The defining moment of Pop art is in the 1960s, the materials in question for analyses are film, television, magazines, billboard advertising. These question the elitism and insularity of modern art. The democratization of art involves moving from the galleries to the streets. It represents the distinction between high and low cultures, in different social spaces. Pop art represents a new mass culture, consumerism, particularly that of the youth as anti-establishment. Kobena Mercer sees pop art as post-colonial and postmodern in dialogue, it’s greatest emphases being in the 1980s. It allows for the intermeshing of the theoretical and the material bases of culture, in time-honoured methods, such as bricolage and deconstruction. The term ‘vernacular’ communicates the possible implication here of languages which colonize, the writers suggest that there is a native and local space out there.
Hybridization occurs through the motif of ‘craft culture’ and ‘industrial mass culture’ being in synchrony. How to define or redefine postmodernism, by approaching the local and global, as interdependent axes of artistic and cultural production, is the key question. Kobena seems to believe with his fellow writers, that questioning or playing with sterotypes is the most important of methodologies. We certainly have predecessors in Roland Barthes and even earlier, in Mikhail Bakhtin, who engaged with what Levi Strauss called miniaturization. Who can forget the 700 words on Garbo’s face, or Einstein’s brain, which so many of us read with surprise in the early ‘80s? I say 700 words, because almost everywhere popular culture in reading, writing and thinking is represented in the ability to suppress those larger paeans (such as we see in the reading of Gaston Bachelard or Mikhail Bakhtin) and distill ideas into that one long paragraph, the intellectual newspaper column! Whether it is fashion, or film, various forms of activism or religious experience, art and representation, whether on canvas or in the newspaper column, have become routine forms of institutionalization.
How can we think of class and hierarchy in terms of resistance in art? How can we analyse forms of writing or thinking, painting or sculpting in terms of subversion? How does cinema literature and the free enterprise of art-collage look at traditional structures of space and time, as defusing the stratified spaces of high art or low brow culture? Grotesque, parody, subversion, minority cultures all work in this montage of culturally defined space. Pop art thus looks at selection and collage, rather than creation as the point of departure.
When does the Other speak with the voice of authoriality? What is the authentic? Is this the position of the Gatekeeper? Such notations such as Tribal music, Classical music, Tribal art, Tourist art all confound the keepers of galleries in the postmodern world. Art as ‘aristocratic’, having an aura, confirms legitimacy, and this rests on monetary and civilizational criteria. I often remember the Indian tribal commissioned to paint his worldview in a museum in Japan dying in isolation and sorrow, for he was lonely for his people.
To disrupt this view of the world, ‘art as resistance’ is the theme of this brilliant and dense set of essays. A large part of the book is about the creolization of art, and includes discussions of how cultures of blackness, alternative sexuality, syncretistic Christianity, and political ghettos, exist, where art becomes the only space for contestation and liberalization. This includes both questions about the freedom of expression, and the art market: i.e. what costs the artist to paint and to stay alive, and how much of the future may be caught within this canvas. Some artists in their language of resistance use waste and body parts such as nails and hair, others may use bread in an installation of the representation of Jesus, but once sold, what happened to the tortilla that was used in chicano metaphor? The central theme thus could be Tomas Ybarra Fausto’s term rasquachismo . . . where the ‘irreverent and the spontaneous’ are used in order to make sense of changing realities. New forms of elitism emerge, now understood as grand, when once it was designated as low life; contradiction is seen to be the essence of postmodernism.
Gavin Butt looks at how homosexuality is read as pathos in the making of a film, about conspicuous consumption and a black jazz musician, where subjectivities define the nature of the reading. Geeta Kapur, also reading homosexuality, in Bhupen Khakkar’s paintings, shows us that fearless nudism is about communicating tenderness and emotions without embarrassment. Holly Barnet Sanchez reads parody and domesticization of public spaces as freedom from colonization and its rhetoric of authority, where, whether it is a pair of jeans, or an altar to worship, art must have its voice without censure. Sonia Salztein moves from the domain of captured space as in the conventional canvas to the open sky, where globalization, art and multiculturalism, began to invent new ways of thinking about space, time, aesthetics and commerce. Abstract design captures underdevelopment, technological change and volatile local imaginations in complex ways. Photographing the stars and placing it in a grid or frame, is an example of such art. Colin Richards looks at how barbed wire fencing in South Africa could be a way of looking at the world anew and that the landscapes of the modern world which closes and excludes must be read through the new art forms such as graffiti and architecture, posters, road signs, and paintings which represent art as transcendence. Martina Koppel Yang looks at Chinese art after Mao, and reads the interplay between pop art and the representations of political hegemony. In fusing the different worlds through resistance and ardour, pop art creates a new language; we may like it, or leave it, for finally art appreciation is also about individual choice.
Art critic Annie Paul in an essay (set around events in Jamaica in 2001) titled ‘Sound systems against the unsound system of Babylon’ in Creolite and Creolisation—Documenta 11, Platform 3, argues that social pathology, hedonism, right to privacy, law, crime, and state are all part of a complex assemblage, where violent reactions to nudism in art, or in pornography, might distract from the real question of loss of rights, freedom and demonic encounter killings. In much feminist work, we can see the same role of love and anger, of justice and questions of everyday recompense, where art lashes out at the routines of the iron cage of modernism. Pop art applies as much to the palette as it does to the work of the printing press, to variabilities in memory and its disseminations, and to the new forms of mass communication technology. It is this braid of different and sometimes conflictual sources that makes the picture so interesting.
Susan Visvanathan is Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.