Culture: Comfortable Looking at Other People Naked, Not So Sure About Itself

Pop Life and Spiritual America by Richard Prince

A week ago, the Tate gallery staged a large party to celebrate the opening of Pop Life, née Sold Out, its blockbuster investigation of the dominance of Warholian mass production in the art market. It seemed a fittingly hubristic affair, the after-party taking place in Tramp, a nightclub in the genteelly unfashionable St James’ – last relevant, well, never.

The show itself has been astutely judged, one of those delicate compromises that trades off between the desire to grab the attention (WARHOL! KOONS! HIRST! MURAKAMI!) of the real world, the people who actually pay to go to these things; the backers, the people who actually buy and fund this art; and do this without alienating the terminally unimpressed art world. This duality extends from the curatorial direction of such an exhibition into its various half lives: normal service demands a huge art world attendance on the opening night, followed immediately by a total communications black out.  At this point the broadsheet critics submit their reviews, and the next tier, the cultured middle classes, those with Tate membership say, visit. Finally after all chatter has been wrung from this lame spectacle, the exhibition is allowed to moulder into what it was always intent on becoming, the tourist attraction. At no point does the show become anything more than a spectacle, as for all the intellectual burden of curating such an exhibition, the very nature of the public institution silences the work, preventing it from holding any sort of dialogue with what is actually going on in art.  

Until the police get involved. The morning after the party, a team from Scotland Yard, London’s shorthand for meddlesome incompetence and bureaucratic violence, descended with the kind intention of ensuring that the Tate weren’t going to put themselves into any legislative danger by mistakenly displaying art which might not actually be art. The rest is popular history. Richard Prince’s Spiritual America was removed, the room in which it was installed closed, and the media, drunk on the opprobrium generated by the recent high profile discovery of a paedophile ring operating from a provincial nursery school, jumped on it.

Enough has now been written in useless declamation to spare you my opinion on the event, the work, the controversy, save one observation on the way these much maligned ‘blockbuster’ shows remind us of the complex work public institutions are engaged in. A recent post by Jorg Heiser on the Frieze editors’ blog drew attention to the difficulties faced by Stockholm, a city where contemporary art “isn’t necessarily automatically accessible and welcome,” but which has established six institutions in the last ten years, and plans to establish up to thirteen more in the next two, with the express purpose of bringing first rate contemporary art to the city. In a way this difficulty is never more acutely revealed than when publicly funded galleries display works of high kitsch. Such a post-modern blurring of the radical distinction between kitsch and avant-garde throws our shared compromises about what we culturally agree art is off kilter. It takes an event like this to remind us that the images of Koons and La Cicciolina in flagrante, or the mediated porn art Cosey Fanni Tutti was agressively making in the seventies are no longer particularly challenging, or which in Koons’ case perhaps never were, while Spiritual America reminds us of a shameful act in our past we’re desperate to collectively repress.

And while there are deep layers of irony present in the hysterical reaction of a prurient press to a piece of art engaging in fierce if unannotated criticism of the unashamed amorality of mass media, the reassuring message is that in a jaundiced age of empty spectacle, people still have a subconscious desire to be offended by a projected idea of avant-gardism. So kudos to the Tate, for redrawing the battle lines so plainly.

Pop Life is at the Tate Modern until January 17th, 2010.


  1. Rio Ferdinand
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    Great post. The coincidence of Spiritual America scandal and the Polanski arrest is quite amazing really considering their common themes. The Shields photo is actually interestingly de-eroticized. This is the first time I’ve seen it in full, having seen clipped versions in the press. I mean all the elements to turn it into an erotic photo are there, and from the neck up she looks considerably older, and that’s why her body appears so de-sexualized in a way. I hate to say like an angel, but that’s the effect in a literal way (as in the idea that angels don’t have sexual organs). And I agree that this does seem to be a moment that redraws the battle lines so plainly, and also agree that Koons’ “pornographic” work (as well as that of many/most others) will seem trite and underwhelming by comparison to the gated off room. I’m not sure exactly what battle lines are being redrawn though.

  2. Jackson Boxer
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment. The parallels with the Polanski case are interesting, particularly because both the Polanski rape incident and the original Garry Gross/Brooke Shields photo shoot took place in the mid-seventies, in many ways the most sexually permissive era of modern culture. It has often been remarked upon how little fuss both incidents caused at the time – drug raping young girls was what people expected from their Hollywood elite in 1977, while at the same time, Brooke, now 12, was again appearing naked in Louis Malle’s superbly tasteless Pretty Baby, again without much comment. It is this horror of our collective adolescent experimentation, so evident in the public reaction to Prince’s work, which I find particularly fascinating. It is an event like this, which clarifies a distinction between post-Warholian art which merely panders to an idea of kitsch, and art which uses the same tools to form something corrosive and avant-garde, that highlights cultural battle lines all too often blurred in the miasma of contemporary superart, all blockbusting sales, fairs and shows.

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