising it at any given moment—exactly how much journalism, exactly how much show biz—are mutable and fluid. When any celebrity steps onto the stage, the ongoing narrative of the tease is already underway. Every celebrity plays to that narrative. They’re obligated to do so, the tease being the defining characteristic of the context that sponsors their appearance before us.

A Kim Kardashian is the author of her foray into the national media theater. She steps forward to lend a point of focus to the tease, volunteers to embody the tease, for as long it serves her interests. She’s onto the Jayne Mansfield of it, the Mamie Van Doren of it, but she has added something new in that she does not bother to audition for another role. (In that respect she’s onto the Brenda Frazier of it too.) She plays herself—stars herself—in an improvised narrative of opportunity and control. The narrative generates images; it is pointedly a voyeuristic, sexualized narrative. She uses her body in a performance in which she gives up nothing (except her privacy, but that was the contract from the outset) and takes away much (money, fame, opportunity). Her only product, really, is a transaction: the attention we pay to her. She doesn’t say much—no need to: movement within the field of our attention is her true subject, and best communicated gesturally.

Who is exploited? Beating the world to the punch, Kardashian objectifies herself. She is an author who exploits our attention within a teasing theater of exploitation. (It seems women are leading the use of celebrity as a medium; seasoned objects of the gaze, they well understand how to get it to follow.) Some will object to Kim’s application of the tease. Some will feel taken and, offended, cluck disapprovingly. But is it in anyone’s interest to prefer Marilyn’s vulnerability to Kim’s calculations—to prefer women exploited and ultimately destroyed by media instead of exploiting media (exploiting us)?

The question isn’t whether any of this is healthy or good. If that really was the question, then we ought to have done something long ago about the institutionalized tease of the national media theater. The question is, instead: is there a national media theater of cameras and microphones in a continual act of teasing us? Yes, there is. Might an author or artist emerge from that context, on that context’s own terms? Again the answer is yes. Kim Kardashian is what one of these authors might look like. She has applied an artist’s attitude to the teasing media space.

Much as it endeavors to be, the art context is not the final word on where art may show up or what form it may take. Art is inside lots of people waiting to come out. Art can manifest even in a suburban SoCal voluptuary. Approve of her or not, Ms. Kardashian has pulled off a kind of avant-garde folk art, built from the terms, materials, and value system of a found, readymade theater. The art world prefers its outsider art simple, rural, guileless, but that stuff isn’t the authentic folk art of our time. Ms. Kardashian’s artful tease represents one edge of today’s homegrown avant garde. It’s the real thing, and our disapproval, moral or aesthetic, is something we should examine in ourselves.

What irks many is that, heeding Barnum’s call, the new breed of celebrities invite themselves to the party. In the old days a movie studio, a record label, a TV network, run by white men, would have choreographed the tease, but today the celebrity is empowered, by technology, to initiate it. A sex tape, an engineered media scandal—celebrities invent ways to give themselves entrée to the theater of public life. In our distaste for celebrity—“What are THOSE people doing with OUR culture?”—there are racist, sexist, and classist overtones. People without pedigree, or of whom we disapprove, have pushed their way in and found a way to ascend. That’s as American as you can get.

Celebrity is a not a pretty art, but you can’t induce an entire society to adopt a business aesthetic and then turn up your nose at people who step forward to act it out as theater. The brave souls willing to launch themselves into this new version of public life are astronauts of a kind. We are quite reasonably interested in the perceptual space where celebrity has its life, just as we quite reasonably respect the people who launch themselves into that space. Astronauts thrill us. We respect the courage of the astronaut more than we are repelled by the space debris—here tawdriness, flimsiness, narcissism—inevitably encountered en route. The astronauts have names—Kim, Kanye, Justin, Miley—but the names might be anyone’s. What matters, what actually has hold of our attention, is the cultural fact of the space of celebrity, the cultural fact of its exploration, and the cultural fact of the astronaut. These are to be counted among the living art materials of our time.

The value of the avant-garde folk artist who uses celebrity as a medium sits squarely in the fact of its emergence, that it is possible, now, for anyone to conceive of being any such thing, let alone be it. We’re not dopes to keep a bead on the theater of celebrity. Important work may yet rise from it.


David Robbins

For three decades, in artworks and writing David Robbins has promoted a frank, unapologetic recognition of the contemporary overlap between the art and entertainment contexts. His work Talent (1986) is widely credited with announcing the age of the celebrity artist, and The Ice Cream Social (1993 - 2008), a multi-platform project which included a TV pilot for the Sundance Channel, a novella, installations, ceramics, and performance has been cited by Hans Ulrich Obrist as pioneering the "expanded exhibition." Progressively evolving away from the prevailing model of the professional contemporary artist, in his books High Entertainment (2009) and Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy he identified and advanced other categories of imaginative endeavor. Among his six books are The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interview, Satires 1983 - 2005 (2006) and The Camera Believes Everything (1988). Ten years ago he withdrew from active participation in the art world in order to discover how his imagination performed when not formatted to produce art, and began using the term "independent imagination" in place of "artist." Subsequently re-locating to Milwaukee he has aligned his work with contexts and formats historically foresaken by the avant garde, positing the suburb as a frontier for art production and creating TV commercials for galleries. His work is featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Most recently, his "Theme Song For An Exhibition," a ground-breaking experiment in digital distribution, was launched internationally, on the same day, by 11 art museums, including the Serpentine, London, and MOCA, Los Angeles.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2014

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