From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 4  March 1993

Art as Lifestyle (Monoculturalism)

  

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The following was read at a real-life provocation staged by The Baffler on October 21, 1992 at the Hot House, a Chicago “performance space” and favorite art-lifestyle hangout. Capture the ambience of the moment by shouting this piece angrily as loud as you can and tearing the pages out of the book as you read them.

I was watching the Madonna tour movie on TV the other night. There’s a scene where she’s hassled by some stuffy Canadian police, who don’t want her grabbing her crotch during the dance routine for one of her songs. They’re seriously intent on smothering her self-expression. But Madonna, she’s her own woman, she won’t give in to these stuffy old prunes, just like she won’t give in to Jesse Helms and all the other church ladies across this repressed country. There’s this one fantastic scene where she and these two totally self-confident women of color go walking onto the stage and right in front of these cops, wearing these totally outrageous costumes and singing her song “Holiday” so it sounds like “We Shall Overcome” or something—and it’s like they’re just thumbing their noses at these pathetic patriarchs. The cops are boiling over with righteous anger, but still they have to back down, they can’t take on someone so totally together as Madonna.

And it reminded me of how we in the art community are always struggling for the right to express ourselves, and how the man is always trying to shut us down. It reminded me of people like Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, who always had to fight the moralistic types, and it made me think of how this battle, between us doing our own thing and their stuffy, didactic babittry is the central experience of the artistic lifestyle.

So how do you all feel about that?


Well, fuck you! That’s got to be one of the most fatuous shibboleths in the entire bourgeois lexicon!

Now I’ll tell you about another platitude. It’s a TV commercial for the Gap, part of their current campaign in which dozens of art and music and dance celebrities endorse their products as some kind of hip lifestyle signifier. It depicts a Luke-Perry-ish guy with sideburns—and a ponytail, probably—reading a ludicrously pretentious poem about … his trousers in a place a lot like this one; dark, smoky, slightly risky. I suppose that by reinforcing all those fond suburban fantasies about the exciting, fulfilling lives of artists it’s convinced a lot of people to buy their jeans from the Gap. Gap products, you know, are supposed to make you stand out from the crowd, mark you as a daring nonconformist, a rebel, an impudent shocker of the bourgeoisie, an artist.

Thus does advertising, the great American art form, encapsulate for us the true legacy of modernism: the corporate poet, singing his ode to the commodity muse. It’s an image that’s almost impossible to avoid. Beck’s beer runs a similar commercial in which they portray their product as the choice of TriBeCa, a part of New York City recently gentrified by artists. It pictures the remarkably accessible product in lofts decorated with huge inscrutable canvases, with people painting, with people dressed up to resemble artists. Heath candy positions itself as the angst-relieving bonbon of those ultra-creative sculptors and ever-so-radical action painter types. A brand of trousers is promoted with photography that screams ‘daring’ and ‘impressionistic,’ disjointed bits of suggestive phrases like “foreign films” and “modern art.” Levi’s are pictured in an extensive array of Matisse and Picasso imitations, reminding us not only of those artists’ cool celebrity hip, but of their revolutionary defiance of middle-class mores.

Of course you think these are just more cheap rip-offs, another co-opting of your precious scene. But in fact ads like these present a much more accurate and honest vision of the state of art in America than does anything produced by anybody in Soho or Provincetown or even Wicker Park. They make no pretenses about the function of artists today, the role you play in a consumer society like ours. Ads like these correctly make one crucial but simple observation: that “art” is fundamentally a lifestyle. It’s a pose you adopt, a look and attitude that you affect. It has almost nothing to do with what you produce; in fact it’s almost completely content-free. And it’s also, with its image-consciousness, its taste for unrestraint, and its reverence for the new, a lifestyle singularly well-attuned to the cultural necessities of consumer capitalism.

Ads like these correctly make one crucial but simple observation: that “art” is fundamentally a lifestyle.

Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, it seems, is a publication dedicated to proving this proposition. Month after month it drives home its vision of artist as consumer hero, with glossy photo spreads depicting the amenities of the creative, sensitive lifestyle. Artists are daring nonconformists who, for fear of seeming too conventional, never appear in the same clothing twice. Artists are a liberated people who flout their ineffable individuality by patronizing the most transparently worthless consumer goods just as soon as they are marketed, and abandoning them shortly after. Each issue of Interview escorts us to a consumer fantasy-land inhabited by the brazen Madonna, the sullen Keanu, the challenging Thierry Mugler, the thoughtful Moschino, the army of insurgent models and soon-to-be rock stars, accompanied by all the stuff they own and wear. All are rebels, boldly flouting convention with unusual purchases; all celebrate their liberation from conformity with wild displays of fiscal frivolity; all stoutly defend the integrity of their prize personalities by buying stuff that nobody else has yet. Of course you will have that stuff as soon as your copy of Interview arrives, but our ever-inventive lifestyle leaders will by then be off on something different.

The artist, as the word is correctly understood in the context of the spectaclist regime, circa 1992, is a lifestyle you take up as a kind of consumer decision, much as you decide on any other look or commodity ensemble. It’s a look and attitude that symbolizes a certain variety of hyper-consumer, the person who leads us perpetually to new styles and products, the pioneer of fashion and neighborhoods, the gentrifier of working-class habits and houses, the people who made The Gap, Benetton’s, and Pearl Jam possible. And although you may not dress or behave like your sturdy suburban parents, your role in powering the great wheels of consumer capitalism is no less important. You may not wear a gray flannel suit, live in a split-level ranch house, or commute every day to the mindless grind, but your duties are just as important to the health of the state.

For you, the artists, are a special variety of über-bourgeoisie, as the obscene prices commanded by your works and the spiraling rents in places designated as “artist colonies” amply testify. Your role is not to churn out the paperwork, but to churn out the images capital needs to keep us glued to the tube, enthralled with the malls, banal, stupid, and utterly superficial forever. You set a consuming example for the rest of us, you embody the new and demonstrate through your works, deeds, and dress the importance of an ever-novel appearance. In a society driven by an eternally shifting public facade you provide a living justification of the motto, “Image is Everything.” Your lifestyle antics serve to eternally remind us of the obsolescence of the old, the invalidity of last year’s craze.

And holding the whole thing together is that old middle-class favorite, the avant-garde. Now, some fifty years after the historical duties of the avant-garde were universally recognized to have been accomplished, you have made of its doctrines a bizarre commodity cult. You take as your highest—and only!—mission its tired old causes, the shocking of the bourgeoisie, the overturning of tradition. You have abandoned its passion, its conviction, its meaning and have taken instead its mistrust of tradition and made it your only message, your sole article of faith. You flail against the phantom enemies of puritanism, self-restraint, and nonexistent censorships. You fancy yourselves rebels in the mold of Rimbaud, the Dadaists, James Dean; free spirits who refuse to conform to the mandates of a one-dimensional society.

Holding the whole thing together is that old middle-class favorite, the avant-garde….the bourgeoisie now thrives on being shocked.

It’s never occurred to you that the one-dimensional society now runs on images of rebellion, that the bourgeoisie now thrives on being shocked. Your avant-garde posturing now serves to reinforce the planned obsolescence so central to the system you are supposed to be subverting; your eternal trumpeting of the new works to corroborate the great lessons of TV advertising. Your calls for release from the moralistic constraints of the past help to erode the vestiges of the work-and-save ethos so that it may be replaced by the credit-driven unrestraint deemed necessary by the financial powers-that-be. You are the custodians of commodified dissent, liberators of the consumer id, the paramount symbol of the consumer culture that has made our nation so slack and stupid.

You have erected an official style of institutionalized rebellion, a well-oiled image-generating motor which runs at fever pitch to keep the great wheel of eternal novelty turning and turning. With your NEA grants and your daddy’s money spent on performance spaces and galleries and loft studios you have built an orthodoxy of transgression. It is no surprise that your greatest moments, your “Next Wave Festivals,” your big-money gallery openings are sponsored by people like Philip Morris and AT&T. All down the line you professional vanguardists are in league with the cultural project of Madison Avenue. You are the cultural storm-troops of the New, savaging “master narratives” so that the manipulation of the consumer can continue without interference from troublesome things like ethics and tradition. And while once upon a time the leaders of the avant-garde may have posed a serious intellectual threat to the machinations off the official culture, the highest, most forthright embodiment off your lifestyle is the celebrity product spokesman: Andy Warhol for Braniff, Kim Gordon for the Gap, Bohemians for a kind of beer.

