Saturday, 25 August 2012

It could've been a shoe.

It is worth noting that the 1960s witnessed the so-called "democratisation" of art, as low-culture and high-culture were rendered relative and the distinction between the two became increasingly blurred. It was the birth of postmodernism, as well as the beginning of entrepreneurial art. Pop Art began as a satire on the burgeoning obsession with image, as soup tins worth pennies in the supermarkets were transformed into prints worth thousands. In a studio known as "the factory" Andy Warhol and his assistants churned out those famous prints, which epitomise the repetitive monotony of consumerism. The psychedelic prints of soup cans and bottles of Coca-Cola were ironic. There was no message, no point at all and it was intended as a joke. But it  was a satirical slant on the rampant consumer culture of Western capitalist societies. The prints later increased in value to obscene amounts of dough, and yet they were famously depictions of banal objects - the sort of thing you throw in the trolley in the supermarket. It was soon absorbed by what it was mocking, the burgeoning commercialism.

It was never the aim to undermine the Establishment and melt down consumer capitalism to unleash the creative capacities of the proletariat. Its satiric reflection of passive consumption and pop culture was sold to the same consumers ensnared in fashion trends. Rather the capitalist system had to exit in order for it be mimmicked cynically with a nudge and a wink. It was a part of the burgeoning commercialisation of cultural forms. Pop Art could be seen as conservative in this way, it would inevitably be subsumed into what it was mimmicking as it subverted the traditional standards of fine art. The radical relativisation of all standards leveled the art scene, but only to become the Establishment. Today it's Tracy Emin as well as Gilbert and George who are the conservatives. What about Warhol? He died a millionaire. Before doing so, he decorated his own home with antiques and fine art which he personally picked over the work he delivered to the world. Ultimately the trajectory is nihilistic, again this is something else capitalism has in common with it. As Warhol remarked when asked why he painted Elvis Presley "No, it could've been a shoe."

However, Warhol was not the first to get rich quick in the art world. It isn't particularly shocking to us today, as we now live in a world where the man who had a shark preserved in formaldehyde has amassed an estimated net worth of £235 million. In 2008 Damien Hirst sold an entire show for £111 million, if we want to know where this began we have Salvador Dalí to thank at a fundamental level. In a sense Dalí was the prototype for the postmodern artist now predominant. You know, the crass kind who revel in commercial success. He would sign his name to hundreds of blank pieces of paper sometimes at $100 a pop, which were then used to produce forgeries of his work and in turn undermined the value of his own paintings. It should be noted that all along Dalí was fixated on commercial success and courted it with great luck thanks to his business manager and wife Gala. A lot of the money went to funding an extravagant lifestyle, of multiple homes and multiple lovers. The commercialism in which Dalí indulged as a whore artiste inevitably drew the ire of his fellow surrealists even before Dalí's shameful complicity in Francoism.
In the later works we can detect a fundamental shift to the postmodern Dalí after the Second World War where the works increasingly began to degenerate into high kitsch - with only a few glimpses of exception. In these years Dalí was guilty of the reduction of art's value to an instrumental level, whether the end be the stated aim of reaching a higher plain of consciousness or filling his wallet. He never shirked from offending the aestheticism of the Establishment as well as his fellow surrealists. Ironically, he may have given greater ground in his work to the extreme formulation of aestheticism that "What is useful is ugly!" As the work of Duchamp and Picasso were formerly derided as "ugly" before becoming the Establishment, so too has Dalí and the process began in his lifetime.  The accusation that this particular brand of surrealism exemplifies bourgeois decadence is not entirely undeserved. It could be that the work of the surrealist school, in its bid to empty-out the subconscious onto the canvas, has been symptomatic rather than exemplary.

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