Stale Loaves, Gamey Fish, and Feeding More than Five-Thousand

How exactly does one appeal to the masses of humanity?  What’s the secret recipe to make culture go pop?  Is it a common ingredient, a hermetic principle, or what?  I mean, it can’t be all that complex; just look at the people who’ve accomplished it.  In this week’s “In  a Real World, This Would Be Happening,” I want to attack the glamor of being the name on everyone’s lips.  Let’s see what the experts have to say.

Andy Warhol

“In the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” said the man, and boy was he right.  If you haven’t been world-famous yet, then you haven’t wanted to.  Andy Warhol learned how to do it more than three decades before Internet fame was available.  His magic trick involved taking images most people were already familiar with and painting them numerous times on a single canvas.  He raped popular culture, using everything from movie stills to canned soup labels, and when people decried him as a charlatan, a fake painter, he laughingly agreed with his detractors, saying that his paintings had absolutely no artistic value, that art itself had no value, and that an artist is someone who makes things people don’t need.  He said finally, “I’ve decided something: commercial things really do stink.  As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market, it really stinks.”

I’ve learned this, too, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to suspect that perhaps this is more than a simple opinion, that perhaps widespread acclaim really does harm a thing.  However, not all things seem susceptible to this form of corruption, only works of art.  I say so for the simple reason that non-artistic things like tools and such are used by everyone in proportion to their usefulness.  Nobody uses washboards anymore, because washing machines are much more efficient.  Everyone uses wheels to move things around, because wheels are exquisite at rolling.  In fact, they are experts.

But wouldn’t it be cool to use a washboard to clean clothes in the sink?  It kinda would, yeah, but our crappy modern clothes wouldn’t stand up to the scrubbing.  And wouldn’t it be chic to have a working bicycle with square wheels?  You bet.  Jean Paul Gaultier would have his brand stamped on one overnight if it were possible, and then he’d charge $15,000 for it, and you know what?  It’d sell.  So it seems that living contrary to popular culture has artistic merit.  Andy figured it out as a painter in the 1950s and made an entire career out of thumbing his nose at the rest of the artistic community, merely rendering silly commercial icons and symbols into fine art, and now he’s revered as one of the most important artists of all time (though not with art history intellectualites).  He’s the biggest pop-culture painter in the history of pop art.  In fact, he’s sometimes called the father of it.  Goddamn, irony can really make me smirk.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde

Oscar Wilde said the same thing Andy did, that “All art is really quite useless,” and also that, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”  Well done, Sir, well said indeed, but what signifies good art if it is all useless?  The number of its admirers could gauge the quality of our art for us, couldn’t it?

Marketing giants sure want it that way.  They would have us believe that popularity is the barometer by which all art should be measured, but not because they have a solid, philosophical reason or honest, subjective opinion on the matter, but rather because they do want to sell as many of their products as possible, and since any one product is going to look and act precisely the same as the others once we get them home, advertisers want it to be a sign of quality that we all have one, rather than evidence that we haven’t been thinking on our own.  They say that Britney Spears is a genius; they say you can tell by the millions of albums she’s sold.

On the other hand, making money is a rather obvious purpose, a typically modern use for a thing, wouldn’t you say?  And if Britney is useful to the corporations, then Oscar says she is not art.  What about Andy, though?  Andy said to the media once, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”  Yeah, but Andy painted Campbell’s soup cans and laughed at his buyers to the media.  His joke on the art world was his true art.  His lifestyle was his true art.  His paintings were like the stage magician’s wand, which when waved about would distract the audience from what the other hand was doing — namely, anything it (he) wanted.

Wilde’s “intense admiration”

The other half of Oscar’s quote could be true, though.  What if excellent art could be measured not by the number of its admirers, but by the intensity of its fans’ admiration?  It’s possible.  If it were true, the corporations sure wouldn’t like for it to get out.  Could you imagine?  Imagine legions of soccer moms and old ladies taking down their Thomas Kinkade paintings and re-framing various images they found at the local bazaar, and why?  Because they like the way they look hanging there on the wall, that’s why, and because nobody anywhere else has got one.  It’s unique.  It’s unique, and for some reason, that’s a good thing, but you sure can’t sell it.  It’s hard to manufacture unique.

I’m not here to figure out exactly what makes good art, though.  That was Aristotle’s thing (the nature of quality, I mean) and he never really nailed it down; I’m arrogant, but not so conceited that I think I’m going to define it in a Wednesday morning web log.  I wanted to find out what it takes to produce mass appeal, and so far I’ve only figured out that people have been fooled into buying things based on their popularity.  This is not going to work.  Quickly, let’s go, let’s go.

Jackson Pollock

This is Jackson Pollock’s work.  It’s called “Galaxy,” and I think that’s fitting.  It looks — something like that.  There are two immediate reactions to a Pollock piece.  Sometimes people say, “Say, that’s a pretty thing,” and other times they say, “Hell, I could do that.”  You know what?  It’s true.  Even a 4 yr. old can do it.  They can do it and make thousands upon thousands of dollars.  This approaches an answer to our problem, which was, how does one go about garnering mass appeal?  How does one snare the positive attention of millions of common people?  The answer lies in a suggestion.  I’m putting it in bold so it stands out to my casual readers.

What if people are commonly of bad taste, whereby corporations sell things of bad taste to satisfy an enormous consumer demand?

Were it true, then it would cause a tailspin of poor taste and reprehensible artistic values after a decade or so.  Consumers would allow marketing geniuses to tell them that mediocre artists produce works of enduring quality.  The public would come to believe that every new thing that everyone purchased had intrinsic benefits because everyone had purchased one.  That’d make selling things to the people even easier, because excellent things are much more rare than commonplace things; it’d be far simpler to convince people that auto-tune makes a song more fashionable than talented vocalists can, whereby great singers wouldn’t have to be found in great supply; it’d be much more straightforward to make splatter paintings more fashionable than, say, expressionism or pre-Rafaelite art, because then big business could have toddlers create a steady stream of high-demand products, pre-framed and ready for their place on the living room wall; it’d be a cinch to sell children’s books to full-grown adults if the adults were convinced that adults everywhere were already reading them.

The real cover of Harry Potter VII, and the pretend cover for adults.

On this last score, one wonders, “Is it necessarily so that great children’s books are poor literature for a man or woman?”  It’s a fair and fine question.  I think that if the reader’s comprehension of the literature is at a child’s level, then children’s books are perfectly appropriate to help him or her learn to read books which deal with mature ideas and circumstances, books written with magnificent poetry and masterful turns of wit and cleverness.  Is it too harsh of me to suggest that adults who read children’s books should be ashamed of themselves unless their reading comprehension is at a child’s level?  Nope.  Here, look: Rowling’s publisher released a second edition of Harry Potter VII, one with a big-boy grownup cover on it, so that mature fans wouldn’t have to be embarrassed for reading baby books in public.  If they’re ashamed of themselves, why should I go easy on them?

Alright, then, we have seen that corporations produce second-rate, mock-up, or ill-suited art for the ignorant masses, and that they manufacture ignorance to boost sales.  Rowling’s people know Harry Potter is not suitable for adult reading, so they facilitate the retardation of adult literacy by disguising consumers’ laziness as a respectable literary endeavor.  Fine.  I believe now that I have an answer.

In order to appeal to the masses of humanity, one need only produce something as near as possible to what most people are already interested in.  The largest number of people is the most homogeneous; the largest number of people is the most average and mediocre; the largest number of people is the most unsurprising, the most unoriginal, the most lacking in ingenuity.  In other words, in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator, one need not trouble oneself; one need only have something truly unimpressive to offer — and the truly unimpressive are sure to snatch it up.

Can it be said that mass appeal actually harms an otherwise quality work of art, then?  Certainly.  Many great works of art stunned and offended audiences because they were innovative and ingenious.  If everyone had accepted the punk rockers, the movement would have been dismantled.  If all the Thomas Kinkaid sort of fans had suddenly found an interest in dadaism, the dadaists would have had to try something else.  If the people who dress unfashionably suddenly donned Gucci and Prada, guess which designers wouldn’t get invited to the next show in Milan.  Can it be said that popularity actually harms art?  Why not, when things like fine art, influential music, and classic literature are continually thrown over for cheap, flash-in-the-pan imitations?  If the people of mediocre taste, values, and education find something irresistible in a certain thing, then the art itself becomes an accomplice.  It’s guilty by association.

This brings us to the final irony, and to me, the funniest.  I’ll let our pop-culture authority close this chapter by elucidating:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.”

-Andy Warhol

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7 Comments

  1. I tend to think that art and popularity do not generally have anything in common at all. Sometimes The Great Machine that controls the level of popularity of an individual, group, or whatever, recognises a true talent and the result may be explosive, but that’s not what they’re actually looking for. What the Machine seeks is a product that it can mould and market. Art, on the other hand is more like beauty is said to be and is entirely in the eye of the beholder and that may be solely the creator.

