Pop Life at the National Gallery of Canada reviewed (again)

'Art' of Onanism:
Pop Life mocks the National Gallery of Canada

"It's not pandering. We have certainly not lowered our standards or principles in order to have line-ups at the door." — National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer, quoted in the National Post.

Well. Thank God that's settled!

But the denial does beg the question, "Just what kind of standards did the National Gallery have before the June 10 opening of the blockbuster travelling show, Pop Life?

We had not meant to visit Pop Life, Raven and I. We hadn't even known about the show until we ventured inside. We were in the area to pay homage to the late Louise Bourgeois' Maman on behalf of an out-of-town friend and had then decided it was high time I paid my first visit to the National Gallery of Canada.

Paying homage to Louise Bourgeois.Geoffrey Dow pays homage
to Louise Bourgeois's Maman
Dancing Bear by Paul Saila
Geoffrey Dow dialogues with Paul Saila's bronze Dancing Bear in the Byward Market. (Saila's Wikipedia entry.)

But Serendipity had its way with us and so it was we ascended the ramp into the Warholian decadence of "pop art" — of hucksters and ad-men playing and preying on the vanities and fears of moneyed know-nothings who dare make no aesthetic judgement on their own.

And come closing time, we walked hand-in-hand into the dimning light of a northern spring evening, away from the glass and steel gallery and into the arboreal splendour of Major's Hill Park. I asked what she thought of what we'd seen.

She smiled uncertainly and squeezed my hand.

"I don't want to say."

I pondered that a while. "All right. How about I tell you what I think you want to say, and you tell me if I've got it right."

Raven said yes and I found myself ranting.

"I think you want to say that your intelligence has been insulted by a display of pretentious ... crap, that you don't want to say anything because all sorts of so-called experts take this stuff seriously and you can't believe you're the only one who's noticed the emperor is naked."

Raven laughed and, encouraged, I raved on. "The Pop-Art movement was a racket, a confidence game, a scam which has convinced generations of pseudo-intellectuals they're an intelligentsia hip to a revolutionary avant-garde when, in fact, they are suckers being played by commercial hacks who use stolen images and multi-syllabic words to say nothing at all."

It turned out we were in agreement. We had spent (or wasted) a couple of hours of our lives wandering through a prestigious exhibit of ... Well, we decided that crap was le mot juste, if not le mot complet.

Still, though there is not much on display worth looking at in and of itself, the exhibit raises some important questions, questions not raised by Maman or by the dancing bear to whom Serendipity had, earlier and when in good spirits, introduced us.

In retrospect, what is most striking about Pop Life is how overt so many of the pieces are in their leering vapidity, how so many of the "artists" seem to be daring their victims (that's us, folks!) to stand up and say, pace Gertrude Stein, "There is no there there!"

Andy Warhol and his a-spiritual descendants are like the emperor of fable, except they know all too well their sumptuous finery is an illusion dependent on the willingness of the crowds to fool themselves.

The exhibit (the show runs until September 19), was crowded. Hipsters and art-students rubbed shoulders with those members of the bourgeoisie who feel it imperative to put in an appearance at such events.

Lonesome Cowboy, by Takashi Murakami: theft as art, in the worst tradition of Warhol.
Lonesome Cowboy, by Takashi Murakami: theft as art, in the worst tradition of Warhol (Wikipedia.)

Gazing with bovine approval at a second-rate sculpture of a naked man's huge and hugely erect, eternally-spurting penis; at pages torn from third-rate 1970s-era pornographic magazines; at poorly-lit, still photos of an "artist" having sex with a man who has paid her $20,000 for the privilege; and at a "dead horse", symbolizing — well, I forget just what that symbolized but it no doubt needed an academic's intercession for the rest of us to comprehend it.

In any event, all around us knowing nods were exchanged and phrases like "transgressing boundaries" and "challenging patriarchy" and (to quote from the exhibit's PDF accompaniment, Sex Sells) "...tread[ing] too closely within or against the lines of common decency", were solemnly spoken and accepted, as if the audience was sharing shining pearls of miraculous wisdom and not moldy prose regurgitated from nearby plaques or half-remembered university lectures.

Although most of us by this point expect our politicians and priests, our sports stars and scout-leaders, our academics and even our artists to lie to us, we are paradoxically surprised anew each time we notice a particular instance. We have somehow come to habitually lie to ourselves, unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge the truths that are laid out in plain sight before us.

Jeff Koons tells it like it is.
Jeff Koons tells it like it is in the November 1988 edition of ArtForum. (Image: Sex Sells.

Look at the Koons "ad" from ArtForum at right if you don't believe me.

