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by Rob Horning

20 Feb 2009

Graphic designer Shepard Fairey, now famous for the “Hope” posters for the Obama campaign (which has kicked up a legal battle about fair use), had a retrospective recently at the ICA in Boston. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, was not particularly impressed.

Warhol sublimely commodified images of Mao and the hammer and sickle four decades ago, in keeping with an ambition—to infuse subjects and tones of common culture with powers of high art—that has not grown old. Warhol’s revelatory games with the cognitive dissonance between art and commerce have galvanized artists in every generation since. But you can stretch a frisson just so many times before it goes limp. Like the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who included a Louis Vuitton boutique in his Los Angeles retrospective, Fairey reverses a revolution achieved by Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein. He embraces a trend in what the critic Dave Hickey has called “pop masquerading as art, as opposed to art masquerading as pop.”

That remark is a bit cryptic, particularly if you are skeptical about the dichotomy between pop and art. Around what concepts can that dichotomy be organized, anyway, in our culture? Can you refer to the intentions of the work’s creator? And then which intentions are artistic, and which ones aren’t? Evaluating how purposefully commercial a work is no longer lets us pigeonhole it along these lines. Art, after all, is big business, an investment category. Artists have become self-conscious businesspeople, producing their work along industrial lines and with a mind to maximizing its market value by controlling its scarcity and promoting it with various stunts. And the nature of the audience has changed, with the democratization of cultural consumption and the ease with which certain sorts of works can be distributed. Whether something is pop or art may depend entirely on the spirit with which it is contemplated by the viewer—the aesthetic quotient of a particular piece may rely as much on the cultural know-how of the audience as the proficiency of the artist. If we are conditioned to judge visual works by how effective they are in capturing our attention—the way marketing efforts are judged—than is it inevitable that artists will move toward catering to that principle? 

These are the sorts of questions Rob Walker gets into in an essay he posted to his site about Fairey from a few years ago. At the time Walker was writing, Fairey was working in marketing but also conducting guerrilla art projects, blurring the lines (at least in his own mind) between the two.

When I interviewed Fairey for that magazine article, I of course asked him about the contradictions involved in, say, being someone who has both wheat-pasted the icon face over Sprite billboards – and who has actually done professional design work for the company that owns Sprite. “People make this very black-and-white delineation,” he said. “But I say, ‘How would you feel about it if it were a little more ambiguous? If all companies had marketing materials that didn’t insult the consumer? That were somewhat creative and intelligent and almost like an art piece with a product behind it?”
In other words, instead of responding to the encroachment of evil branding into the supposedly pristine authenticity of the street by withdrawing – why not engage? If the idea of spreading the Obey image is to see how far the Obey image can spread, doesn’t it make a certain sense for it to show up on apparel that is sold in chain stores? If a multinational can put its icons on the street, maybe the street should put its icons into the shopping mall.

Drawing on cultural historian Jackson Lears’s Fables of Abundance, Walker contrasts Fairey with Joseph Cornell, another artist who appropriated materials from pop culture and refashioned it into art. But Cornell’s work was obsessional, private. It didn’t seem to be made with the idea of seeing how far his influence, or his trace, could be spread, as is the case with Fairey’s work. At the Cornell retrospective I saw in Salem, Massachusetts, the intimacy of the work was unmistakable; peering at his boxes made me feel a bit voyeuristic, even as I was inspired with a notion of my own potential creativity, the ways I could indulge my own obsessions (whatever I discovered them to be) with certain motifs of imagery, certain juxtapositions. Cornell’s art doesn’t seem to want to redeem his found objects so much as to render them mysterious, with all the mystery that a specific person’s peculiar and ineffable fascination can supply them with. Cornell’s work would not make for effective marketing material. The resonance of his designs are too inward and idiosyncratic. They are what no effective advertising can be: creepy.

