The leading exhibition that Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003) mounted as MOMA’s director, “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” drew criticism from all corners of the art world.Varnedoe firstly examined the influence of Marcel Duchamp on two American artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Not only did Duchamp’s ready-made broaden the meaning of art and aspire those who followed in his wake, but also Rauschenberg’s famed dictum about working in “the space between art and life” did as well. Varnedoe asserted that maintaining the space between art and life is necessary to the very existence of art per se. Once the gap is bridged, everything could be art and, as a consequence, nothing is art. The quintessence of art is to keep an idealistic distance between life.
The space between art and life, however, is by some means ambiguious. As Varnedoe explained in the opening of the show: ”I thought that after primitivism, the relationship of high art to mass culture is one of the great subjects crucial to what made modern art modern – and is still the source of high contention and interest with younger artists today.” This exhibition exemplified that high art could be found in low places, from Johns and Rauschenberg to Pop, Minimalism, Process Art, Earthworks and even, manga/comics. At the time of 1990, this concept was ambitious and yet dangerous because it placed Varnedoe in the middle between the modernist faithful who saw the exhibition as trendy pandering and the downtown crowd who regarded the notion of high art as arrogant and elitist.
The space between art and life is sometimes invisible. As Lia Gangitanoa, an independent curator who has engaged in alternative art scene for more then a decade, addressed in SFAI chestnut lecture hall on 12th Oct. : “I am searching for a new definition for ‘alternative.’ I think the real alternative for today is being able to attract a bunch of money in order to accomplish your artistic ideals.” With this in mind, we might also need a new definition for “art” in this dynamic world economy. As of today Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Murakami Takashi and Damien Hirst by setting up their factories or companies for their artistic creation/production, became the new role models of craftsmanship: the art entrepreneur.
(Louis Vuitton “Superflat Monogram” – Takashi Murakami from TechnoBoi11 on Youtube)
But the quintessence of art is still somewhere in there. Ellen Gallagher, for instance, shows the black and white bi-cultural tactic based on her experience of life. The repetition and revision are central to Gallagher’s treatment of advertisements that she appropriates from popular magazine. By using the high and low cultural norms in the media of painting, drawing, comics, writing, film, performance…etc., Gallagher tries to expose identity and opens up a space of multiple identifications.
Takashi Murakami, to a certain extent, also attempted to blur the boundaries between high and low art. He knows about Andy Warhol style of American visual taste and yet he holds still the Asian Otaku spirit. This Otaku spirit was originally from a Japanese slang sometimes used pejoratively to refer to anti-social people with obsessive hobbies, most commonly comics or animation; hardcore otaku refers to fans of sci-fi, computer games. But in Murakami’s definition, he as an Otaku is with a more transgressive sense in terms of “obscurant policy opposed by America.” let me quote his words, it “further evolved from a Japanese obscurant mentality” after the World War II. As he said explicitly: “It was nothing more than an obsequious gesture by a Japanese artist who assumed that a reference to Warhol would be better accepted by the American art scene.”This counter-cultural maneuver of Murakami, the “Japanese Warhol” who ambitiously expends his “art business” in U.S., would also be the raison d’etre for Murakami as a real artist of this century. [Back to front page]