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The new Pop is everywhere you look

December 24, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

POP art is back. Everywhere you look, from galleries and museums to art fairs and international biennials, the intersection of art culture with popular culture is apparent.

In fact, it's one big traffic jam. Typically the best art engages with the circumstances of its creation, so one might even say most art is Pop art now.

The new Pop is not a style or a movement, as it was in the 1960s. It's a zeitgeist, the spirit of the 21st century. Today's art operates as a distinctive niche within the larger sphere of popular entertainment. Contained by that bigger universe, which I think of as the Cultural Industrial Complex, art ranks among the liveliest, most resonant galaxies.

The Cultural Industrial Complex generates a dizzying range of activity. A fractional accounting includes paintings, movies, reality TV, plays, art museum exhibitions, department store displays, agitprop video, philharmonic concerts, video games, the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Chinatown galleries, starchitects, celebutantes, books, iPods, YouTube, digital photographs, light sculpture, runway couture, art fairs, freeway murals, "American Idol," the Turner Prize, the Heisman Trophy, ad infinitum. Its contours are unbounded and, like nature's universe, steadily expanding.

Popular culture used to be synonymous with mass culture, but now it's a vast niche society. When broadcasting has shattered into narrowcasting, 500 cable channels have elbowed aside the networks, Internet democracy is emergent, and Berlin, London, New York and Los Angeles are being joined by Beijing as art-production centers, a winner-take-all attitude doesn't make sense. A niche can remain small, relative to the mass market, while still being big enough and strong enough to sustain itself and prosper.

Sixties Pop was born of the counterculture. It spoke of a democratic hope for social equality through opposition to an aristocratic status quo. That turned out to be a sweetly idealized, even fatal fiction. The myth proposed that it was possible to stand outside society's corrupted network of relations -- Gauguin in Tahiti, hippies in the Fillmore -- when in fact there was no escape.

The new Pop is different. It wears its social membership on its sleeve, insisting on the centrality of its niche.

Some people refuse to believe what's happened, as if denial will make it go away. Conservative naysayers especially decry the fact of art's standing as entertainment, claiming it's a sure sign of Western Civilization's Decline and Fall. (For a fogy, the adjective "mere" inevitably precedes entertainment.) They pine for an Ancien Regime of insufferable artistic privilege.

But in L.A., of all cities, the truth should be self-evident. Los Angeles is where the Big Bang happened -- the primeval, subatomic metroplex where the CIC universe exploded.

The old distinction between art and entertainment used to be characterized as the cultural difference between High art and Low art. Any Jackson Pollock painting was "better than" any Ernie Kovacs television show -- as if a sane person could really construct a rational method to compare the two.

When Clement Greenberg -- the late, great and profoundly wrong art critic -- wrote his seminal 1939 essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," he indulged in just such category confusion. Still, the essay is the foundation document for the High-Low schism in American art.

It also sealed the fate of L.A. art for 50 years. If one believed the critic's formulation -- and eventually almost everyone did -- the incipient New York School represented the rigorous avant-garde, transplanted to American shores from Europe. Meanwhile, poor Tinsel Town was stuck representing the frivolous fountain of dangerous kitsch, fouling any cultural product manufactured in its shadow.

Notice, however, the date of Greenberg's essay.

"Avant-Garde and Kitsch" appeared just nine months before Hitler's armies marched into Paris. Modern art's capital city is where the concept -- and the word -- for an artistic avant-garde had been adapted from French military terminology. Culturally it had come to describe art's leading edge. Kitsch -- not by accident a German word, loosely meaning trash -- was said to be its mortal enemy.

When the critic wrote, Modern European culture trembled beneath the Nazi boot. Kitsch-meisters soon occupied the avant-garde's City of Light.

Greenberg's fierce battle for the soul of art, waged between caricatures of French and German aesthetic concepts, was 20th century America's original culture war. The fight is long since over, but post-traumatic stress is hard to shake. The false qualitative distinction between High and Low -- false because it inevitably breaks along establishment lines of class and power -- is art's phantom limb.

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