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High & Low: Graham Bader on soft-core.

October 7 isn't just the day, in 1990, that the long-awaited exhibition "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" opened at the Museum of Modern Art; it is also the date, one year earlier, that the US Congress finally resolved to keep the really low out of the high, at least where federal funds were concerned. The legislation passed that afternoon in 1989, with the aim of blunting Senator Jesse Helms's attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts by a compromise agreement that prohibited funding of "obscene" art, was--of course--a mess. If the courtroom definition of obscenity excluded work of "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value," then how could anything deemed worthy of NEA funding be targeted by the new ruling? Nearly a year later, on the very same weekend of MOMA's blockbuster opening, this contradiction finally collapsed under its own weight. In Cincinnati, where even Playboy was banned, Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie was cleared of obscenity charges for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs because, in the words of one juror, "even though we may not have liked the pictures ... we learned that art doesn't have to be pretty." The works in question may have looked like pornography, in other words, but weren't--they were art.


Pornography certainly wasn't an issue for the organizers of "High & Low," Kirk Varnedoe, in his curatorial debut as the museum's new director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and Adam Gopnik, then art critic for the New Yorker. For despite the fact that the porn business, in those early years of the Internet, had its most popular--and profitable--days just ahead of it (and that Jeff Koons, one of the show's contemporary stars, had recently married--and, um, collaborated with--the Italian porn actress Cicciolina), it didn't register so much as a mention in their blueprint for the exhibition. Instead, Varnedoe and Gopnik's search for the low led them to comics and graffiti, advertising and caricature--the four of which, along with the more amorphous "Words" and "Contemporary Reflections," composed their show's half dozen sections. So, Krazy Kat and the Michelin Man, but no Larry Flynt. On the high side, things were even more restricted: "High modern painting and sculpture constitute our primary topic," Varnedoe and Gopnik explained in their catalogue introduction, dismissing in one fell swoop everyone from John Heartfield to Nam June Paik to Cindy Sherman.



The result of all this, as one critic after another fired off, was an exhibition grounded in both exclusion and arbitrariness, one that failed to ask even the most basic questions of its massive grounding opposition. "A disaster," wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times (Oct. 5, 1990); "no grace, no air, no beauty, all evidence and didactic panels," said Bill Jones in Arts Magazine (in an article titled "Truth, Justice, and the Comics--or, MOMA to NY: Drop Dead" [Dec. 1990]); "as disappointingly superficial as its logo," opined Steven Heller in ID (Jan./Feb. 1991). (1) As Art Spiegelman sketched it in an artist's project for that December's Artforum, the organization and selection guiding "High & Low" resembled that of Borges's fabled Chinese Encyclopedia, wherein animals are classified as "Belonging to the Emperor," "Embalmed," "Sucking Pigs," "Innumerable," "That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies," etc. By the time the show finally limped into Los Angeles the following August, Richard Smith, in Artweek (Aug. 15, 1991), could only comment that "the exhibition has been hated in countless ways, and there's not much left for a critic to do, perhaps, except to think of a new way to hate it." (2)

Sure, nobody really expected to see porn at MOMA (even if this was, in 1990, perhaps the single most important hinge by which discussions of modern art entered the broader public sphere), but would it have been too much to include some form of television, photography, film, honest-to-God kitsch? (The show, as Jones scathingly wrote, might have been more appropriately titled "High and Medium-High.") Were Koons, Jenny Holzer, and Elizabeth Murray really all Varnedoe and Gopnik could come up with to represent the "high" in the decades since Pop? (The striking limitations of this selection were only exacerbated by Gopnik's arrogant dismissal, in the show's catalogue, of many of the relevant artists excluded.) And what about Andy Warhol showing up on The Love Boat, or El Lissitzky putting abstraction to the service of worker recruitment in postrevolutionary Russia, or Heartfield distributing his photomontages by the hundreds of thousands in the pages of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung? Or, for that matter, Hitler and Stalin and their dreams of a bureaucratically mandated popular art? Wasn't the tale of "high and low" a lot more complicated than the exhibition was making it?


Of course it was. And the show's failings, many felt, were simple enough, a product of the same old MOMA disease: the desire to run once again through the museum's greatest hits (and work overtime to establish new ones), operate within an essentially connoisseurial paradigm, and, for all the riffraff the show may have allowed into the museum's confines, quarantine the works it displayed from politics and--fright of frights--"theory." As Varnedoe and Gopnik put it in the show's catalogue (sounding a bit like George W. Bush discussing "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities"), the goal of the exhibition was "to examine the transformations through which modern painters and sculptors have made new poetic languages by reimagining the possibilities in forms of popular culture." Visitors could forget, in other words, any fashionable talk of "media culture" or the "critique of representation" or "visual spectacle" (all of which had been front and center in the Whitney's "Image World" exhibition earlier that year)--this was a MOMA endeavor, and the issue at hand was poetics, not politics.