    Pollock, I think, is an example. It is the effect, or reaction that his work creates in the viewer and you may hate it or love it, but few ignore it completely. He may of course be playing a huge joke on The Machine, or indeed on all of us, but the probable fact is that he does it to please himself – since the most serious critic that the majority of artists fear is themselves.

    So, to me, without the attention of The Machine, mass appeal is little more than accidental and it doesn’t really matter that much whether what an individual produces is considered by others to be great art. We all like what we personally like and, if they don’t buy into the hype and the bullshit, artists frequently remain relatively poor. But that doesn’t stop them loving what they do with a passion that many a lover would willingly kill to engender.

    • Interesting points. Hard comment to reply to briefly. Your three paragraphs are packed with ideas that deserve an hour-long beer talk apiece, such as that Pollock’s art is important because people fail to ignore it, and that “art is in the eye of the beholder.”

      You’re very forgiving in stark raving contrast to the shit talking I do here. I expect more from so-called art than that it garners various appraisals from varying kinds of people, and if I agreed completely with you on this score, my man, I rather think I might really hate it all for being so nebulous. I certainly agree in shades, though. Hence my displeasure, ja?

      If what you say is true, then Harry Potter is just as valuable as Crime and Punishment, and for myself, I refuse to value things so disparate from one another by an all-art-is-beautiful-to-somebody standard. I think much of it blows, and your Great Machine (apt name) is breaking down the wall between the art we’d do for the sake of having awesome art, and the art we’d do to get paychecks from the GM. So I flare and flame and bark and growl, and I think the tide may be turning a little in the literature arena, but whatever. As long as I have classics to read, I don’t give a fuck if people want to entertain themselves with linguistic cartoons. It’s their life, so-to-speak.

      Thanks for an awesome discussion, man.

      You other readers should check out Adam Frayle’s work. He’s super talented. There’s a link to him right there.

      -BothEyes

  2. The nail’s been struck on the proverbial head as far as I’m concerned. Mass popularity for an art form hurts. Particularly music, as that’s arguably the most common and most popular form to be affected by what we’re so affectionately referring to as The Machine.

    A sudden rise in popularity often deters the ‘hardcore’ fans from liking a group. I’m guilty of this myself, as a lot of young kids are. We may like a band, only for them to release a single that goes global, and suddenly they’re mainstream fish food. This is the stage where we throw around cliches like: “I liked them before they were cool.” And “I was listening to these guys 3 years ago.” Before abandoning them altogether. Because they ‘sold out’. It feels to me like the band’s been taken from you. You’re no longer unique for having a vested interest in them. Now you’re one of millions. You’re like everyone else. New kids come along and declare that they’re the band’s biggest fan, despite having heard nothing but the latest album. It angers the hardcore fans that’ve been there since day one, that have spent time, money and effort learning about a band. But now at gigs, you’re fighting with kids who only know the words to the latest single to get to the front. It’s an arrogant and pretentious way to view the whole situation, but it’s the way I, and a lot of others feel.

    Come to think of it, I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but over here fashion sometimes blends horribly with music. Legends, idols are printed on T-shirts and dresses worn by the trendy kids who shop at Topshop. Kids with David Bowie, Mick Jagger, The Ramones and more displayed on their fabric fuck-up clothing. I can say without hesitation that they are not active fans of these groups. But somehow it’s fashionable to wear them. I think high-street fashionistas produce this shit just to piss people like me off. People that give a shit.

    Yeah, that annoys me. It annoys me a lot.

    Anyway, mini-rant aside. Another well-written article. It’s the kind of thing I’ve tried to explain but not had the words, or indeed the attention of whoever I’m trying to school. I might memorise it word for word and preach it outside my local highstreet.

    Mac

    • Dear Mac,

      Yeah, it’s exactly the same here in L.A. In fact, I remember in 2006 or ‘7 the Academy Awards gala was about to happen, and the usual fashion magazine articles about what all the stars would be wearing began to appear. That year, I remember the sub-headline was something like, “Sex Symbols Won’t Be Rocking Prada and Gucci This Year, They’ll Be Wearing Rock!” It showed Paris Hilton and Jennifer Aniston and others wearing those same pre-beat-up rock n’ roll tee shirts you mention: Ramones, T-Rex, the Clash.

      It’s fucking pathetic.

      There’s an element of stupidity in disliking a band as soon as they become popular, it can’t be denied, but more often than not, the actual band begins to suck in direct proportion to how popular they are. That’s what I was trying to show with this piece all those months ago.

      Are you familiar with Bad Religion? They’re the best example I can think of. They put out a few decent albums before hitting the mainstream — and by that, I mean that they produced SEVEN COMPLETELY AMAZING RECORDS on their own goddamn label over FIFTEEN YEARS. Suddenly, they sign to Atlantic, re-release their Recipe for Hate album, and — and — and…!

