The plague of “wow art” in the coverage of contemporary art online, and in the art world: stacking and the material display tradition.

rev., August 28, 2015.

In the recent past, I said some negative things about what I call wow art (or emoji art), or most of the artwork that you often see as clickbait online, lamentably often glutting sites intending to cover “contemporary art.” I criticized a portrait made of the Pope in Milwaukee by Niki Johnson, Scrambled Eggs, which was made out of condoms, I think my comment was this was about as controversial as Hostess Twinkies

wow 1

and then when I saw Dara Marchenko’s portrait of Putin, made out of bullets, and that got a good amount of wow clicks too

wow 2

I said she should get together with the artist who made the portrait of the pope, and put condoms on five hundred bullets, and, in that process itself, THAT, and that only would be contemporary art. I am pretty sure nobody knows what I am talking about, or why such wow art is not, in fact, contemporary art, but a manner of display in the nonart world that has, through savvy or exploitation, sought to take advantage of the ‘look’ of contemporary art, to seem more artlike, and regain admission into a palace it has long since been flushed out of.

The main problem with all this art is that it is exists to elicit a wow. This does not make it kunstkammer art, which elicits a smaller, more thoughtful wow (theoretically, kunstkammer art would be real wow, this is exploited wow) (the sisyphysian rockpush of wow from mindless spectacle to sublime transcendence then back down to mindless spectacle, as it has fluctuated over the centuries has been carefully mapped out by kunstkammer art historians–kunstkammer art I like, but I am claiming we have moved on into another rockfall mindless spectacle period). No, this is meant to assemble a massive amount of material units, preferably enough to get it in the Guinness book of world records, and then do something arty, but not so arty, with them. Sometimes the material and the subject matter can clash, creating a nifty irony, though it is often too pat when it does, in the manner of a one liner, in the case of the portrait of the Pope out of condoms, presumably a comment on the church’s preaching against contraception, or the material can be used to critique something about the character of the personage, in the manner of a property, as in the bullet picture of Putin.

Because contemporary art has grown in the past decade, it has stretched out its reach to meet up with academic institutions who then create spurious outlying zones of it in departments primarily interested in technique. Also, separate worlds have been made on the basis of a distinction of craft from art, in many departments over the country. As a result, if you step outside of a mainstream art center, into the regions, you will find the contemporary art market quickly gives way to submarkets involving glass, fabric, photography and print art, and, then, adjunct to them, a spurious gallery connection to a ‘shop’ in which the ‘artist’ has set up a side business to make glass, fabric, photography and print art for clients who want specialized products in each materialist field—but not their ‘art’ art.

Because in the 1970s there was an attempt in creating a rapprochement between craft as it was called pre 1990 and art, which consisted in the modern period of sculpture and painting, but also including vast amounts of found objects brought in through the backdoor of conceptualism, this attempt to make a life in art by this adjunct or auxiliary means is blessed by two waves of thinking, the Woman’s work movement combined with pattern painting in the 1970s, and then the material art artists of the 1980s (most of whom are kind of forgotten about now). That said, in all departmentalized adjunct spaces of contemporary art, where technique rules, formulas come to dominate over conceptualization of novel devices, and then even display designed to elicit a wow will take over, meaning demonstration pieces.

But no art can be art that is based on the fixed formula of 1) taking a massive amount of material; 2) assemble it mosaiclike onto a prefabricated form; 3) using computer technicality or other mad intense technical device to do it, assemble. No art this formulaic can ever rise to the level of contemporary art. In so far as, in fact, that this kind of art only involves amassing the material art material, and then mosaicizing them in over a template form, chosen for maximum effect, one can say that this is more a builder or workman’s job than an artist’s task. It also feels like only the faculty of “drawing” has been exploited, but in a materialized, almost kitsch inverted form of the Big Pop. But this work is no different really than ice sculpture, or butter sculpture, or any other craft-art that is now deferentially referred to as art always in the context of creative dramatic party displays for events, to elicit a wow (except that ice sculpture is worse because it exploits the sheer technicality of mastering realistic likeness, like you get from a sidewalk charcoal artist, which is the lowest form of creativity, then imposed upon a material, and carved—not art). It is not, then, contemporary art. It is a form of display, a materialized form, then, of advertising as it meets up with decoration.

There is nothing wrong with decoration, or with doing up a room for an event; there is nothing wrong with display, and making a great display is a great thing, I have always liked shop window displays, and department store windows, and fashion shows, and runaway choreography, and going to big box stores and seeing big piles of items, and wowing at state fairs at amassed products, I give shout outs to Christmas and Halloween decorations, it’s fine, it’s all fun. But that does not mean we need to call any of it art. So it remains so incredibly frustrating that as the internet is sucked down the pandering spiral of the click, wow art, which derives from a tradition of commercial display, has been routinely confused as actual contemporary art.

