Art Pope

by Carl Dyke

Art Pope is the name of a local conservative businessman who gives lots of money to the Republican Party. It’s also a great image, isn’t it? What a crazy job Art Pope would be. I invite your imaginings.

Meanwhile, Newsweek has a little snippet on the Venice Biennale, with remarks from the curator, Bice Curiger. She would be an Art Bishop or perhaps even Art Cardinal, I suppose. Anyhoo, she says something that struck me for its thoughtful, pragmatic balance, unusual in my experience of the arts:

I don’t think art is a very powerful instrument to change the world. But it can make you rethink certain things. It can break your conventions.

Yup. I think it’s good for people to have their conventions challenged; even as I think the efficient automations afforded by conventions are essential for day to day living. I think resilience is an essential trait in a complex world, and resilience is largely a function of ability to imagine and live otherwise. A background project for me of late is thinking about general education; Bice’s account of art also works nicely as an account of what a general education can and maybe should offer.

I don’t suppose Art Pope would approve, however. And speaking of aggressive narrow-mindedness, no matter how bad Newsweek was before, how much worse is it now that it’s gotten sucked into the Daily Beast? It’s an object lesson in the downside of the new media: superficial, cliché-ridden reporting and commentary by people who seem to have been selected on purpose for their obtuseness and fundamental ignorance about the topics at hand. But I get it for free due to the NPR donation, and even the blind squirrels find nuts sometimes, so into the bathroom it goes!

In conclusion, an amusing depiction of the cliché form courtesy of Wikipedia:

9 Comments to “Art Pope”

  1. I think there’s a stronger relation between “Art Pope” (conservative businessman and ideologue) and “the Art Pope” (a high-level bureaucratic administrator of Art) than your pun might suggest. The money and power wielded by folks like this businessman help to reinforce the institutional power of our little popes in the realm of art, philanthropy, universities and so forth. At a certain point, artists like Warhol or Schnabel ride out their careers by churning out larger and larger doodads for extremely wealthy people. This is not news, but always worth remembering when we talk about the avant-garde. Interesting to see whether Bice’s “defense from within” (which is an anti-anti-art gesture) has any impact.

    I also think that the opposition between “changing the world” and “rethinking certain things” is a false one, because I believe that politics forces people to rethink and readapt existing values and vocabularies all the time. (in other words, the conventional dichotomy of conventional political/everyday “life” and anti-conventional “art” underestimates the conceptual work done in politics and overestimates the effects of such work in art). But yes, we always need more awareness of convention, for the same reason we need to continually readapt conventions to new circumstances.

    Love the cartoon, incidentally. Where did it come from?


  2. Thanks Dave, I agree. Certainly we can see artists straining against the patrons who pay their bills as far back as Michelangelo and Cellini, where it was often literally the Pope; I don’t know my art history well enough to know if the monk-artists like Fra’ Angelico ever got sick of painting Jesus and Mary. Of course no artist is required to make her work for the market by anything but the crass materiality that makes all the rest of us work for a living too, and the market may come in only after an artist has made work at the sole beck of the muse; or saying so may be the marketing copy.

    But for better or worse fine art is not currently a commodity quite like washing machines and toothpaste. Fine art is in a world of its own as a commodity that as an essential feature has no use value other than signaling. You can certainly buy also-useful things for their status conspicuousness, and you can buy mass-produced robo-abstracts that match your sofa. You can commission various sorts of vanity object from ‘artists’. But none of that is currently what counts as contemporary art (unless you pass it through a Duchamp/Warhol operation). Furthermore, the whole enterprise is taken to be characterized by the interplay of charismatic vision on one hand and refined connoisseurship on the other, precisely to elevate it all above the vulgar tastes of the masses. We talked about this stuff a bit before in the context of Olav Velthius’ Talking Prices. And what this means is that although fine artists are dependent on the Art Popes’ ability and willingness to buy, it is also the nature of their charismatic commodity that they and their representatives get to dictate what is worth buying. If the Art Popes get too pushy about their own low taste, they lose the status-signaling value of the artist’s grandly unique vision. It’s an interesting little dance, as Olav shows.

