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On subtlety

October 10, 2009

Recently I was lucky enough to have a wander through the new Tate Modern exhibition, Pop Life, in a mini-tour led by one of its curators. I’m so thankful I could, because I fear that without it I would have been lost in the land of Andy Warhol wallpaper, dead horses, homozygotic twins and way too much Jeff Koons on show for my liking.

According to the exhibition website, this is what Pop Life is about:

Andy Warhol claimed “Good business is the best art”. Tate Modern brings together artists from the 1980s onwards who have embraced commerce and the mass media to build their own ‘brands’.

It wants to be a retrospective on how artists in the past two decades have placed themselves in relation to the market and to pop culture. The big and eccentric are all there: Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Murakami, Cattelan, Haring.

What is rather scary is that this exhibition sounds a bit ‘too much’: it’s noisy from the many videos and from the loud music, it’s rife with explicit or challenging images (three rooms are restricted to over-18s), it’s full of the tacky and the glimmering and the monstrous. It was definitely quite unlike the Tate to put it up, and I think this is a bravery that has to be recognised.

The problem for me, though, is that the points it’s trying to make are perhaps a little too subtle. Perhaps I am underestimating the average museum-goer (or rather, the average £12.50-per-ticket exhibition-goer, which may already make a difference), but I wonder how many people can appreciate that many of the current displays re-propose how the artwork was first installed – I wouldn’t have known. Or for instance, how much about Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘prankster persona’ people can extrapolate from a dead horse with an ‘INRI’ sign sticking out from its belly.

If the show is meant to comment on how artists construct their own personae, branding themselves to better penetrate the arts market, if it’s about the contrived relationship between pop art, celebrity, and the material world, then even most of the national press have missed the point when they make comments such as the Independent’s here:

“The curators of this show argue that it was Warhol who brought art and commerce together – perhaps Warhol thought no one had ever paid for a painting before 1960” (see source)

It’s not about the market, it’s about the fascination for glitter and glamour, and for the dirty and degraded at the same time. It’s about how artists played with this fascination, like when Jeff Koons bought ad space in art magazines and advertised himself à la Hollywood star to sneer at the critics and reviewers; or like when Elaine Sturtevant copied the signature styles of Warhol or Haring to make a statement about the hegemony of the male superhero-artist.

But it is hard, really hard, to grasp what exactly the curators are trying to say, to spot the difference between those who fully embraced the glamorous artist-turned-entrepreneur figure and those who were trying to be provocative and mock the reliance of the art on pop culture. Almost impossible, I would say, amongst the digitally-enhanced penises, neon lights, diamond dust, looped song lyrics, all incessantly screaming at you from the walls. It’s hard to understand subtle, when you’re staring at something that is anything but.

Pop Life is at the Tate Modern until January 10th 2010.

For further reading about the exhibition I recommend:

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