Jan Estep, “Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures,” Modern Painters, October 2007, 105-106.
the Pop maestro writes, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me.” This insistence that surface is all there is contrasts markedly with the romantic notion of an artist’s (or a subject’s) depth that we’re used to. A master of confounding expectations, Warhol, along with his Pop compatriots, pushed Greenbergian modernism in North America to a logical brink. You want flatness, Clem? We’ll give you flatness. You want to do away with illusionism? We’ll give you images appropriated directly from popular culture. Pop confronted the entrenched binaries that kept art sequestered from the rest of culture while refusing to choose a side. High/low, authentic/fake, master/amateur, hand-made/mass-produced, artisanal/industrial, autonomous/interconnected: all of these pairings were challenged but ultimately retained. In this way, Pop carefully eroded the boundaries of art while preserving it as a special, separate category. Soon after, Fluxus and Conceptual artists in the U.S. and the Situationists in Europe were to erode these separations even further.
The new anthology Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures [MIT Press, 2007], the third volume in a series on cross-cultural perspectives in the visual arts edited by Diaspora studies scholar Kobena Mercer, addresses how artists in China, South Africa, Brazil, and India and Black and Chicano/a artists in the United States grappled with these binaries from the 1960s through the 1990s: what did Pop art look like in hands darker than those of Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al.? The book focuses on the ways popular imagery and vernacular culture were variously assimilated and deconstructed beyond a strictly Western context, stressing the concrete influence of these artists’ distinct social situations and reinforcing the connections between art and life that fueled the Pop revolution in other places.
The book is rich with examples of the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in meaning when Pop strategies occurred outside its breeding ground. The issues of sincerity and authenticity come up repeatedly in the book’s eight essays, all newly commissioned but developed after an initial symposium on the topic. Where Warhol dared viewers to believe his vacuity, Chicano/a artists, working under the style dubbed rasquachismo by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (whose essay for his 1988 exhibition “Chicano Aesthetics: Rasquachismo” appears here, along with a new commentary on the text by Holly Barnet-Sanchez) made art that issued directly from their experience as part of a struggling lower class, rife with a brash and bawdy sensibility and a make-do practicality. Gavin Butt’s essay explores the confusion of authenticity and performativity in Shirley Clarke’s film Portrait of Jason. Made in 1967, the film depicts a conversation with gay, black hustler Jason Holiday. As Butt describes, it’s difficult to tell when Jason is acting and when he’s not, to such an extent that his playful theatricality and immersion in movies eventually appears authentic.
Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures includes discussions of numerous international artists: Bhupen Khakhar of India; Antonio Dias of Brazil; the Americans Betye Saar, Robert Colescott, and David Hammons; Wang Guangyi and Wu Shanzhuan of China; and a broad selection of Chicano/a and South African artists. How can one fault such a necessary rectification of a myopic art-historical record? Well, it depends on what one wants. If it is enough for a reader to have some gaps filled in, then this book satisfies. If, however, one seeks insight into the way Pop art and art’s relationship to popular culture have been conceptualized differently outside the West, then Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures disappoints. Although the book’s essays account for how the material conditions of particular places engender specific artistic responses and local interpretations, the results seem perfectly in keeping with the way the West already theorizes artistic production. The facts and the time line may vary, but the thinking is the same, more fodder for a totalizing worldview that abrogates difference.
Of course, it’s possible that my criticism is just another manifestation of the tenacious desire in Western culture that the Other be exotic; we request not merely an alternative history but an alternative way of conceiving the world, one that could knock the Western worldview off its feet, or at least nudge it a little. This demand on the part of white/Western critics that blacks or non-Western artists be different is a problem that a number of the writers included here point out. Colin Richards describes assumptions in some South African art circles that black artists should not transcend their “native” realism to paint in an abstract modernist style or move too far away from their “primitive” traditions or the tourist market. In many cases, these artists, whose social and political contexts obviously differ from that of their Western counterparts and who often critique Western values, nonetheless want to be taken on terms equal to them.
How do we collectively maintain the significance of our subjective circumstances while also acknowledging the similarities that ensure mutual respect? Can we capitalize on the differences that arise from the ground up without creating an epistemological monoculture? These are perennial catch-22s of postcolonial scholarship. But where others seek to write a hybrid language that is neither fully Western nor fully indigenous but a creolized mixture of the two, the writers of this anthology seek to navigate it by adding to art history as it already stands, trusting the impact of making visible what was heretofore ignored.
copyright 2007 Jan Estep