The tradition of material display goes back a very long way. In American culture, it made its first big splash in the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (*I studied this in great detail in the 70s). One sees the formula right away: display of state produce is the goal, a massive amount of individual units are the way to go; that material accumulation then has to be made to look presentable, so it is fashioned into either abstract forms designed to show it off, from pyramids to circular disks

wow 3

Or it panels or paves or bricks over prefab forms, and can be built into architectural forms, I love the fruit built up into a kind of newel post display

wow 4

strange shapes almost borrowed from the fields themselves, haystacking motifs made over into art , this in the Illinois pavilion (pyramids below in center, abstract mosaics up on balconies, even the pillars mosaicized, the rest is steel.

wow 5

displays of jarred objected in a pyramid form(jars are below)

wow 6

or even making large scale gargantuan objects on an armature of a predetermined nature, then covering it with grain or corn or whatever (the tournament of Roses parade, 20 years later, emerged from this). Here is a horse made out of grain, in the Missouri pavilion

wow 7

In every case, the actual form the work takes, whether abstract or figurative, is incidental: the most important convention is that bigness and bounty be projected, it is, then, an advertising for good yield production, for the greatness of agriculture in the state; and then the technique is labor intensive and therefore aweinspiring, took a lot of time, is a wonder to behold, because in men with no taste a lot of hard work is the last refuge of appreciation, but….that’s it. It is a display, using traditional fixated upon mechanisms of display involving material display, and is not contemporary art.

In a kind of never never land between straight up display, and something that included a bit more work, and might be called “art” there were large scale panorama pictures, in effect agricultural or down to earth renderings of paintings from over in the art gallery, all of which were hung salon style, with a taste for the historical and large scale

wow 8

But these were made of grain or corn or whatever, an agricultural mosaicking

wow 9

But this style of artiness is not an art in its own right, nor was it thought of art then, either (though I suspect if a frame went around it the ladies clubs dubbed her “an artist”). In fact, the fair is notable for covering up the fact that the assemblage was essentially a supersized state fair of agricultural produce and machinery by putting a veneer of elegant European influenced art, to imitate the culture of world’s fair, such as at Paris in 1889, over it. I wrote about this ‘fraud” in my 20s, thinking it represented the pretentiousness of art, but I see it now that it was the opposite, it represents the pretentious artiness of materialism

wow 10

But then, back in the pavilions, all you saw was display and demonstration of the produce of an industrial society, so there was electricity, all shown in volume, in all over style, to wow you

wow 11

There was tiers of produce only, in salon stacking style (even humans too)

wow 12

I am partial to high pyramids of jars of jams

wow 13

If one state wanted to claim some heritage in its paleontology, then there was a demonstration diorama of a woolly mammoth, probably plaster, very large scale, counterpart to the gargantuan Missouri grain horse

wow 14

Some displays are indistinguishable from department stores, it is commercial display culture

wow 15

What would be the derivation of these works, in terms of agency? The fact that the fair on the artier side also hosted a number of what in the past would be called diplomatic gifts or ambassadorial art, votive in a political sense, they embody the watered down modern version of kunstkammer art, here’s a Tiffany tub from the Fair, framed flamboyantly in tusks. It is a specialized craft, with an extra zing, to “make it art”

wow 16

This means that all display or demonstration art is ultimately derived from gift art, special treasures given from king to king, and, ultimately, going back to the votive art amassed at shrines to honor heroes and others at a Greek shrine. This is a viable artistic tradition, and much great art has been created in it. But the question is, as this tradition was scaled up by the fair tradition, then commercialized and industrialized, did it turn into an inflated and empty display of material excess? It is clear from the above that the art in grain display is not art per se, in its own genre, but simply the application of display principals in other commercial fields carried over into grain. There is no one then who would have taken this for art. The conventions of this genre of display art were that the object be gargantuan in nature, to wow you, and this is proven by the fact that then, and now, demonstration art would show up with monstrous versions of small objects to symbolically portray bounty, here’s a large cheese of Canada (all this a close cousin to roadside attraction art)

wow 17

In addition to the mandate for gargantuan size, you have the mandate to display the material first, that is, there must be no doubt about what is being shown, it must be out on the surface, entirely visible, preferably in great quantity. Better still if the object was built of it, so that is second. But then the visibility is enhanced by imposing this abstract display often on forms or images that would then elicit a response derived in an entirely presold and prescribed way from the form or source, and not from the material, to as it were, by means of exploited or stolen valor, pass the awe over to the material display. While a heap of grain of itself would not be much of a wow, making a coach and six out of it would in fact get you to look at it, then marvel, if, after gazing, not realizing it was made out of what it is, you go awe. While a large hunk of butter would not do it, a large hunk of butter carved into a likeness of Abraham Lincoln would do (this notion oddly skirts close to the subconscious of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster, where he seemed to worry, especially in Cremaster 2, where he goes to a mountaintop redoubt of the fair, that his art was nothing more than a fancy sort of material display

