by Janet Bruesselbach
“A free society is one in which it is safe to be unpopular.” –Adlai Stevenson
Unpop has a variety of playful reactions to both art as commodity and the political legacy of pop art. Art is a commodity so oversupplied that it may be the testing grounds for a post-scarcity economy. Its economy of attention is particularly independent from its capital economy. No artist avoids status anxiety from the judgments of polymarkets, and it often seems the only ideology defining art remains anti-Capitalism, despite pop art’s ubiquitous ironic recombination of fine and commercial art.
The “problem” of existing in a market, one particularly labor-saturated, occupies context-conscious artists worldwide. While we often acknowledge that good art is not necessarily sold art, some of the best commercially-overlooked work is anything but anti- or a- commercial. Duplicating the structures, and becoming part of, the system one is critiquing, is conspicuous, but not the only means of critique. Nor is critique ever a simple argumentative stance.
Sam Pocker, “We Create Information” cover
I would not be surprised if there were not already consumption artists: individuals who self-consciously defined a particular pattern and choice of spending as an art form. We could easily say that any consumer is an artist, ironically or not. While defining art has become entertainingly open-ended, fitting some unpop work into the context of gallery exhibition was unexpected – particularly Chavez and Pocker. Chavez’s videos were byproducts of his struggle to market other artwork, while Pocker’s photos document hyper-attentive shopping (consumption artistry) and were not marketed as anything.
Everything in the marketplace is simultaneously buyer and seller. Sam Pocker, Jenny Bhatt, and Lauren Hoffen deal most directly with consumer identity. The freedom a consumer has is to defy neoliberal economics with their irrationality, and not necessarily succumb to the cultural pressure to not be a sucker. Art buyers most intend to defy homo economicus as a type. At the same time, considering art buying as a form of charity, done more because the artist needs money than because the artist did work, enables neoliberalism, as this essay by Yasmin Nair explains.
Lauren Hoffen, “Consumer”, under white light (right) and UV (left)
The peculiar irony of UnPop is that A Gathering of the Tribes, its natal location, as of September 2010, is a nearly broke non-profit, non-commercial, arts organization run out of an old blind guy’s apartment. Traditionally, this is an opportunity to exhibit the kind of work that fronts at freedom from the constraints of marketability. But the competition for grant money in this part-socialized, part-privatized alternative to a capitalist-style marketplace for art, has tightened in the recession. As of the dispossessed among nonprofits, the venue avoids insipid “art for arts sake” and leans toward the dangers of demanding free labor for political reasons that Nair takes apart so well.
Contemporary pop art rules the market because it is self-consciously and self-righteously a commodity. They are artists who refuse to pretend the very obliviousness to their worth that collectors value. In Unpop, we show that spaces peripheral to the art market are all the more market-obsessed. The more money one has the more one can afford not to think about it, so to display reticence toward naming or discussing prices of art objects, or arguments for “pricelessness” (that is, worthlessness) can conventionally be interpreted as anti-radical, siding with the owners. Naturally the politics are more complex than that, and stigma shouldn’t be placed either way, but to avoid discussing money out of anxiety or enmity may as well be reverence, especially when one is, reasons aside, unpopular.
Status anxiety extends to the transitional attention economy. Too easily can we both say and hear the myths connecting fame to money and vice versa: that success is just who you know, that art and politics and business and so on are all popularity contests, that self-promotion is most if not all that matters. Such simplifications are both true and devalue the complex interplay of measures of value. Ubiquitous cynicism generates its own measures of worth as art entertainingly becomes social – or a-, or anti-social. Run through your supply of prefixes.
There is as much conceptual beauty to be found in examining our resistance to the pressure to socialize as there is in flattening the dynamic and generating the image of popularity. And popularity is just that: not an actual measure of who knows whom or what, but a self-perpetuating infectious meme, a variable assigned but not necessarily related to anything else. In a cultural turn perhaps not inherently recent, popularity can be a label more detrimental than not. Unpopularity, while feared in acknowledgement of a society that will likely never be perfectly free, can be beneficial as a label – if only in the modern, very NYC phenomenon of Indie Cred.
Many visual styles have come to be called pop, or post-pop, or pop surreal, and so on, all functioning with a specific kind of irony that differentiates between commerciality and anti-commerciality by fulfilling both simultaneously. Unpop involves artists who either use pop tropes or engage commodification in non-dialectical ways. The advertising-inspired aesthetic of high-saturation solid colors, forms simplified to communicate, and assumed exuberant optimism, still pervade. But they are always tempered by something that undermines pop art historically, or doesn’t necessarily shape itself to the demands of as many people as possible.
Jenny Bhatt has sent paintings from India that fuse cartoon Western popism with the well-established philosophical conversation of Hindu Buddhist mythology, featuring a cast of conceptual deities in consumerist narratives. She makes interactive work and comic strips at her site
Sam Pocker is a radical coupon clipper and retail prankster; where Warhol asserted the beauty of mass-produced commercial products, Sam’s sardonic eye finds moments of dysfunctional absurdity, enforced ignorance, and thoughtless ugliness required by a late capitalist marketplace.
Washington Chavez went to every gallery in New York City asking them to look at his paintings, and filmed all of it. The result is a queasy litany of rejection, the dying profession of door-to-door salesman multiplied by the eternal buyer’s market of art, emotional sadomasochism intensified by raw documentary recording.
Rita Alves’s anamorphic installation paintings are more engaged with the national politics of U.S. human rights violations than directly with consumer politics. The use of funhouse optics to undistort image evidence of atrocities questions the tension artists feel between the obligations to be both sensitizing activists and entertainers. As sculptures they demand a single viewpoint.
Lauren Hoffen paints commercial and political parodies that literalize ironic double-speak through blacklight-sensitivity. They are made in the nighttime moments spared by an artist working a day job.
James Mercer assembles ephemeral cardboard and paint installations (as well as digital and ink drawings) resembling video game levels. They are idiosyncratic, generative rewarders of attention from Millenial observers trained by extremely creative-labor-intensive products.
Pieces are available for purchase, and this essay, are at UNPOP‘s static page.