Advertising is never creepy, always cool. And Fairey’s work seems to fit that aesthetic, prompting viewers to respond with the recognition that something hip is happening in Fairey’s mode of appropriation. Once you recognize that commercial persuasion has crowded out the space for art appreciation for just about everyone in our culture, the natural response is to try to function within commercial persuasion, adapt its ends to one’s own purposes. You can turn yourself into a brand, or you can take personal pride in how effective you shape the image of a product’s brand. Or you can work as though influence (cool, or hip, or what have you) was a medium all its own, with a meta-aesthetic beyond a given work’s persuasiveness. (You see this when people judge Super Ads in terms of their creativity rather than in terms of how many more people purchase the thing advertised.)

Popularity has become a medium in which artists now prefer to work. Artists can now treat the delineation of their influential scope as the measure and the message of their work; this iss perhaps the most characteristic aesthetic for which contemporary culture can take credit—the essence of art in the early-internet era. Artists can extend and measure their reach, “subvert” mass persuasion by perfecting it. But the pursuit of such scale, of making notoriety art,  corrupts the intimacy that art like Cornell’s had succeeded in achieving in the past. Or worse, it permits that intimacy to be refashioned as marketing, so it seems like our closest intimates, those privy to our deepest desires and concerns, those who can give them form that can stir and move us, are advertising copywriters.

by Bill Gibron

20 Feb 2009

by Matt White

20 Feb 2009

Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls have a new song called “Lake House” available to stream on their MySpace page. It’s a nice piece of reverb-drenched rock and is taken from the eighth instalment of Almost Ready’s The World’s Lousy With Ideas compilation. Check it out.

by C. T. Heaney

20 Feb 2009

Post-rock band Saxon Shore have announced plans to release their latest full-length through Japanese label & Records on April 15th. US and European release dates will follow shortly after. The group’s last four albums, three EPs and an LP, have all been issued through Philadelphia label Burnt Toast Vinyl.

Three songs from the new album are currently streaming on the band’s MySpace. The record is to be titled It Doesn’t Matter and features characteristically beautiful artwork, consisting of colorful lines in a geometric shape against a black background.

by L.B. Jeffries

19 Feb 2009

A professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College, Jayne Gackenbach, has conducted several studies on the relationship that gamers have with their dreams. The basic observation is that gaming has a traceable impact on the unconscious and this can often be seen in the dreams of various gamers.

So far the studies have explored three different things: cognitive factors, emotional content, and bizarreness in dreams associated with video game play. The strongest link in the studies found that high-end gamers typically experience more lucid dreams where the subject was aware that they were dreaming and could control their activities. A two-part series of studies found that although gamers were more aggressive (based on interviews) than the average person in their dreams, they also experienced aggressive dreams overall less than the norm. This led to another study, whose data is still being analyzed, but Gackenbach hypothesizes that daytime video game play may serve as a rehearsal for threat function that dreams may serve. This is based on the theory that our nightmares are actually survival mechanisms in which we undergo traumatic events in our dreams to prepare for them in the real world. The surprising discovery during many of these long interviews was that the typical “Being Chased” and “Can’t Escape” scenario of many nightmares did not frighten gamers. As Gackenbach notes in her conclusion to one of the studies, what better way to prepare for a dream than by constantly engaging in an out-of-body virtual reality?

Speaking for myself, not all of this applies to my dreams but a few elements struck a chord. I don’t often dream about things from games but I rarely have anything I’d call a nightmare. I don’t experience anything along the lines of Waking Life, but my dreams rarely feel out of control. Whenever I’m being chased in a dream, I just go someplace safe, wonder why I’m dreaming this weird stuff, get chased again, go someplace else. It’s all instinct and reaction but I rarely find any of it frightening. You can find the PowerPoint presentations and hard data from the research here. What is extremely unusual about


of this data is that typically lucid and out-of-body dreams require a great deal of meditation. Nightmares, which are often the product of real-life trauma such as being assaulted or post-traumatic stress disorder, may be significantly less unpleasant for people who play games.

There were several other observation that need to be corroborated with further data. Gamers may have a higher average number of dreams that feature little to no actual people and instead involve animals or other fantasy creatures. They also might experience more out of body or third person dreams than the average dreamer. It would be extremely helpful to Gackenbach’s study if anyone with a remote interest would fill out the survey offered here.

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