Sell-Out Show at Tate Modern

Money is the driving force behind too much contemporary art

Michael Prodger

There is something brave about the Tate Modern staging an exhibition that examines the links between modern art and commerce. Andy Warhol once claimed that “Good business is the best art” but, for all its screaming obviousness, the fact that the two go hand in hand remains the elephant in the room in curating circles. Although galleries now spend as much time working with dealers as with collectors, money is still not a welcome subject for discussion. Press it too far and uncomfortable questions about how much commercial sales affect what hangs on the walls of public galleries become inescapable. There is a danger that the whole mutually lucrative edifice will be soiled and revealed as a case not so much of the emperor’s new clothes as of the emperor’s new art.

Money is, after all, the real validation for much contemporary art because in many cases there is no aesthetic validation. But while Pop Life: Art in a Material World looks at how artists from Warhol to Damien Hirst have adopted the techniques of the market, what it doesn’t examine is how rich this interaction has made them and more pertinently whether they set out foremost to make art or make money. 

While art has always been just another product, albeit a luxury one, this exhibition’s logical starting point is Warhol, the eminence blonde of the commercialisation of art. His influence is threefold: with the Factory, he unashamedly separated the artwork from the artist and let collaborators produce the images he simply dreamed up; he constructed a persona, turned himself into a brand and an integral part of the package; and he made the quotidian objects of the marketplace — the soup tins, Brillo pads and indeed celebrities — the subject of his work. Whatever one’s justifiable reservations about the merit of his work no one can deny his brilliance as a marketeer.

To later artists, the appeal of Warhol’s methodology was not just its success but the way it offered a ready-made justification to the charge of selling out: this was not, they could argue, art succumbing to the lures of the commercial world, this was “transgression”, an act of avant-garde subversion with the outsider artist infiltrating the mainstream. While much critical ink has been spilled following this line of inquiry, less has been devoted to the shallowness and cynicism that are also so obviously present.

Warhol’s dabs are therefore all over many of the exhibits here. Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, which opened in 1986 in New York to sell his branded merchandise — T-shirts, toys, posters and magnets — is reconstructed. There is a new installation by Takashi Murakami, who has turned from merely creating kitsch cartoons into a one-man corporation managing other artists, running an art fair, hosting a radio show, devising advertising campaigns and more. And there is Jeff Koons, the artist in a suit whose winning salesman’s smile reveals perfect white teeth and whose mission statement for his shiny pieces is that of the advertising pitch: he wants “the viewer to feel that they are perfect”. 

Koons’s Made in Heaven is perhaps the most thoroughgoing example here of the marriage of art and mass culture. This set of sculptures, photographs and paintings of Koons and his porn-star ex-wife, La Cicciolina, in various states of copulation have the cheap glamour of Hollywood film posters and the high-finish production qualities of upmarket gewgaws and knick-knacks. Their closest relative is graphic art: they share both that genre’s instant impact and its lack of texture, its essential soullessness.  

The artist as celebrity, the publicity value of shock and a detailed knowledge of the market are the most obvious lessons learned and mastered by Hirst and his peers. There is, however, one item that isn’t included in the show that sums up how confused the conflation of art, mass culture and commerce has become. In 2002, Tracey Emin’s cat went missing and the distressed artist put up posters near her Spitalfields home asking for help in finding the lost pet. The fliers themselves immediately went walkabout, removed by astute individuals who promptly sold them on. This reductio ad absurdum was made all the more absurd by poor Tracey, a woman who insists that everything she touches is art, wailing that the posters were not “a conceptual piece of work” and they had “nothing to do with her art”. What a tangled web it is that Andy Warhol wove.

A less pernicious side to Pop Art is on display at the Hayward Gallery with its retrospective of the work of Ed Ruscha — the first major survey here of one of the movement’s founding fathers. Although Ruscha has a reputation as something of a safe artist, his cinemascopic images of suburbia and petrol stations, landscapes and floating words, created over the course of half a century, nevertheless amount to a highly distinctive record of American life. 

An early interest in cartooning and a spell working at an advertising agency mean that his work is marked by its clarity but he also believes that, “Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.” There is indeed a deeply enigmatic, and very un-Pop Art, strain to his work. 

The emptiness of his American scenes recalls Edward Hopper’s versions of alienation, while his word pictures — “Annie”, “Oof” or “It’s only vanishing cream” — are visualisations of sounds that seem ripped from billboards with their meaning lost in the act of removal. What fascinates Ruscha are “things we have looked at but not examined”. 

Ruscha is also notable in that he has never lost either the urge to experiment or his feeling for beauty: ideas that separate him from the more knowing and meretricious artists at Tate Modern.

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