wow 18

Or even ice sculpture—it is the worry of the material culture artist, or the artist living in the age of material consumerism (surely as powerful a force as mechanical reproduction) (the ice sculpture behind Mailer) (see my treatment of Cremaster, not yet posted tho)

wow 19

This entirely formulaic practice of agricultural material display died out in the modern age, but it remains everpresent in commercial display: it remains one of the staple conventions of commercial representation of products. Either by ersatz stacking, into the form of a prescribed and instantly recognizable form, like a xmas tree, here’s one from Poland

wow 20

Here’s another one from a book shop somewhere, on the internet

wow 21

Or in the slightly more adventurous, but not entirely creative, endeavor of moving past stacking, to building-blocking with them, a part of a bookstore made of books, of course

wow 22

And here’s a desk made of books, which seems interesting for about five minutes (some blogging fools even praise this as a kind of artistic recycling, using used materials or dated materials, or in the past I might subject it to migration theory and say here is the materialistic fate of books, when they are made obsolete by kindle

wow 23

If I saw this in person, I’m not stick in the mud, if it is clever, and fun, and creative, I give it it’s due, but I do not then think the maker is a contemporary artist, or, if turns out she is, then I applaud her for using her excess energy to garner a moonlit dollar or two, but that is as far as it goes.

Then, in the nauseatingly pretentious tangled zones criss-crossing between art and design, and art and architecture, and art and fashion, and art and party design, and art and wedding planning, and art and whathaveyou, art and theme park design (in the hipster era there is even art and barbering, and art and coffeeshopping, and what else, lots), you may have practitioners in any field of the sort, coming from any which way, deciding on some day to make an object not usually made out of a material out of that material, such as a Styrofoam couch, clever, jejune, not art

wow 24

I have been looking at stacking and building-blocking and other forms of the simplistic romper room constructivism of ersatz forms and objects as a means of commercial display for fifty years. I like it, there’s no problem with it, it’s great, the problem is when you try to equate this with contemporary art. At one point, I might have wandered into this problem, when I conjectured, during my study of the fairs, that the material culture display of the fairs had, because they had as display tactics gone out of business, had migrated into art (my mistake was, they hadn’t). It’s also true this bridge to art was supported by the likes of Ivan Karp and his interest in art made based on his collecting mania for Americana—so for a moment I shared the problem. In the 80s, there were a few stacking or building-block artists (I could not call them assemblage artists) that I followed and liked, such as David (See Brooklyn museum, he did walls of books). But then I figured it out, no, the formula of this art is way too formulaic, the imagery is too prescribed (I think for a time given a pass by people mistakenly taking it for a form of appropriation, which is having a second life in nonsense on the web, and doubly supported by the idiocy of most meme art), the effort is too labor focused. All these fixated excesses represent the rational mind mimicking, but in fact exploiting, creativity, resulting in a false creativity.

The fact that artist’s like Cady Noland and Pruitt and Early kind of mocked the whole tradition with their enclosures of beer cans, also lent to material accumulation stacking art, a certain cache. (Of course, it can be seen right away that Noland is doing something different)

wow 25

However, Pruitt and Early, in the 90s, based their stacking art on the supermarket stacking tradition first exploited by Andy Warhol as a symbol of our consumerism, I think by this point kind of making fun of the whole thing

wow 27

For all this, my current take on the situation is that the stacking tradition of material culture and commercial display is a separate visual tradition all its own, it does not converge on the art world and contemporary art, and its continued production by persons with a measure of creativity does not approach contemporary art. It remains commercial display art, a form of advertising, if you will. At some times, it may have come closer, in a kind of epigee, to the art world, as in the Andy moment, but then it drifts off, there is a period of apogee, and it keeps on, it does not transfer in itself, and if practiced in the functionalist formulaic way it is in the marketplace, it cannot be art.

It is therefore increasingly distressing to me that on the internet in particular this kind of false art is being routinely mistaken by writers on art for contemporary art. Also, I suppose because it gives them more cache, and, because of the confluence of some byways of gap-history gathered into a fake reality adjacent to the art world, they can call themselves artists now, as anyone who does anything remotely creative is now given the title, there are artists who get coverage in art magazines and in mainstream publications with ridiculously clueless arts coverage, like The Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post, and this passes as art. My guess is that this works online because it elicits a wow (hence I call it wow art, a spurious evil artspolitation art cousin of pop art), and thus a click: online is also the world of wonders in a cheap sort of way, anything on it that seems of a Guinness Book of Record sort is going to get coverage as art. The same thing is true in science, in politics, in all walks of life, when represented in the clickbait zone of the troll.