This same old tune was a particular disappointment for those who had hoped Varnedoe's inaugural show would introduce a greater flexibility at the Modern, a new spirit of openness to both contemporary art and theory as well as to the broader phenomena of "visual culture." Instead, the show appeared haunted by the specter of all three. Above all, theory; not just the recent musings on Disneyland by Jean Baudrillard, whose newfound popularity in East Village studios was skewered by Gopnik in the exhibition's catalogue, but principally the established efforts of, among others, Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno, Michel de Certeau, Raymond Williams, Roland Barthes, Phil Cohen, Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord--in short, of anyone who had dared turn a critical eye to the question of just what popular (or better, mass) culture actually was. In place of what Varnedoe and Gopnik dismissed as the "sublime lack of curiosity" characterizing such theoretically framed approaches, "High & Low" sought to examine "particulars"--to ask just what kind of urinal Marcel Duchamp chose for his infamous 1917 Fountain (in "Advertising"), or who had made the pulp tales from which Roy Lichtenstein borrowed in his early Pop paintings ("Comics"), or precisely what papers Picasso was reading in Paris in 1912 ("Words").

The problem with all this was that however much fun it may have been to compare Lichtenstein's canvases with the vitrine-ensconced panels of Tony Abruzzo and Ira Schnapp's D.C. comic Run for Love! or Duchamp's readymade with the A.Y. MacDonald Company's urinal brochure for 1912, the story thus told--Picasso! Duchamp! Lichtenstein! And the comics and ads they looked at!--looked awfully familiar. As Michael Kimmelman put it in the Times (Dec. 21, 1990), "there has never been the slightest doubt that modern art has been influenced by popular culture.... The question is not whether but why popular culture and modern art have been so inextricably bound together. And to this far more important problem, the exhibition provides few satisfying or unexpected solutions." Or more bluntly, Thomas Crow in Artforum (Jan. 1990): "In the end, one can see that 'High and Low' wins its serene, undisturbed outlook by virtue of ... massive exclusions" fueled by an adamant "lack of theoretical curiosity." Or Paul Mattick Jr. in Arts (Feb. 1991): "No attempt was made to explain 'High Art' ... and the question, 'What does "Popular Culture" mean?' was posed only to be left unanswered."


Adorno, we can imagine, would have advised Varnedoe and Gopnik as he had Benjamin on reading a 1936 draft of the latter's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": "What I should like to postulate, therefore, is more dialectics." For dialectics--or the very idea of opposition, resistance, even discomfort--was utterly absent from "High & Low," replaced by a hunky-dory, we're-all-in-this-together model that saw advanced art and modern mass culture constantly borrowing, renewing, and handing back each other's forms without so much as an awkward brush of the shoulders between them. (3) The show's portrayal of this unproblematized relationship (in which, of course, "low" culture filled the supporting vitrines behind the Lichtensteins and Picassos) had most critics screaming "Primitivism!"--seeing this latest MOMA effort as a kid brother to William Rubin's much-maligned 1984 exhibition, "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," on which Varnedoe had also collaborated. As Christopher Knight noted in the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 11, 1991), "neither 'Primitivism' nor 'High & Low' was as much a museum exhibition as it was a kind of three-dimensional lecture--a display that lined up modern masterpieces and their sources side by side, rather like a slide presentation in a university class."

One didn't need a course catalogue to suspect the lectures would ring similar. Just the list of contributors to the reader accompanying "High & Low," Rosalind Krauss suggested, pointed to a repeat of the "sublimation model" that had driven Rubin's 1984 debacle--in which, as Krauss explained, art is celebrated for its ability "to sublimate or transform experience, raising it from ordinary to extraordinary, from commonplace to unique, from low to high; with the special genius of the artist being that he or she has the gifts to perform this function." Krauss and the rest of the October crew, needless to say, were ready at the barricades with desublimatory tools in hand, organizing both a special issue of the journal on "High/Low: Art and Mass Culture" (Spring 1991) and a November 1990 Dia symposium as "alternative manifestations" to the Varnedoe and Gopnik spectacle. Aided by Adorno, Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Melanie Klein, and others, contributors to the two projects--you can guess their names: Krauss, Hal Foster, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, et al.--sought to explore "other ways of modeling the relationship between high art and mass culture, ways which differ from and oppose the sublimation model" and its faith in "individual artistic intention." So there was Andy on Saturday Night Live; discussion of the "increasing abstraction of works of art within various arenas of capitalist exchange"; and the broaching of the fact that yes, fascism also had something to do with high and low.

If this sounds like textbook October, it is. But the basic complaint at work in Krauss's comments was shared by critics of all stripes: that the essential urge guiding Varnedoe and Gopnik's exhibition was tired art-historical source digging, an eagerness to show how forgotten mass-cultural detritus (urinal catalogues, say) had been "poeticized" by individual geniuses who could do very little wrong. Jones wrote of starting to feel as if robbed of his sight while visiting "High & Low," marching through a procession of "source ... art, source ... art" on his way to a central "chamber of evidence" full of magnifying glasses, vitrines, and didactic wall panels; Brian d'Amato, in a brief but engaging comment in Flash Art (Jan. 1991), confirmed that "Yes, the curators seem to have abandoned any notion that the Museum will ever be anything more than a teaching tool for visiting classes from Westchester High"; and Hilton Kramer, sounding a familiar cry to Kulturkampf in the pages of the December 1990 New Criterion (reversing Krauss's line by calling for more sublimation, not less), lambasted Varnedoe and Gopnik's exhibition as "less an explanation of modern art than a preposterously distended taxonomy of certain cultural materials that have been used in some parts of it," pushing MOMA to nothing less than "the brink of one of the gravest crises in its history."

