I’m going to posit that if you went into a pitch meeting with the programming bigwigs at Bravo and laid out your plans for a reality television show on—wait for it—semantics, you’d get kicked to the sidewalk before you could say “Chomskyan internalism.” And yet, ostentatious semantic debate, like ugly futons and alcohol poisoning, is a staple of a well-rounded higher education. So (and for this we’re quite grateful), Bravo has graciously acquiesced to the shtick of this weekly column—from which you, dear reader, are receiving a university-grade tutorial on contemporary art as defined by a reality television show. Therefore, before you start thinking you’re ready to graduate from the Lycée Bravo just because you passed Padma Lakshmi’s seminar on Foucault, it’s time to review the lecture notes from Work of Art: The Next Great Artist’s recent foray into defining the relationship between linguistic symbols and their meanings.
WEEK THREE: In which it is demonstrated that nobody in the art world can agree on the meaning of even the most fundamental of art terms, namely, “Pop Art.”
SUMMARY: Last we checked in with our cutthroat competitors, they were traipsing around the Simon de Pury & Co. auction house, admiring what may or may not have been a cheap replica of an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can. After the appropriate oohing and ahhing, they were tasked with the challenge of creating their own works of Pop Art. The gang then learned that the week’s winning artist was to receive a two-page spread in Entertainment Weekly—quite the feat given that the magazine has never heretofore featured in its pages any artists not simultaneously being immortalized in a sprawling posthumous biopic.
Mostly what followed were scenes of the Sucklord engaging in repugnant drooling over various female contestants’ bosoms. Also, there were some sob stories of parental death (Kymia Nawabi’s father suffered his shocking demise in an Edward Goreyesque jet-skiing accident) and parental infirmity (Dusty Mitchell’s father has “had a heart attack more than once”).
The artwork was generally bad, with the majority of the artists making the poor choice to, in the name of Pop, tackle sociopolitical issues in alternately facile and obscure ways (think: giant P.D.A. screens with messages including “Click to unfriend Mubarak” and a fast-food-establishment trash can, the flap of which reads, “How Could You?”). Also, the Sucklord made a funny piece about Charlie Sheen, who is funny in an utterly tragic way—much like the Sucklord, in his leering attempts to seduce his female peers.
The winner of the challenge was Young Sun Han, who constructed a large, hot-pink billboard emblazoned with “Prop 8,” on the backside of which gallery goers were invited to scrawl messages about the controversial California legislation. Both Jazz-Minh Moore (the I-was-raised-on-a-hippie-commune artist) and Leon Lim (the deaf, Malaysian artist) were sent home—Ms. Moore for a pair of self-portraits in which she grins and shows off her inner-lip tattoo, and Mr. Lim for a Jasper Johns-ian flag display out of which sprouted American corporate logos.
LESSON: What became abundantly clear over the course of episode three was that no one in the real(ity) art world has the slightest idea of what Pop Art is. Or rather, everyone has their own notion of what “Pop” might entail, but no two definitions correspond.
“Pop is bold. Pop is brave. Pop is sex. Pop is life. Pop is fun. Pop is brash. Pop is political. So make it pop,” auctioneer/contestant-mentor Simon de Pury told his charges, inviting viewers and competitors alike to believe that “Pop” means, well, anything you want it to and can be employed as a proper noun as well as an active verb. (Did he say, “Make it Pop”? or “Make it pop”? A mystery for the ages.)
“We want to know what you have to say about your moment in history,” show-host/lusciously-tressed-socialite China Chow announced, throwing her hat into the ring of all-encompassing definitions. So far, all that can be gleaned is that Pop Art is about things as vague as “life” (unlike all other art). And it has to be au courant (unlike other contemporary art, a.k.a. all art at the time of its creation). Also, according to Ms. Chow—who suggested to Mr. Mitchell that his trash can might be Pop-ier if it were brighter—if it’s Pop, it has to be of a vivid hue.
But of course that’s the Reader’s Digest (or shall we say Entertainment Weekly) version of Pop Art. As critic and judge Jerry Saltz wrote in his New York magazine recap of the episode, “If an art student were given an assignment involving Pop Art, he/she would be told to ‘Create a work which addresses issues of mechanical reproduction, aura, advertising, and popular culture, making it visually accessible, replete with irony, sincerity, and politics, without being derivative or simplistic.’”
Hey there! That seems like something the contestants—many of whom have, in fact, been art students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels—could have been told at the outset of the challenge, before their brains got all muddled by Dr. Seuss-ian riddles and they, in their fragile state of confusion, started to snap pictures of their lip tattoos.
Speaking of lip tattoos, eliminated contestant Ms. Moore told us after the show, “Pop Art is something that is very slick and easy on the eye on the surface, but then you look into it and see many layers of meaning.” That seems true, in an extremely simplistic way. It also seems entirely unrelated to Ms. Moore’s artwork, which she explained to us is influenced by her unique childhood, spent “deep in the woods,” without a television, where she learned that “nature is normal and real” and “the city is this insectlike beehive that has been built on top of something real.”
Perhaps she would have been better served by drawing on her more recent life, in which she confessed to moving out from her youthful “hippie bubble,” going so far as to watch Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills “every once in a while.” Actually, she proved herself to be quite the expert on the Pop-cultural mainstay of a TV franchise, which is, like all Bravo creations, rife with opportunities for ironic commentary (and would likely have thrilled Warhol, with his famously professed love of actors “living ‘life between roles.’”)
“I like Adrienne; I think she’s just solid and hardass and smart and she bitches with her husband and it just seems like a real relationship,” Ms. Moore effused. “And of course Kyle is pretty strong. The others all seem very fragile and brittle to me. So I kind of feel bad for the rest of them. And who’s the British one? She’s also pretty strong. She’s great. So those three I’m down with. The rest, I just feel bad for them.”
CONCLUSION: If I were to draw a Venn diagram of the contestants’ and the judges’ definitions of Pop Art, it might look something like a Damien Hirst polka-dot painting—no overlap, but very colorful. If, on the other hand, you’d like a cohesive definition for your files, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s: “A style of art based on themes and imagery drawn from modern popular culture and the mass media, and characterized by the ironic depiction of everyday subjects using strong colour, clear images, and quasi-photographic techniques. Freq. attrib. The pop art movement flourished from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, chiefly in the U.S. and Britain, beginning as a reaction against the high seriousness of Abstract Expressionism. Among its leading practitioners were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, R. B. Kitaj, and Peter Blake.” Or it is “sex”? Either way.