The truth is there in white-on-green:


Well folks, we are those masses and we are expected to see that image and yet believe we are somehow not the butt of the joke.

And so we pretend that Koons' narcissistic dalliance with the one-time porn-star and sometime politician Ilona (la Cicciolina) Staller or Andrea Fraser's documentation of her $20,000 fuck in a hotel room is worth more of our attention than any of thousands of amateur sex videos on offer all over the internet.

(And really, the artist as prostitute stops being an interesting metaphor when the artist literally becomes a whore and no amount of blathering on about how the john has become a participant in art can disguise what's really going on — unless we just refuse to see.)


Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, a paean to the gullibility of homo academicus.
Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, a paean to the gullibility of homo academicus.

Believe it or not, I don't want all of my sculptures to be weird giant spiders or (arguably) kitschy and (definitely) cute dancing bears, but, as others have said, I prefer art which leaves its audience free — not to "dialogue" but to talk with it — to invent our own stories from the original creation.

I have little time for art which is a puzzle with a single key, preferring that which is imbued, as Tolkien put it, with "the freedom of the [viewer] and [not] the purposed domination of the [creator]."

I prefer art which doesn't need an academic's footnotes to enjoy it, which tells a story or expresses a mood or idea, not art which illustrates a thesis or which seeks only to "shock" the sensibilities of its viewers.

And I despise that art which despises its audience. An elaborate joke whose punchline is, "You are a sucker for having bought this," is not "art" at all, not if we want to continue using the same word to describe the works of Picasso or Van Gogh, of Virginia Woolfe or Samuel R. Delany, of Patty Smith or Leonard Cohen.

I know, all this has been said by others many times before. But the point bears repeating so long as we hand over our critical faculties to ostensible experts who can not or will not distinguish chocolate fudge from, well ... you know what I mean.

Detail from Exaltations, by Jeff Koons
Detail from Exaltations, by Jeff Koons.
Andrea Fraser fucks for money - is it art?
Andrea Fraser fucks for money. (Image from ArtNet.com.)

So why is pop-art still taken seriously? Why is The National Gallery of Canada presenting a major retrospective on the movement?

Marc Mayer asserts that the National Gallery has not lowered its standards in presenting Pop Life and, given that it paid $1.8 million dollars back in 1990 for a tri-colour painting whose only virtue is that it is very large, there is no reason to doubt his word.

Clearly, the institution's brain-trust long ago substituted whatever values it might once have had with a self-reinforcing series of "dialogues" between academics in search of an obscure (and so, unassailable) tenure and artists and agents in search of an easy buck.

And yet the insulting banality of this exhibition does have a real-world applicability to our culture and our times which (almost) makes it worth the free admission I used to see it.

Jeff Koons, Fingers Between Legs (1990).
Jeff Koons, Fingers Between Legs (1990).

Those of us who've come of age since the 1970s have never known a world in which most "secrets" are actually secrets at all. Instead we slothfully accept deniability from our officials and a journalism that has mostly confused objectivity — presenting the facts to the best of one's ability — with quoted statements from two (official) "opposing sides" on each and every issue, as if matters of politics and ethics — indeed of life and truth itself — were no more nor less than a baseball or a hockey game.

So it is little wonder that most of us prior to 2003's invasion of Iraq were just as credulous about Saddam Hussein's non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" as most Americans were in 1964, when the North Vietnamese did not attack a U.S. Navy ship. The difference is, in 2003 the truth was out there for anyone even mildly interested in learning; the same might not have been true in 1964.

In much the same way, the pop-art movement's contempt for its audience is blazingly obvious if one doesn't accept the initial claim, that crap is art. One need only look at what is on display to realize that, if you take the work seriously, the artist thinks you are an idiot.

You could make (and I'm sure many have made) the argument that the Pop Art movement was itself the work of art, that its mockery of its victims was a commentary on a deeply disfunctional culture.

Pretend for a moment that it is true, and ask yourself: So what?

The photograph, above right, is not a comment on pornography, it is pornography. That Jeff Koons has slapped it behind glass and convinced gallery and museum curators to hang it on their walls doesn't make it a good picture, any more than the fact that Vincent van Gogh managed to sell almost none of his paintings during his lifetime means his work weren't often very good paintings indeed.

The Pop-art agenda has been an open secret ever since Andy Warhol realized he could make more money making copies than he could creating art back in the 1960s.

Warhol showed that craft didn't matter, that the rubes couldn't tell why (some) of Picasso's paintings are brilliant and others mere scribbles. And so generations of artists, academics and so-called critics have played at the sometimes lucrative ponzi scheme in which all three have a vested financial interest in keeping the con alive.

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