MEDIA AS ART - June 2000  






A friend of mine, New York artist Steve Harlow, once told me that he believed painting had become an irrelevant art form. Something that is only valued for purposes of nostalgia. Being a painter himself, I thought that he was making this argument purely for the purposes of shock-rhetoric. As time passed, though, I found myself coming back to this idea again and again, each time finding more truth in it. The heart of the question that concerns me is 'is art relevant?' What art impacts society in any way? Fine arts such as painting really have very little social impact in our modern age. Except for a small elite in large urban areas, the general public is completely unaware of the art world.

It can be argued that the art elite is a breeding ground for new ideas, which then slowly filter down to the general public. The weight of this argument is discounted by the fact that there has not been a new original idea to come from the art world in many years.

No artist has become known to the general public since Warhol. And the art world is not acting as a medium for social commentary or progressive ideas. It seems the only visual art that really effects people are commercial ads and billboards. Some art forms such as movies and popular music do have a relevant social effect on values and ideas. Unfortunately, both of these mediums are so commercialized that they can barely be looked at as a place to find pure artistic expression that seeks to communicate anything.

To return to the area of fine arts, throughout the 20th century artists have searched for ways to create art that would have an impact. In the early part of the century this seemed to be fairly easy. Art was deconstructed through various means and set free of the limitations and expectations of its own traditions. The dadaists, cubists, surrealists, and abstract expressionists not only redefined what art was and could be, they presented ideas that expressed and analyzed the changes in the human condition in the industrial age.

Once art was completely deconstructed and artists were given nearly absolute freedom, the art world seemed to be at a loss for new ideas. Since then we have had pop and graffiti, both of which could be seen as further deconstruction, but in the last 20 years no original ideas have come out of the art world.

In the last century, artists have tried to extend the canvas as a means of creating relevant art. Installation art and performance art have given artists almost unlimited creative freedom to express themselves. Both of these mediums had brief periods of exuberant exploration of their own form, but both soon began to repeat themselves and suffer from a drought of original ideas.

Let us try to take the point of view of the artist who wishes to create art that impacts society. If the artist wants his expression to be heard on a wider scale, which medium does he choose? Painting? Sculpture? Music?

One medium has galvanized national attention, although few see it as a true artistic medium. The medium I speak of is the national media. The national media when taken as a single entity is the most powerful medium for communicating to a large audience.

Like all art forms, it has limitations. Namely, that it has a simple 'sound byte' mentality to its power. Even given this limitation, it is capable of creating a powerful image that can be imprinted on a worldwide audience.

To look at it further let's focus on the pop star Madonna. You may be surprised to find out that I respect Madonna as an artist. Not for her music or acting - in both of these she is mediocre at best. The area in which Madonna is a great artist is in her ability to use the media as a canvas to create her image and communicate ideas. In this, she is a master.

We have seen this in a few other pop stars as well. At his best, David Bowie was also a master of the media as medium. If we look back further in time, we find Shep Gorden, the manager of the young artist Alice Cooper. Gorden was a master at using scandal to create an image for Alice Cooper. An image that represented teenage decadence as a result of the corrupt values of their elders. If we go back further, we find Elvis Presley's manager Colonel Tom Parker who created Presley's image as a symbol of sexual expression for repressed teens. And back further yet, we find P.T. Barnum who is perhaps the grandfather of the art form.

Now you may argue that these artists have not used the medium to express anything of relevance. Although I would be inclined to argue that point, let us instead focus on the political arena. Success as a politician depends almost completely on the media as medium to create an image which embodies a certain set of values.

Politicians and their people are masters of this art. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy are the success stories. I guarantee you they studied the art and took it completely seriously.

To look at the political realm in another light, the Republican Party was a master of the media art during the Clinton years. Many of the scandals that the Republicans forced into the public's attention were completely baseless and the accusers knew it, but the truth was not important. Perception was everything. This was a work of artistic creation: the more the media spoke of the accusations the more real they became in the public's mind. Through this method, the Republicans were able to destroy the image Clinton had created and replace it with a new image that represented a different set of values. It was a war of art against art - an art form that almost toppled a presidency.

One of the ways in which the media is employed as an artistic medium that profoundly effects society is through advertising. Through advertising, the corporations use the media as art not only to create a demand for products, but also to create a system of values that will guides the public's behavior. The artists who create advertising campaigns are the true masters of media as medium. A close examination of their techniques reveals that these artists study psychology and social trends to bring power to their art. Advertising campaigns regularly use psychological manipulation to sell their products. Techniques both subtle and overt are used to affect the unconscious minds of the viewers. Often they do so by playing on our fears, sexual desires, feelings of inadequacy, and sense of duty and self-worth. When manipulating through the media it is most effective when appealing to primal instincts. Everything from camera angles, to music, to the most subtle expressions and body gestures are employed to communicate the message.

Many people have a hard time believing that this is taking place, but when one considers the amount of big money involved it makes sense. An advertising campaign can make or break a company. Those who create the ad campaigns know the stakes involved and are ruthless in their determination to succeed.

For those in advertising, the media as artistic medium is a reality that no one questions. It propels the world economy. If you question the media as medium, ask yourself how many jingles you can sing. How many company logos are imprinted in your mind? How many advertising catch phrases you can repeat?

Contrast that with how many great paintings you can visualize. Or how many pieces of classical music your can hum. I would bet next week's allowance that ads score higher than all the other arts combined. Furthermore, advertising has played a large role in creating the social values of the modern age. Most obvious is the ascendancy of materialism as the highest goal. Add to that the population's preoccupation with sexuality, acceptance of the status quo, and the belief that there is a 'good life' out there with perfect families and great fun with beautiful friends. And if only you drink Mountain Dew or brush your teeth with the right toothpaste, it can all be yours! These ideas are preached between the lines in add campaigns, and we are indoctrinated without ever having considered the issues.

When an advertising agent approaches a new product, often the very need for the product must be created in the public's mind. If you can create the belief that the new product is needed, it is guaranteed to sell. Without exciting the desire for these products, the wheels of the economy would stop turning. Advertising has been the most effective tool used by the world's power base to control the population. Advertising provides the carrot on the stick that keeps the beasts of burden trudging forward. In a land of plenty such as the United States, to persuade an entire population to spend the best part of their time and energy in labor is an amazing feat of coercion.

One of the reasons capitalism has succeeded while communism has failed is because communism used force to control the population, while the capitalists have brilliantly brainwashed the population into doing what they are told while making them believe they are free. It is a masterpiece of social control that keeps the economy moving and the rich powerful and free. One of the main tools used in achieving this amazing feat is the national media. Those in power have been effectively using the media ever since it emerged, and in their hands it has defined our values as much as religions did in previous ages.

Although people do not generally recognize the media as an art form, in the back of their minds they understand its power. Given this, one more disturbing trend has emerged in recent years. Let us return to our original questions: How does an artist create relevant art? How does an artist create art that has a social impact?

Suppose an individual feels a strong artistic impulse. Perhaps they do not even see themselves as an artist. Still, they feel emotions that are bottled up and they need to express them. They have ideas they need to share with the world. And yes, like all artists, they are crying out for attention. This is the artistic impulse at its most basic level. This is the artist at inception.

Given this, what should the individual do if he desires to impact the world? Should he go to a theater in New York's underground and do performance art? Doing so would hardly make any impact on anyone, and would only be heard by a few like-minded souls. Should he splatter his ideas on canvas then beg an East Village gallery owner to display it so a few art-snobs can analyze it between sips of cheap wine? It hardly seems worth the effort.

But now imagine a young man. He feels ignored and abused by the world around him. He instinctively feels there is something wrong with the society he lives in. He is angry and has no voice with which to express himself.

He could pick up a guitar and bang out ugly chords and sing aggressive rock lyrics. He could throw buckets of ocher and burnt sienna at a white canvas. But instead he buys a long trench coat, an assortment of firearms, and a supply of ammunition. In the morning he loads his weapons and hides them underneath his coat. When he gets to school, he begins shooting people randomly. After murdering and wounding dozens of innocent classmates, he turns the gun on himself and ends his own life.

Because of his actions the people in his hometown have been terrorized. Police and ambulances rush to the scene. News helicopters fill the sky. Reporters swarm at the edge of the police line. The news headlines flash across the nation. Special reports interrupt regular television programming. The event is treated as a national catastrophe. For weeks afterwards TV news pundits ponder his actions. Why did he do it? Who is to blame? What is wrong with our society? Do we blame the parents? The schools? Was it the kids that picked on him? Rock music? Media violence? Or is America just sinking into a morass of nihilistic violence?

At this point, we must ask ourselves an unpleasant question: Which act will make a statement with more impact? Throwing paint at a canvas or the act of extreme violence described here? Given the horrible nature of this act it is hard to answer honestly. If we are able to leave good and evil aside we are forced to admit that this act of violence was most affecting.

People are numb to art. One can put anything on a canvas and no one will bat an eye. You can say or do anything in music and no one is shocked. None of it is taken seriously enough to be considered a sincere statement. But by employing extreme violence, the artist was able to capture the focus of the national media and cut through the public malaise to make them seriously consider the meaning of this act. Whether we like it or not the artist achieved what few artists ever are able.

Now by this time, surely many of you are offended by the idea of labeling this act a work of art, and awarding the murderer the lofty title of 'artist.' We should remember that to do so is not to condone his actions. It merely allows us to learn through analysis. And it is an important question to consider. In recent years, such acts of violence have become more and more common. Is such violence stemming from an artistic impulse? Can it be considered performance art or living theater? Is the alleged artist motivated by a desire to make a statement to the world? And does awareness of the national media as a medium for expression make such violence a viable option?

One of the things that make the shootings so hard to understand is that they seem to be completely irrational acts. In most cases the victims are randomly chosen. They kill whoever happens to be unlucky enough to be in shooting range. The murders are usually not aimed at specific persons. To the public there seems to be no real logic to these acts. They seem to be aimed at shocking the world. Or aimed at doing something extraordinary so the world will recognize their anger and pain.

In most cases it appears the killers have daydreamed of the news reports and public reactions before they commit their art-crimes. Buford Furrow, the shooter at the Jewish day care center is reported to have run to his hotel room after the shooting so he could watch the news coverage on TV. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh is said to have chosen his site because the building had a large open area in front that would provide plenty of space for media coverage.

When reading the journals of these people we find that they express emotions and ideas that many young artists express. The difference is that they have no means by which to express themselves and no vehicle to elevate them or make a mark on the world. Their artistic impulse is frustrated. The tension builds into an explosion. The most extreme symbolic act, mass murder, is chosen to express these pent-up emotions, and the most powerful medium of expression, the national media, is taken as the canvas for their art-crimes.

Again, although few consciously recognize the national media as a medium for artistic expression, we are all extremely aware of its power for communication. We live in the age of celebrity. Our royalty, our gods and goddesses, are created in the media. We know them only through the media. We commune as a nation through the media. Our sense of national identity is formed through the media. The media is capable of turning a pauper into a prince. To be the focus of media attention, whether positive or negative, can be the road to riches.

In recent years television corporations have made a fortune by exploiting people's willingness to humiliate themselves for a chance to be in the media. All you have to do is watch an episode of The Jerry Springer Show to see how low people will go in order to have a taste of the media spotlight. The reality TV craze has taken this to new heights. People will risk their lives, starve themselves, and go to any lengths to be in the media. The most successful of these people on shows such as Survivors have become household names who cashed in on their moment in the media through book deals, TV commercial, and Playboy pictorials.

In our era, the line between art and artist does not exist. The image we project is our own means of expressing ourselves to the world. Time and time again young women tell me how seeing Madonna on MTV inspired them as little girls. They say seeing Madonna made them feel 'like they could do it too.' That they could express themselves and be loved by the world. In our modern age everyone wants his or her 15 minutes. Celebrity is a power that seems that it could be available to anyone. The national media is the tool by which we may express ourselves to the world.



































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