Some of the main culprits exploiting this (or simply cluelessly misunderstanding this are the Chinese. I have written of this before: there must be in Chinese art schools some fundamental alienated conservatism, whereby artists using traditional means adapted modern realist styles, then got stuck. You see a lot of kitsch Western academic realism in China, because of this. But then they accelerated the process, and in the process adopted a strategy of contemporary-artization of the art (resulting in what I call “contemporary art” art), and as a result you get way too many artists like this one, who do incredibly labor intensive large scale works, full of wows, but…..not really contemporary art, here a carving by Zheng Hui Chen

wow 28

The problem is, again, contemporary art-ized noncontemporary art is not contemporary art, it is a material display, for commercial purposes. It fails as art because its practice derives entirely from the exploiting pincers of the prefrontal cortex, and not from the brain zones that lead to the creation of art per se. This is exploitation art, if you will: exploiting the language of contemporary art, to make something that is not it, look like it. Some artists from China simply impose over material display, prefab imprinted imaged from the west, signifying eastness to western audiences, the result seems fussily academic, and very bad as art,

wow 29

Even respectable artists from China like Xu Bing have tried out the material culture display art idea, though this one is somewhat more clever than normal, and the fact that it is made out of cigarettes, not usually displayed in material way in this way, adds to its twists,  and its absurdity, so this may, just may pass, but it remains, if art, a parody of art by formula (this shown at Mass Mocha two summers ago)

wow 30

And of course in my one written response to Ai Wei Wei I also about a decade ago in a show he did of a large chandelier in the front gallery of the Robert Miller gallery questioned if he was not using simple applications of scaling up or multiplying objects to make of mere material display, what appears to be contemporary art, because to him it looked like western contemporary art (I think I just accused him and the Chinese of reverse engineering contemporary art). He does now and then fall into this and with him the tradition of material display circles round back to the Venice Biennial, created on the model of the fairs, inculcated with the formal principles of display in fairs, and so, as I have discussed, the idea of material display as art per se thrives spuriously there

wow 31

If this, I think inauthentic, cooptation of models of material display as a way to parody western consumerism, or that in China, has been adopted by Chinese artists, using this model of acceleration, that is, it is a device of acceleration, to make art not yet contemporary look contemporary, then it is even more disturbing that the plague of this false art is spreading to Europe, as I had absolutely no problem finding some European examples of the same playground formula, here’s a horse made out of keys from a computer, clever, stupid, requiring only ingenuity and patience, no intelligence (oh, all these are saved, they imagine, for contemporary art, by having a one liner built in, so I suppose he is commenting on the Trojan Horse aspect of internet security), by Babis Pangiotidis

wow 32

Dutch artist Alicia Martin (I have seen this before, Kirsten Moser did a chute out of a building 20 years ago at Colin de Land), does books pouring out of windows,

wow 33

Someone named Job Kolewijn, does, ha ha, an American gas station made out of books

wow 34

Nicola O Bynre did a spiral of books (I just googled “stuff made out of books”)

wow 35

Matej Kren made a house made out of books, shown at a real art museum (the head shakes)

wow 36

And the plague even has taken over the provinces of American art, why not, it’s an easy formula, take an object, get 1000 of them, pile them up into a form, with a kind of iconic presence, wow, click, here is Michael Salter who appropriately titled this work Nothing Comes from Nothing, in Denver (I saw work in this genre of nonart too in Art Seen in Omaha in June), I don’t see much art here (though maybe some, I withhold on thi one)

wow 37

Art, though some of the faithful followers of Benjamin and Warhol et al would like to believe it, is not a mere means of reproduction, nor is it a means of production. Both these metaphors have haunted contemporary art in the modern age, and made for a lot of bad contemporary art. Art is most definitely not merely a matter of material display of a quantity of commercial goods, even though Warhol made use of that motif, but he was being ironic, remember? Art cannot be art when based so regimentally and easily on a prescribed formula, where the only difference is in the material chosen, and what the iconic form you mean to impose it on. All of this excess creativity flowing out of commercial display is indeed creative, there is no question that it can elicit a wow, but it is skin deep, and utterly shallow, it has no meaning, and no place in the progress of contemporary art. Its spurious resurrection in the past ten years, in so far as it fit the needs for clicks in magazines with arts coverage (when contemporary art does not get too many clicks), has shockingly caused arts sections and arts writers to begin to actually cover this stuff, mainly, it should be said, in picture form, and shared and reshared by way of a line of mindless clicking, but this does not make it contemporary art. The problem has become so bad that on some days the arts section of the Huffington Post is all but unlookable at, a nightmare scenario of the death of art. Contemporary art is primarily in its nature a conceptual practice, it demands something more than stacking up a lot of objects, to elicit a pointless wow. I would almost say at this point, that if, in response to a work of contemporary art, the first thing you say is wow, you can be pretty sure that that will also be the last thing you think about it.