Art in a Material World

Investigating the role of the “artist” and “art”, Tate Modern surveys the last 30 years of contemporary visual culture.

Andy Warhol once stated: “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called “art” or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business – they’d say ‘Money is bad’ and ‘Working is bad’, but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” This idea – of art and business as being one entity – is the starting point from which Pop Life: Art in a Material World begins.

Opening 1 October 2009 at Tate Modern, the exhibition aims to investigate the role of the “artist” and “art” and how preconceived notions have steadily become dismantled throughout the last 30 years. Warhol, as the main protagonist of the Pop Art movement, opened up the way for artists such as Tracey Emin, Takashi Murikami, and Jeff Koons who have become more than just artists but celebrity figures in their own right. There is a strong element of self-promotion inherent to their work: contemporary artists have become celebrity “products” to be advertised and sold, and they embrace this. Koons, the master of self-promotion, famously constructed billboards advertising his marriage to the Italian porn-star turned politician La Cicciolini (Made in Heaven, 1990) thereby turning his marriage and personal life into a public event. The piece, which debuted at the Venice Biennale of that year, framed Koons’ past within an art historical context and glamorised his life. There is an autobiographical aspect to his work that is mirrored most obviously in the work of Emin and Martin Kippenberger. Kippenberger essentially created his own back-catalogue of work for a self-curated show in 1983 at a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and established an aura of fame around his work by doing so.

Pop Art is rooted in the products of mass culture and advertising and it is integral to the work of artists like Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein that they originally trained as commercial artists (Warhol as a fashion illustrator and Lichtenstein in design and display). Their work has an almost pristine finish to the surface, a finish quite similar to that of the work of Takashi Murikami. This finish, combined with the repetitive aspect and a focus on size, is typical of their work and instantly recognisable and indicative of their commercial experience. Size and repetition play an important role in the presentation of common objects by Pop artists; it almost elevates them and increases their shock factor.

The artists featured in the exhibition are rooted in the Duchampian tradition of the ready-made: of taking any object or idea and classifying it as art simply by placing it within the category of “art”. There is an optimistic quality to this in that there are no boundaries – everything and anything goes, and Pop artists tend to be almost child-like in their enthusiasm and simplicity. Emin’s Unmade Bed is purely what it’s called: an unmade bed. She isn’t trying to make it a metaphor for socio-economic crises in the developing world. Emin is merely opening up to her audience and allowing them to take part in her life. She, like Warhol, elevates the object and makes it something interesting and human by isolating a fragment or quality of it: Warhol’s Brillo boxes become mythic and Koon’s basketball within a vitrine, a masterpiece of production. Nicholas Cullinan, one of the curators of the exhibition, argues: “the importance of a work of art isn’t necessarily the object, but the idea. It [Pop Art] dematerialized the object from the idea.” The object, for example, an advertisement, is always a further step removed from the idea, as it is a reproduction of an original, which is then reproduced again by the artist.

The commercial selling of the art object, and the way in which it is done, is almost as important as the object in Pop Art. Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in New York and Emin and Sarah Lucas’ shop in Bethnal Green (both now defunct) reduces the economic process of buying art to a basic level. Art, when placed within a new context, away from the white walls of the gallery or museum, became a general commodity. The known “shop” becomes subjective and our perception of what it is a shop should sell is turned on its head: the belief that fine art should be sold within a private gallery or through an art dealer becomes defunct. Andrea Fraser takes this further with her seminal work Untitled (2003), where she slept with a collector for a fee and then filmed the actual event. The work, which will be exhibited as a screening on a monitor, isn’t about the sexual act, but rather about the economics of sex and the fact that sex is, and for thousands of years has been, treated as a commodity. Fraser allows her audience to view her as prostitute and by doing so raises the simple point that art is very often viewed as a form of prostitution. By making sex the art object to be bought she disassembles the preconceived notions of what an art object is or can be. Stripped of its art-historical pretentious layer of academia the art object becomes a purer form and it is this ‘pure’ quality of Pop Art that is so appealing. The material object exists as is and becomes familiar, but through this familiarity almost imposing. We recognise the pills and medicines of Hirst’s Pharmacy but it is a forced recognition; the viewer has to reconsider what it is they are seeing and evaluate the mass media and culture of their own life.

The exhibition proposes that Pop Art asks contemporary audiences to view culture on a base level, to see it as a framework that we exist and produce within. This framework of production and consumption lends itself readily to investigation and to understand that the question of “what is art?” is fruitless, as for Pop artists there is no answer. A new vocabulary of art became the only way to answer, and a new vocabulary of self-awareness selling the method of disseminating this answer. Hirst’s recent auction at Sotheby’s, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, truly broke down the economics of the marketplace, a marketplace couched in the veneration of finances. Hirst took the auction and discovered a new angle from which to approach it, by stepping away from the gallery as the liaison, and essentially becoming his own dealer. Money is a vulgar thing and Hirst, as did Warhol before him, belligerently embraces the culture of the art market and shows how vulgar it truly is.

This tenuous line between art and money dissolves under the guise of Pop Art. Art is a commodity and the artists chosen for this exhibition are all inherently aware of this and use the knowledge to their financial and personal advantage. The hype and sensationalism surrounding their work is largely (at least initially) self-created, aggravated by a fame-obsessed culture, and cemented by their own success. The society papers of today propagate this as they are filled with images of Charles Saatchi, Tracey Emin, Jay Jopling – to name but a few. The art world is a glamorous, scandalous world and we love to read about it. Pop Life: Art in a Material World exposes its audience to their own superficiality and love of money and publicly displays the orgiastic, carnivalesque element of the contemporary art market. Is that so bad?

Niamh Coghlan