Kramer's ire was focused in particular at the person of Varnedoe, whose barely two-year tenure at his post was declared by the New Criterion editor to be a "ruinous" inauguration of the "epoch of the anaesthetic curator." While the shrillness of this judgment was Kramer's own--fueled by his paranoid conviction that Varnedoe planned to turn the Modern into a bastion of wild-eyed "contextualization"--suspicions regarding the new appointee's motivations and aims recurred across the ideological spectrum. Even before "High & Low" opened, Barbara Rose wrote of Varnedoe's "in-crowd thinking" and huckster tendencies (Journal of Art, Jan. 1991). And Crow, in his assessment of the show for Artforum, brilliantly integrated an analysis of its simplifications and exclusions with a dissection of Varnedoe's own "public-relations image of all-American sporting masculinity." The curator himself undeniably did his part to fuel such accusations. Having suggested rugby as a guiding metaphor for modern art in his 1990 book A Fine Disregard (thus enlisting, Crow argued, "fantasies of identification" of which Ralph Lauren would be proud), he had also recently hawked Zegna suits for Barneys and appeared in a series of fawning profiles in the pages of Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and that old stand-by, Art News (whose October 1990 cover promised "Kirk Varnedoe: High, Low, Hot and Cool" in addition to a story on Imelda Marcos).

Surveying these profiles together with the almost universal scorn, frustration, and anger with which "High & Low" was greeted, it's hard, a decade and a half later, not to be impressed. Yes, the show was full of arbitrary exclusions and simplifications and didactic wall labels and turned an infinitely complicated topic into a dance between vitrine and masterpiece. And yes, the marketing of Varnedoe read like something out of a Frankfurt School analysis of the industrially produced star. But both exhibition and curatorial marketing machine proceeded in their mission so unapologetically, and so along the lines of what Adorno and Max Horkheimer dubbed "the culture industry," that one is tempted to say this was exactly their point. To please all of MOMA's critics, as so many commentators from across the political board pointed out, was a near-impossible task, just as was the organization of a successful exhibition on the vast topic of "high and low." So why not meet necessary failure head-on and mount an inaugural show that gloried in its own limitations? Forget the calls for more dialectics--adopt such a "serene, undisturbed outlook," as Crow called it, that the critics themselves work overtime to produce the negative energy you've so blisstully left out. The tourists will love it ("Mom, check out this painting; it's just like that comic!"); scholars, critics, and artists will almost surely hate it; and the result will so mimic the very high/low dynamic you're ostensibly tracing that you'll have beaten everybody at their own game. (It's all a bit like rugby, you know?)

This, it seems, is precisely the story of "High & Low": The show dismissed any talk of spectacle or the culture industry as "empty theorization" while sneakily positioning itself as a case study in exactly these. Not only Varnedoe played his part to perfection. Wasn't Gopnik, after all, art critic at the New Yorker, Greenberg's prime example of middlebrow kitsch? And didn't detractors on all sides jump at the bait of the curators' preexhibition statements that both the canon-bound "Right" and the postmodern "Left" would dismiss their show, thus not only proving Varnedoe and Gopnik right but producing a body of criticism that was ultimately more enlightening than the exhibition itself? And didn't the tourists, in fact, love it? If the museum can't do critical theory, "High & Low" made clear, it can set the stage for it with sublime skill, not allowing for the triumph of "moderate good sense" (as Crow sketched the curators' aims), but rather demonstrating its ultimate folly--at least, that is, when it comes to questions of high and low.


1. Heller, it should be noted, was perfectly right in picking on the show's logo. For in adopting Aleksandr Rodchenko's cover design for Boris Arvatov's 1923 volume On Mayakovsky, the designers of "High & Low" betrayed the exhibition's simplifying essence. Transforming Rodchenko's diagonal overlapping of the Russian poet's repeated name into the interlocking phrases of "modern art" and "popular culture" (joined at the central r in each), the logo turned an image of complicated self-opposition (Mayakovsky over and against himself) into one of seamless cooperation.

2. The exhibition did, of course, have its scattered defenders, most notably. Robert Hughes in Time and Arthur C. Danto in The Nation, who described Varnedoe and Gopnik's effort as a "heroic and difficult exposition a these."

3. Varnedoe and Gopnik referred to this model of exchange as that of "Dr. Agha's Wheel," named after the early-twentieth-century graphic designer Mehemed Fehmy Agha. In a brief 1931 article, the curators explained, Agha described the movement between high and low as resembling that of a wheel, in which forms move continually forward by shifting from one side to the other and back again, resembling, in Varnedoe and Gopnik's words, a "revolving comedy of manners."

Graham Bader teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at Colgate University.
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Title Annotation:Popisms
Author:Bader, Graham
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Gary Hume.
Next Article:Isaac Julien.

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