    Re: changing and rethinking, I agree again and liked about Bice’s formulation that she does not set it up as an opposition; rather she assesses the relative leverage of art and thinks about what specifically it’s good for. I don’t think art has any monopoly on convention-troubling, but the way it’s set up now that’s more centrally its mission than a lot of other fields.

    I found the cartoon at Wikipedia when I went looking for a lazy way to get the accent over the e in cliché! They tell me it’s from the Punch Almanac for 1885; click the image to go to the source page.

  3. Given that, “the whole enterprise is taken to be characterized by the interplay of charismatic vision on one hand and refined connoisseurship on the other,” I wonder how accurate the assumption that Art Popes are vulgarians with low tastes can be.

    That you have to be rich to be a serious player in the world of art connoisseurship doesn’t imply that you have lousy taste. As Bourdieu noted, what counts as “good taste” may reflect a class position, and the taste in question may, if the haute bourgeoise average is the criterion, be philistine. A closer look at art history reveals, however, that avant-gardes have always been fueled by interactions between rule-breaking artists and rule-breaking connoisseurs, both of whom play crucial roles in what is then counted as good taste’s new frontier.

  4. “avant-gardes have always been fueled by interactions between rule-breaking artists and rule-breaking connoisseurs, both of whom play crucial roles in what is then counted as good taste’s new frontier”

    Right, exactly. So this is what the Art Popes must buy into to convert their economic capital into cultural capital. It’s not uncommon that, misunderstanding the dynamic, they try to muscle art into their own taste; but this is where you get the grand deplorables.

    The thing is, as Olav shows, it’s never exactly the rich who are the connoisseurs. Rather, they depend on that intermediate stratum of art pimps Dave refers to as the little popes to hook them up with the good stuff.

  5. You might want to take a look at Grant McCracken’s _Flock and Flow_ ( McCracken’s example is popular music; but his model has, I suspect, wider applicability. The critical notion is that to make it from avant-garde wannabe to established (pop) culture, innovations have to pass (flow) through a series of audiences (flock), each of which is a gatekeeper on the way to the next stage. This is, of course,similar to the conventional marketing model in which early adopters, leaders, followers and late adopters define the target market at successive stages of development. Grant’s innovation is the observation that successive flocks require modifications to enhance acceptance at the developmental stage at which a particular flock becomes the new target. Thus, for example, hard core fans of the avant-garde tend to fall away as an innovation becomes more popular. From a marketing perspective, that’s no great loss, since they are replaced by larger segments. The edginess that appeals to the hard core is smoothed over, leading to, worst case from a hard core perspective, the banality of the commonplace.

  6. P.S. We have, just this week, been translating some material for Vertu, a company that has made a business of the intersection of art and technology, appealing to snobs with what are presented as the world’s most elegant mobile phones. In our case, the translation involves a new line in which the cases are gold or silver covered in Japanese _urushi_ lacquer decorated by Kitamura Shosai, a Living National Treasure, whose craft is mother of pearl inlay. The back story of his involvement with the craft concerns his involvement, along with his father, in the restoration of 8th century musical instruments from the Shoshoin Responsitory of ancient art objects regarded as national treasures.

  7. Thanks John, McCracken’s a stud, I’ll check that out. I like the image of flows with gates and dilutions.

    Kitamura sounds like a real blue-chipper. A good choice for ‘elegant’ mobile phones where the technological leading edge is not the sell. Contemporary art is always more of a speculative stock, so it’s interesting to think about the market segmentation between the snobs who are looking to affirm or consolidate a settled status vs. those who are looking for a more dynamic positioning.

  8. I don’t know how “Shosoin Repository” became “Shoshoin Responsitory”[sic]. But, continuing the discussion….

    To me what’s interesting about these phones is that they are positioned as both “traditional” (by co-opting an ancient art/craft tradition) and “dynamic” (applying the traditional aesthetic to an exemplar of new technology-here the mobile phone). As Robert Danly, to whom I owed my introduction to the Japanese ad world, once wrote in re _fundoshi_, the loincloths worn by martial artists, these phones are “Kinky and new but traditional, too.” They play the status game both ways.

  9. These pretzels are making me thirsty.

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