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Art or Idiocy?

Why Buy the Pop Machine When You can get the Soda for Free?

When Duchamp said something to the effect of, "This piss pot is art because I chose it," he thus enabled every half-brained amateur twit to follow in his footsteps and recontextualize other everyday things - objects, ideas, alligators - as "art objects." Pop art thrived on this notion of turning non-art things into art simply by virtue of the artist's choice. Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, et al. were really the first people to openly deal with the conflict between "high" and "low" by celebrating the everyday as art, bringing ads, comics and newspapers into the art environment.

Pop art remains popular today because of its nostalgic element; we all love those "retro" soup cans. But at its start, it was totally different. Imagine the most uninteresting and bland product from your daily 1950s life being venerated as high art. (Remember that what you think of as avant-garde art is humongous paintings with gobs of paint and postwar angst - Willem de Kooning's "Excavation" at the Art Institute, for instance.) It was a total shock to people - it wasn't "cool" or "hip." But eventually people accepted and devoured it. Once turned on to the concept of recognizing a model of a Brillo box as a sculpture and a comic book panel as a history painting, they became aware of how popular culture fit into the scheme of things. The makers of such products, as well as the general public, were guided toward seeing their everyday object as a part of culture, history and, yes, art.

Today we live in a popular culture that is aware of itself. It is no longer relevant to point out that some piece of detritus is also artistic and poetic - not just because it has been done so many times before, but because the makers of that object come into contact with contemporary art more than ever before, thanks to posters, postcards, coffee mugs, etc. Think of the possibility that a great many people have experienced the great works of the old masters through the eyes of Lichtenstein and Warhol before seeing them in their original form. These days everyone goes to art school - the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. And everything is "art": food, wine, Hollywood movies, '60s-style toasters, your Ikea coffee table and Prada skirt, even the "Welcome" wreath on your mom's door. The people that become graphic designers, moviemakers, advertisers, comic artists, TV producers, and all the rest of them, have the same educational background as the "fine artist." Artistic sensibility has permeated our culture.

MTV's station identification segments, often highly experimental (and no doubt made by ex-art school kids), might as well be termed video art. Their context on television initially seems to contradict this definition, but it is exactly what makes these segments function in a much more meaningful and accessible way than they would in the gallery. They appeal to 14-year-olds and us art types alike. Calling Prada ads postmodern is news to no one - especially the photographer, who knows and draws on his or her art history just like we do. Vogue is no longer a fashion magazine (or perhaps it is the quintessential fashion magazine); it is a "curated" photography show in itself, where more attention is given to ad imagery layout and composition than articles.

It's pretty bleak, but perhaps that is the horrible realization that Pop art was getting at. Anything can be art as long as it's fashionable - and as long as there are buyers and sponsors and fine retailers. You want to talk about a mass-consumption culture? Look at the art world and the art school machine. Your choices are already laid out for you like drinks in a pop machine. Everything is distilled and categorized. What do you want your art to be about?

Pop-psychology, pop-philosophy, pop-religion...the list goes on and on, and it doesn't matter. Everyone is waiting in line. You are best off figuring out what it is you want to do and do it for yourself. Forget about going with the fashions as they come; You will be nothing more than a poser and hanger-on. Make your selection, have your smoke and get back to class - just make sure you're doing something you think is worthwhile.

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