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Popular Art.                                                                    



What is it that makes people like, hang on their walls and imitate artists like Jack Vettriano (Mad Dogs… or The Singing Butler), Yoshizo Kawasaki (Poppies), Nicholas Verrall (Le Dejeuner en Provence) and Chen Yifei (Lingering Melodies from the Xunyang River)? All artists who are genuinely popular in the sense that the demand for affordable copies of their images has lead to their mass reproduction and so grace the walls of homes and workplaces as well as being found on greetings cards for special occasions.


It would appear that a new generation of popular favourites has arrived to rival and even replace the previous incumbents, Monet and the Impressionists (and not forgetting Van Gough) which had itself replaced a fad for paintings of a yet earlier epoch: the Pre-Raphaelites and Constable, together with the (more recent) poster art of Alphonse Mucha. However the distinguishing feature of today’s generation of popular choice is that the artists of choice are of a similar generation; are alive and active today (until recently this was only true of the poster art of Roger Dean or Geiger, both appealing almost exclusively to teenage and young adult constituencies).


Inheriting the mantle of Edward Hopper (canonised as a ‘serious’ artist, yet one who is also popular - that is reproduced and disseminated through posters) Jack Vettriano has been adopted, like many others, against the ‘taste’ of the critics (many of whom persist in applying an Adorno their fathers rejected to images and objects he would have regarded a commercial barbarism). Vettriano has also been chosen against what are all-too-often taken for (and worse, presented as) fashions of some intellectual pretension (that is caste markers of ‘taste’, class and cultural hierarchy). Against these, Vettriano is associated with a popular art whose images are usually simple, clear, direct, often whimsical, occasionally doing ‘sexy’; but never too serious, nor too striking, nor indeed too original, and certainly never too ambitious neither in form nor content (not at all like its antithesis in painting, the work of the German artist, Anselm Keifer).


One of the secrets of Vettriano’s success undoubtedly lies in his representations of the sexual dance (although the two paintings mentioned above, Mad Dogs… and The Singing Butler, upon which his mass popularity is based, hint at a more idyllic, innocent and far less darker world than that featured in most of his work). A dance requiring a careful and ‘classy’ dressing up (accompanied by a comparatively ‘low-life’ staging) which reveals a fantasy world inhabited, not only by the painter (who freely admits his inspiration­) but also by his audience… and so offers-up a valuable insight for the present day sexual anthropologist. These representations of a world dominated by sexual desire occur in a form of popular art which side-steps the usual popular genres of desire and the image, the pin-ups of sexual hagiography and the (near) pornography of poster nudes beloved of male (straight) calendars, to convey a sexual tension that is at once stylised and knowing (just as the roles, props and clothing are both stereotypical and theatrical, poses adopted for a purpose, a masquerade of sexual functionalism). What the sexual charge which accompanies so many of Vettriano’s darker images reveals is an audience equally staged in its fantasy repertoire, but conscious in its deliberate self-dramatisation. This is a game that will continue for as long as the film, Casablanca, which so-obviously shares its image-repertoire with Vettriano, remains a beloved part of popular culture. In both of these worlds of the image the very recent past has become the trying-ground of our new myths of sex.


This kind of popular art is defined against another kind of art which has come to popular attention: YBA (the Young British Art of the 1990s). Imported from the USA after Jeff Koons, as an after-echo of American Post-conceptualism, inheritor and death knell of its parent, Conceptualism (as also of Minimalism and the found object traditions, together comprising the radical art movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s). A shallow echo of their ambition (now reduced to moneymaking alone) an empty joke at their expense (consisting as it does of a single shock, provoking a short-lived-smile). These objects and images are popular in the sense of notorious - and primarily aimed at the museum, or private collector (private as in gallery owning). High Art and the Mass Media here perform the final fusion that belies their putative opposition (a fusion exactly mirroring that with popular art). One reduced to the commodity as an object is reduced to an advertising gimmick, a specialist (scarce) purchase with (generational) attitude, a media creation; the other reproduced as a commodity for sale on the mass market, the sign of the popular.


The visions of popular art, the entrails of popular life…


Comfort Zone. Accessing fantasy but not challenging it. Supporting dreams not letting in nightmares. (The very opposite of the function of the nightmare incarnate in ‘teenage’, ‘Goth’ or other art focussed on this most challenged of generations, where the nightmare image is its own antidote, symbolic co-efficient of internal conflicts and identity contradictions, expression of adolescent emotion, as of a transitional identity torn in equal part between the infantile and the adult, existing as the parody of both).


If one were to hazard a temporality for this genre… the immediacy of a vivid now-moment united to the landscapes of an un-apocalyptic eternity; a soft-focus eternity, an eternal summer, as if in a dream. Rebellion and overturning (once a candidate for rebellion’s adult form) are left behind with an adolescence whose art they define. In general such an art is almost classical in its sense of balance for not only must it tread the fine line between the temporal and the eternal, but it must then be found to suit the interior décor and marry up with the fantasy within. In effect an extension of ones inner core; framed and presented. A hanging reminder of the hanging gardens within… (but one which must match the curtains).


Ideal scenes. Benign Nature. The marriage of Nature and Culture. The image of the garden is a utopian constant in our cultures and in the history of our cultures. Its image haunts our literature and painting alike. The utopia of the warm patio, the plenitude of the barbecue with friends, or just the silence of the unsullied landscape. Magic nature also provides beautiful images as the medicine which we would gladly take as the cure for our everyday lives, from close-ups of flowers to near-abstracts owing more to the whimsical world of a Miro than the photography of a gardening magazine (giving even Klee a popularity that his experimental forms would seem to deny).


The pastoral image survives as a popular sub-genre now spread throughout our culture. If peace has an image it is still that of the pastoral. And yet within the history of the pastoral genres and of genres touched by the pastoral, therein lies the rub. A ‘rub’, a friction, which still persists today, even in the most anodyne of poster prints; the contrast between the depicted ideal and the urban reality that would suggest a disquiet not easily assuaged by the all-purpose medicine of the commodity (but let us remember nevertheless that this is how our society circulates things and that those things which circulate outside of these circuits are often not very edifying either).


Strung between the sexual and the geographic, the sensual and the soporific, between utopias, erotic and horticultural, between tamed Nature and (Human) Nature as Desire, between the world of the Perfumed Garden and the Garden that we would take as giving the lie to the world after the Fall, popular art insists on a simple immediacy that nevertheless has its roots in the history of our culture and the not-so-simple and very much divided history of our collective psyche.


Yet whatever may be said against it, this is always a people’s art, an art for people (not for galleries, museums, or even the private collectors who purchase the originals only to lose them to mass reproduction and distribution, and so must share the image with its mass audience, abandoning all pretension of exclusivity).


 Art for people’s homes.


Democratic middlebrow.





                                                            Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk