The Revolution of Popular Art

MARCH, 1968

The most significant cultural event of this century is the continuing revolution occurring in all media of communications and the arts. Its early history is intimately related to technological developments in radio, movies and television--but the first clear manifestations of the revo­lution's principal stylistic characteristics appear only in the mid-1950s.

Australian Ken Reinhard's computerized  Envirobox,  1968, in the pages of an Australian magazine

Australian Ken Reinhard's computerized Envirobox, 1968, in the pages of an Australian magazine

The newly emerging values are electric/electronic-­whether actually the phonograph, the computer and the TV picture tube) or metaphorically (Ezra Pound's "ideo­gramic method" in poetry, Sergei Eisenstein's "montage" theory of cinema and Marshall McLuhan's concept of mosaic structure with its multi-media applications). This electric/electronic shift of cultural style profoundly affected both the fine and the popular arts--particularly during the period that stretches back, at this writing, almost fifteen years. Yet it is just this period of the recent past that is viewed with most anguish and accorded less truly serious (not sullen or solemn) attention by cultural historians. No wonder. A large part of the conceptual equipment with which historians parceled up the more distant past is simply no longer applicable. One key consideration is that distinctions between the so-called fine and popular arts have become far less comfortably certain than they once were.

This obscuring of neat conventional distinctions between fine and popular art is reflected on other levels as well. A more finely-focused view discovers that neither is there any longer a precise sense of differentiation between the various "media" within the realm of the fine arts. Nor, in terms of a much more general view, have the clear-cut separations between art and life been able to function with quite the same surety as they did, say, before the beginning of the century. On each of these levels the problems have their history and their special implications for the present. For example, the popular art vis-à-vis fine art problem has classical antecedents as well as medieval manifestations--from Pompeiian grafitti to German Andachsbilder. A major direction in the evolution of the popular arts was the invention of printing; but even before Gutenberg, woodcuts supplied, for the common people, works of devotional art paralleling the painted panels of altarpieces for private, affluent patrons. Centuries later, but quite similar in effects, was the use of lithography by artists like Honore Daumier.

The problem is implicit in the works of such dissimilar writers as Kant and Flaubert, and rather more explicit in the works of Oscar Wilde. Together with Wilde, Marcel Duchamp is the great hero or genius in this swift and patchy history; but it was almost half a century before his message was generally comprehended. Finally, a great challenge to the stranglehold of the fine arts came with what is known as Pop art--actually an anti-movement in art historical conventions. Pop art is free and anti-repressive, personal and anti-elitist; its importance does not depend upon the aesthetic merit of any one artist, or single work, or collection of work--in many ways it is, indeed, anti-Art, But with the electric/electronic revolution, the significance previously accorded "Art" (meaning usually painting first, then sculpture, and by extension perhaps architecture) is shifting from the less primarily visual media to the auditory and tactile arts of music and dance. Now, understandably, there are many people deeply committed to the preeminence of the fine arts--however artificially its fictitious moral superiority must be argued. They are often writers (critics and historians both) or collectors, dealers, and practicing artists--people with a stake in those material objects, as property, related to the so-called fine arts. They tend not to understand the nature of this electric/electronic revolution; or they don't want to understand it. And right here, conventional art teachers are, with minimal exceptions, the worst of the lot--whether professing from the studio or the art history lectern. Hence they may fear and oppose the revolution; but they cannot make it stop or turn back. They become simply and sadly its victims.

The most startling examples of such a reluctance to accept evidence from the popular arts as both esthetically and historically meaningful come from the area of music. We might have guessed this, since music is one of the "villain" media, taking over the spotlight from the more visually-oriented modes. Without serious question, the most significant development in popular music--perhaps in its entire history--is the rise of rock and roll. Also, rock and roll was among the first clear artistic manifes­tations of the cultural revolution that erupted in the mid-1950s. Emerging as an essentially new musical field within the popular arts, rock and roll's development parallels and documents the larger and vastly more complex pattern of what might be called the Great Turn-On. (For serendipity's sake,'GTO" was only appropriated by Pontiac; it was first used as a classification for a 1962 or 1963--opinions vary--Ferrari, and stands for "Gran Turismo Omologato," meaning accepted or approved as a Gran Tur­ismo production car--model.)

Resistance to a serious approach to the popular arts is also heavy among people actually engaged in the trade or com­mercial aspects. The almost universal sentiment is that it is impossible to write a history of anything that still shows signs of life. But when it is dead, the evidence dispersed, all relevance to the present gone--ah, that is what history is all about! Apart from their general disposition to be helpful, such poor saps (or rich saps, for they abound all the way up to top executive levels) would simply have no idea what their world is like if it were to fall down around their ears. In Mc­Luhan's terms, their environment is invisible, to them--except perhaps as either fantasy or contempt.

Among members of the academe there are other, functionally similar, almost mystical fears about the "respectability" of the popular arts. Some of the enlightened are fighting (and finally winning what should be a fifty-year-old Victory) to gain a place of legitimacy for the movies in the academic curriculum--I am thinking more of the efforts by the Rev. John Culkin, S.J. and his Center for Communications at Fordham, than about various "cinema" courses, designed (it would seem) to deaden the subject into acceptability. Meanwhile, we are even further from introducing students to the serious study of the other popular arts. Where are plans for a curriculum that included a course on what cars mean, or how to make sense out of what we watch on television, or what is the real cultural significance of the history of rock and roll? It may just be that they don't belong in the academies anyway--but the problem only incidentally affects the flourishing or survival of the popular arts themselves. The issue at point, rather, involves the continued relevance--and perhaps even the continued existence--of the academies themselves, whether conservatory, art school, college or university. For if we do not begin to come to terms with this revolution of Popular culture in that spirit of intellectual integrity, humanistic committment and high seriousness traditionally associated with the academies at their best, then whatever these values represent in our civilization will quite possibly fall as the revolution's initial prey.

Kurt von Meier
Los Angeles
March 19, 1968
For Artscanada magazine