A number of years ago Daniel Boorstin referred to advertising as “the omnipresent, most characteristic, and most remunerative form of American literature,” a body of works “destined to have an intimate popular appeal and a gross national influence without parallel in the history of sacred or profane letters.” Michael Schudson calls it “capitalist realism.” Either way, advertising is the paramount art form of our age, the cultural expression of the times that dwarfs all others. Here is a form which has absorbed every radical representational technique of the last century. It has been a pioneer in language, film, and video, with a hundred times more money and brain power spent on each prime time TV commercial than on the programs which surround them. It is also an art form with a specific designated goal in mind. Advertising aims to sell not only products but also a way of life in which the buying of products is the primary path to human happiness. No room for precious ambiguity or empty erudition here: advertising means to change your mind, and it uses the often opaque methods of postmodernism in the service of a very unambiguous project.

The struggle of the twentieth century has been a cultural one, ever since business recognized that the public’s consuming patterns would have to change in order for their profit-taking to continue as usual. But this the art lifestyle fails to comprehend. The conflict is not over some literary canon, as you would like to believe, or over some threat of censorship by the moralistic, or even over the privileging of Western ways. All of these are miniscule sideshows to the central issue: the unquestioned hegemony of consumerism over every facet, every mode of our nation’s cultural production. We are besieged daily from all sides by the braying of the great megaphone of business culture, with TV, film, literature, and artists all screaming the same ever-shifting message. Not multiculturalism, but MONOCULTURALISM is the operative word of the day, as the tide of shit rises unimpeded higher and higher, and the public mind is molded accordingly.

The battle is a cultural one, and yet never have the forces of cultural opposition been so blind to the tasks at hand, to the nature of the conflict. The Baffler calls for a earnest embrace of the adversarial purpose to which modernism once dedicated itself, for a frank recognition of the way the monoculture has determined our thoughts and lives. We must have an art that is at least as well done as advertising, that provokes thinking—if not so blatantly, at least as persuasively. We cannot afford to regard the postmodern “condition” of detached surfaces and unanchored images as an innocuous, inevitable, and irresistible development. The business imagery that has created the postmodern world, remember, is an imagery that works, that does things, that refers to signifieds that make people do things, that causes them to spend their lives in dreary pursuit of a shallow and impossible consumer bliss. If we are truly concerned with humanity and not merely our works’ reflection of this or that art theory, we cannot regard this development ironically or fatalistically.

As Big Art draws bigger and bigger sums, the fundamental assumptions of the avant-garde are reduced to meaninglessness. The artist has lost his critical social position and become a more or less conscious propagandist for planned obsolescence; a corporate illustrator, decorator, or copywriter: a good little cog in the monocultural machine.

And as literature becomes mired in precious sloughs of irony and textuality, these debasements lose their shame. You veer unfailingly away from the central aesthetic questions of our time, opting instead to invent façile plays for hipness that can be easily transmuted into clever new advertising. And the whole consumerist project itself, the central motive force and organizing theme of our age, becomes unjudgeable amidst the fogs of “undecidability” you have called down upon yourselves. Impotent, powerless, fearful of forthright speech lest you privilege one discourse over another, you have left the world open to exploitation, manipulation, and control by those who know what they want: Madison Avenue and THE BAFFLER.

As the great American monoculture achieves an ever-tightening hegemony, we call for a new aesthetic of resistance, a final secession from the Culture Industry. We call for an art that is radical in its content, not merely in its playful surface innovations. The Baffler proclaims itself the enemy of the stars, the deflator of celebrity, the subverter of your corporate cadre of subversives. And as the nation slides deeper into depression we call for an aesthetic of genuine dissent, for an honest recognition of the forces that conspire to keep us dumb and complacent before the deafening din of the consumer monoculture. In a time when the ‘cutting edge’ has become a powerful tool for mediocratization, we dedicate ourselves to its blunting. In an age when the Hollywood glamor of the ‘avant garde’ has long since overtaken its aesthetic usefulness, we happily devise new tactics to send it scurrying in disarray.

thesheep

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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