HOUR 3: Art is Close


We have already established the problem of distance in the art world. Contemporary art formed largely within the walls of museums propped up by wealthy patrons. The artists that have become famous may have been addressing some of the political or social problems of the time, or they may have been addressing some of the more “private” discourses of the art world. Either way, by the time we go to the gallery, some of the works just look silly. They have no relation to “the common man.” (It’s never “the common person,” by the way. Apparently, all women are uncommon.)


What makes this disconnection worse that the language that developed in these relatively narrow art communities to talk about the art is, like, grad school level ways of talking about things that require a good deal of specialized training to access. Professors and arts grads and curators and some artists can talk about this, but not everybody else. Object Oriented Ontology. Accelerationism. And the posts. So many posts. post-humanism, post-modernism, post-blackness even.


Our first step toward addressing this conception is to simply note that this sense of the distance between us and contemporary art is more than a bit exaggerated. Art, I want to demonstrate, is always close to us and there has always been a connection between the pop art that we take for granted and the contemporary art that the Louis CK and Always Sunny video clips make fun of. (I mean, even the status of those clips as satire place the clips themselves in the modern art tradition of the critique of modern art.) This will be easy to see, but  let us follow the argument.


We have been engaged in art, understood here as creative expression across multiple media, as long as we have been human.  For most of us living today, this engagement takes the form of “popular” or “mainstream” art. This is mostly art that is easily distributed through all the mechanisms of mechanical and technical production, and that is also in high demand. For most of us, this is music, movies, literature, photography and graphic art, like comic books or anything that is pictorial.


But:  just because this easily reproducible work is very popular doesn’t mean that it can’t be the kind of art that you will find in a big fancy gallery.


And:  just because some contemporary art is, from the perspective of “the common man,” strange or eccentric or silly, doesn’t mean that it won’t be consumed by mainstream or popular culture.  There are many examples of this. But we can start with Jay-Z and Kanye West.


The problematic Vanessa Beecroft’s work was mostly museum stuffUntil she got a call from Kanye West

Jay-Z himself became an exhibit when he did a collaboration with Marina Abramovich.

(there was also some beef surrounding this collaboration, but that’s art for you.)

These are stand out examples. But there is also Shia LaBeouf. A guy who was in a Transormers movie or two, but who also engages with contemporary art practices. Dude got metamodernist, which is like, a level past postmodernist. (don’t worry. We will learn more about these concepts later. But have a look at the video.) 

And there is a whole ongoing thing with street art


The point of all of this is quite simple: The division between pop art and contemporary art is not really a division at all. It is more like a porous continuum, where contemporary art can go pop and pop art can go contemporary. It might not always do so easily–consider the vague anxiety about pop art in the gallery in this article about a star wars exhibit  it does happen all the time.


But let us take things a step further. If the boundary is porous, then are there any general similarities and differences to speak of? Or to put it more directly, what are the relevant similarities and differences between contemporary and pop art FOR US?


In answering this question, what we will find is quite simply the following: The activity of interacting with art in a contemporary art museum is not really that different from the way that you interact with pop art on a daily basis. Though, it is likely a bit more intense and a bit more reflective.  

Let’e peep some similarities and differences.


Often, music addresses other music and has internal discussions that you require a wide knowledge in order to understand.

So, if you hear this song…



You will have a different understanding of what LL Cool J is doing if you have heard this song…


And you will have a whole other notion of the meaning and history of these songs if you have heard this song.


In other words, music develops through history in an ongoing music-based conversation of sound, style and lyric. As you have likely figured, the same thing happens in contemporary art. So, if you see this painting…

Artist: Kehinde Wiley. He lives in Brooklyn.

You will be impressed. You might respond with “Oh snap, that’s dope. Look at the detail, look at the majesty, peep the perfect creamy color of those Timbs. And …wait is that the artist’s head coming out of a vulva at the top of the painting frame?…*” (*These are literally all the things that I said when I first saw this painting.)


But if you already know this painting…

Artist: Jacques-Louis David. He is, like, so dead.

You might have the additional response of…


“[Wiley] strategically re-creates a French masterpiece from two hundred years before but with key differences. This act of appropriation reveals issues about the tradition of portraiture and all that it implies about power and privilege. Wiley asks us to think about the biases of the art historical canon (the set of works that are regarded as “masterpieces”), representation in pop culture, and issues of race and gender.”  

Go ahead and read the rest of this article. Or this one.


Trends. Art is subject to trending, just like your twitter feed, musical artists, pet rocks and fidget spinners. Artists can go from being super hot to not being able to sell their art at all.


The money. There is lots of money to be made in a rap album or a movie or a music festival. And please believe money changes hands in contemporary art. Remember Kehinde Wiley with the Timbs? Dude sells paintings for up to 325,000 dollars. That’s serious money for a single work of art. The money game in the art world can be straight up vicious, as some tell all memoirs have revealed.



Generally speaking, music and movies and all of that provide emotional catharsis of a certain kind. They satisfy a feeling. Turn Down For What gets you Crunk. Stranger Things makes you feel the 80s nostalgia. Mission Impossible puts you on the edge of your seat. The Young and the Restless makes you feel the drama, yo.


These feelings might not be so clear cut in the kind of art that you mostly find in museums. Instead, the work in the museum might ask you to think differently than most of the pop art that you encounter.


Once again, I want to stress that this is only generally true. Because even a Key and Peele sketch can get crazy with the depth. And obviously if you are a Toni Morrison or David Lynch fan, you already know what it’s like to deal with conceptual complications.


A contemporary art work might ask you to think about the emotions that you always feel. It might ask you to think about the nature of art itself. Or to treat your own feelings about things with suspicion. In short, the emotions or reflections that are more often evoked in contemporary art are more complicated than the emotions you might encounter in pop art.


What we need to understand, then, is that the distinction between the gallery and art out in the rest of the world is a bit overblown. The distance isn’t categorical at all, though lots of people and museums in history have done their best to convince us otherwise. 


In fact, a few people in art history have struck back at the institution itself to make us realize that just because something is produced outside of the high institutions of art doesn’t mean it is without artistic merit. Remember this guy?



Consider the true meaning of his artistic project.



Contemporary art is separated from pop art, but not because it’s separate.  Presumably there were other lessons in here…

We’ll let Wiley have the final word on this on, as he demonstrates that art is all around us.


I saw the Wiley exhibit at VMFA. Those colors really pop, yo.


A conversation with Kehinde Wiley, where I ask him point blank whether his art has the power to change people. The answer may surprise you.