Rockers, Rappers, and Rogues-The Expansion of Traditional Art Criticism

Posted on May 18, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

     Art critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg created terms and criteria to define the various schools of painting.  Harold Rosenberg helped define the art of dripping and splashing paint as “action painting” while Clement Greenberg composed the principles for the novel and undiscriminating world of kitsch art.  The ideas proposed by both Rosenberg and Greenberg can be seen in and applied to other art forms as well.  As an action artist Jimi Hendrix created the album “Electric Ladyland”, deemed “one of the most important rock records of all time.” (Alroy)   while Sir Mix-a-Lot’s kitschy “Baby Got Back” would secure the rapper as a pop culture icon.

     Harold Rosenberg coined the term “American action painters” in Art News magazine in 1952.  According to Rosenberg action painting describes a style in which paint is dribbled, splashed, or smeared onto the canvas.  The process is spontaneous and often emphasizes the act of painting as an essential component of the whole work.  Rosenberg considered action painting to be the most advanced form and viewed the canvas as a place to act, not a place to analyze or express objects.  The outcome of action painting is an event, not a picture.  Rosenberg argued that “…what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation.  The interest lies in the kind of act taking place in the four-sided arena, a dramatic interest.”

     The most notable of the American action painters is Jackson Pollock.  Pollock was already an established artist when he began experimenting with different techniques in the late 1940’s.  Eventually he would use sticks instead of brushes and ground glass and rocks or pebbles mixed in with his paint.  Harold Rosenberg asserted that in action painting the artist does not approach the canvas with an image already in mind.  Unlike other schools of art the images do not exist somewhere else first.  This certainly holds true for Pollock who can be seen in film footage circling his canvas while he drips and splatters paint.  Pollock began to place his canvases on the ground so he could approach it from all angles.  He claimed that this made him feel closer to the piece.  Rosenberg’s assertion that the act of painting is just as important as the work itself is exemplified in Jackson Pollock in that the act of watching him work is equally intriguing as his finished pieces.  Furthermore Pollock claimed that “technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”   Jackson Pollock still holds a place as one of America’s most prolific and influential action painters.

      When applied to music then Rosenberg’s notions of action painting can also be seen in Jimi Hendrix.  Music critic John Alroy writes “…when Hendrix took the stage at Monterey in June, 1967, he was an unknown in the US; when he left it, the American rock industry had been turned on its head.”  Upheld as one of the greatest guitarists to ever play Hendrix was left handed but played a right handed Fender Stratocaster that was turned upside down and restrung.  He probably learned to play this way as a child since left handed guitars are generally hard to find.   The way his guitar was strung coupled with his style of play allowed him to create sounds that were never imagined when the Stratocaster was designed.  Furthermore his experimental use of high volume, high power, and feedback manipulation led to a wide range of effects that were cutting edge in his time.  Other tricks employed by Hendrix included playing with his teeth, playing behind his back and between his legs, and playing with only his right hand on the frets.  Released in 1967, Hendrix’s first album “Are You Experienced?” is considered a groundbreaking piece of work and according to Alroy “Hendrix was the only artist at this point who could go toe-to-toe with The Beatles when it came to wild studio experimentation.”  Like Pollock and his canvas Hendrix did not always come to his instrument with a defined goal or predetermined end result in mind.  Countless hours of film footage show Hendrix live on stage engaging in impromptu solos that seem to go on for hours and on the occasions that he did hit a bad note he would simply stretch it out, bend it and twist it and make it his own.  Like watching Pollock paint watching Hendrix play with the volume muted can be equally impressive.  Both Jimi Hendrix and Jackson Pollock were experimental with their work and were able to manipulate their tools to fit their needs.  They pioneered ground breaking techniques that continue to be admired and emulated today. 

     If physicality is criteria for action art then surely Woody Allen could be considered an action artist of film.  His first film credit is for 1965’s “What’s New Pussycat?” which he both wrote and performed in.  A year later he directed his first film “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” in which he also wrote and acted.  The creative control clearly appealed to him; to date he has written a total of 48 films.  44 of those films Woody himself directed and he acted in 33 of them.  Perspective is where the action art of Pollock, Hendrix, and Allen merge.  To increase his perspective, Pollack placed his canvases on the ground which enabled him to approach his work from alternate reference points.  Hendrix’s upside down guitar playing may have begun out of sheer necessity, but his guitar conversion led him to interact with his instrument in unchartered ways. 

       Likewise Woody Allen uses his combined duties as writer, director, and actor to address his material from various angles, producing greater vision and insight.  This approach gives Allen complete control over the characters that he creates.  Many see parallels between Allen himself and the characters he plays.  According to Victoria Loy “he has continually downplayed the notion of congruity between himself and his filmic persona.”  Regardless, Loy defiantly sees Woody Allen as an auteur, a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp. Allen is by no means the only writer, director, or actor to take on dual roles in a film, but it is perhaps one of his most notable characteristics.  Victoria Loy writes “Allen wields a notoriously tight control over all aspects of his work- casting, writing, shooting, and editing…”  Furthermore, Allen experiments with various techniques in his filmmaking process such as using “black and white” and documentary styles.  He also gives himself and his actors the freedom to adlib during filming, opening the process up to ample experimentation.  Being a filmmaker Woody Allen does of course work with a script, but the act of writing an original script, of creating a new idea is in and of itself an action art. 

     Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and Woody Allen, though very different in their own rights, are similar in that they are experimental and take a more personal and physical approach to access their individual art forms.  Their work is emotional and intellectual, a challenge to the status quo.  If using Harold Rosenberg’s criterion for what constitutes an action painter then Jimi Hendrix and Woody Allen can certainly stand next to Jackson Pollock as some of the most influential “American action artists” of our time.

     Clement Greenberg outlined the characteristics of kitsch art in The Partisan Review in 1939.  Kitsch is the culture of the masses.  It is popular commercial art that is often mass produced and unoriginal.  Kitsch art is considered to be low brow that requires little effort to understand.  Unlike other forms of art kitsch gives an immediate vicarious experience.  According to art critic Theodor Adorno kitsch is popular because “people want to have fun…it induces relaxation because it is patterned and predigested.” 

     Norman Rockwell is perhaps the most famous of the kitsch artists.  For more than four decades Rockwell created covers for the Saturday Evening Post that depicted scenarios of everyday life in America.  Sadly Rockwell’s work was dismissed by serious art critics in his lifetime.  The now iconic scenes of children playing baseball and waiting for their shot in the doctor’s office were viewed as overly sweet, idealistic and overly sentimental.  Vladimir Nobakov found Rockwell’s techniques to be brilliant but felt that the artist wasted his talent in banality.  Fortunately Norman Rockwell’s work has come to receive the praise it deserves.  The famous scenes he painted for the Saturday Evening Post, while simple, appeal to the masses as pure Americana that reflect life in a simpler time.

     The music industry has a vast legacy of providing kitsch material for the masses.  Musicianship and vocal talent often takes a back seat to remedial themes and simple lyrics.  Popular music, however, continues to thrive.  One such example of kitsch in music is Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”  Released in 1992 the song is a bawdy homage full of innuendoes about the female form. The song’s video, initially banned by MTV, was eventually played to a limited nighttime audience due to its sexually explicit lyrics.  That year Bruce Britt of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that the song seemed “well on its way to becoming a phenomenon.”  His prediction was correct.  The song would reach #1 on the American singles charts and attain double platinum status.  In 1993 Anthony Ray (Sir Mix-a-Lot’s given name) won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance while VH1 named “Baby Got Back” #6 on their list of the greatest songs of the 90’s.  Ray attributes his success to the fact that he is not as serious as other rappers.  He explains “I’m not trying to be Malcolm X or Ice Cube.  I talk about what people are really thinking.”  Almost 20 years later the song remains a cult phenomenon that has found its way into mainstream popularity.  “Baby Got Back” has been covered by folk singer Jonathan Coulton and parodied by the spoken word due Athens Boys Choir.  Ray has re-recorded the song numerous times to be used in commercials for the likes of Target and Burger King and the song was even sung by a penguin in the animated film “Happy Feet.” Though not initially well received “Baby Got Back” has managed to withstand the critics and the test of time and find itself a place in American pop culture.

     While Woody Allen can hardly be accused of producing kitschy material one of his characters can.  In 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” Allen plays struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern.  In direct opposition is the part of Lester played by Allen Alda.  Also written and directed by Allen the film expresses Cliff’s frustration at his brother-in-law Lester’s success as a television producer.  Lester produces low brow television that, though successful, holds no real value or meaning.  Lester contends that he merely gives the people what they want and makes no apologies for catering to the lowest common denominator.  In Cliff’s eyes there is no justification for the low brow material that Lester produces no matter how successful it is.  Like many kitsch artists Lester does not seek the approval of critics and is content to keep producing low quality work as long as it pays well and is accepted by the viewers.  Lester’s brand of banality and common themes is a perfect example of what Clement Greenberg describes as kitsch art.

     Rosenberg and Greenberg probably never imagined their theories and critical analysis could be applied to other art forms, and perhaps they never intended it.  Nevertheless, their ideas and critiques have come to encompass a variety of work including rock and roll and filmmaking, among others.  Whatever appeals to the population in general, whatever critics believe to be high art, it cannot be denied that a rebel rock guitarist, a quirky filmmaker, and a foul-mouthed rap artist have made their way into the lexicon of popular art where they leave themselves open to study and analysis. Jimi Hendrix manipulated his instrument and experimented with cutting-edge techniques to become what Alroy calls “the greatest instrumental virtuoso in rock history” while Sir Mix-a-Lot used his humorous approach to rap music to combat the often depressing and violent aspect of the genre.  And Woody Allen has secured his spot in film history as a true auteur.  Taking into account the ideas of Rosenberg and Greenberg Jimi Hendrix, Sir Mix-a-Lot and Woody Allen stand out as American action and kitsch artists.

Sources

Alroy, John & David Bertrand Wilson.  Wilson and Alroy’s Record Reviews. http://www.warr.org/hendrix

Artist Direct. http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/sir-mix-a-lot/493734

-Britt, Bruce. “Mix-a-Lot On Top With Hit Song-Rapper Shrugs Off Criticism of Controversial ‘Baby Got Back.’” Los Angeles Daily News. July 4, 1992. http://www.musicianguide.com/biographies/1608001428/Sir-Mix-A-Lot.html

-Greenberg, Clement. http://www.share.com/ca.greenberg/kitsch

-Hendrix, Jimi. http://www.jimihendrix.com

-Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com

-Loy, Victoria. “Woody Allen.” Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com

-Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” http://www.pooter.net/intermedia/readings/06.html

-Virtual Museum of Art. http://www.virtuology.com/virtualmuseumofart/hallofamericanart/NORMAN-ROCKWELL.ORG


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