      And crap in exactly six months. They’ve come nowhere near Recipe for Hate since signing. It’s such an old, old story. It’s practically Biblical.

      What I do these days (cause I’m old enough now) is just buy old vinyl by bands that will never be mainstream popular again, old punk rock and classic rock and hippie rock and acid rock, big band music (swing), unknown ska, blues, jazz, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, there’s a shitload of awesome music I haven’t been exposed to, yet. It’s stupid to wait for an amazing contemporary band, just so I can listen to a contemporary band.

      Enough about all that, though. I’m going to go listen to John Lee Hooker.

      Hey, bytheway, can you get the Libertines back together? I’d owe you one for that.

      Yours Truly,

      -Both

      PS — also BTW, there’s a great song about this topic by a So-Cal newskool punk band from the nineties called Lagwagon. The song’s “Know It All.” I suggest you steal it and read the lyrics as it plays. Good shit, or at least I like it.

      • I’m aware of Bad Religion but I’ve heard very little. The biggest example of that kind of thing over here is Kings of Leon, who I understand aren’t even that big over in their native America. They’re huge over here though now. I have and still occasionally enjoy the first two albums, it’s a great, rough rock, bluesy feel. But…Then…Sex on Fire was released, and suddenly they’re everyone’s favourite band.

        Another thing, Rage Against The Machine, who are phonomenal it has to be said. One of the best bands in the world. I don’t know if you heard about the anti- X Factor campaign last year over hear. Trying to get Killing In The Name to Christmas number one rather than an X-Factor single, an amusing campaign yes. But now everyone loves that song because of that, not because it’s a brilliant anti-establishment song. People, the same people that sing along to the shit produced by Taio Cruz [who hopefully you’ve never heard].

        Worse still, it starts to infect festivals. Festivals are no longer for hardcore fans, they’ve become an experience for every casual music listener. People go just to get pissed, they have no interest in the music. And furthermore, most of the music there is put on to cater for that crowd, it’s whatever’s popular. These are pathetic complaints I’m making ye, essentially I’m denying other people a right to enjoyment but fuck ’em.

        A friend and I went into a vinyl shop a few weeks back. I decided I wasn’t leaving without something. We browsed the blues section, came across Big Joe Williams who I hadn’t heard of, and bought the damn thing solely on how old and rough I expected it to be. He bought some Lee Hooker. We weren’t disappointed. Why can’t everyone do this? They should. That’s my musical fascist overlord impression there.

        As for The Libertines, I was never actually a fan, but I’ll make some calls ye. You take care of Colonel Sanders and I’ll have a word with Doherty & co.

        And Lagwagon – Know it All, haha. I like how it’s barely even a song, just a tirade accompanied by some punky chords. Ace.

      • In short, no, I haven’t heard of that Cruz band you mentioned, and I’m sure I’m glad for that.

        The Kings of Leon, though — ha, ha, my band was acquainted with them in the mid-nineties when they were an old skool emo/indie band. Nice guys! They weren’t even going to put Sex On Fire on their album, you know. They just had an extra three minutes to record, and used that track. None of them were particularly excited about it. Yeah, they’re huge here, too, but not as huge as MUSE is. There’s something about foreigners that give bands a leg up.

        My recent obsession has been picking out bands whom fake accents to make their vocals sound the way they like. I have no real issue with this, but I do find it incredibly interesting. For instance, Green Day uses a British accent, but are Canadian. MUSE, themselves, downplay their rather thick accents down to almost perfect American, and the Pixies, with very distinct Jersey accents, fake a Californian. I love shit like this.

        And yeah, punk rock was like that when I was growing up. They used the music as an excuse to say all sorts of things, nothing rhymed hardly ever, and if they simply talked or preached rather than sang, it was alright by us, ha ha.

        Cheers, man.

        -B

  3. The accent thing is quite amusing. It’s very noticeable with Green Day. Most emo/indie bands throw on an accent because they wanna sound like Cobain. Because they’re a tortured soul and they’re all mixed up inside. But Kurt’s dead man, and that just hurts them more. But that fuels the real feelings portrayed in the music. It’s just a vicious cycle of feelings and emotion and that’s pretty much why I don’t like indie or emo music.

    Muse are pretty big over here too. Largely celebrated for being brilliant live. I’m not a huge fan but I like a decent amount of some of the stuff I’ve heard. I’d attend a gig I think. If they’re brilliant, then I enjoy the gig, if they’re not, I get to cynically declare this fact everytime I hear otherwise. Win. Win.


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