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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.”