PRINT January 1991


“HIGH AND LOW: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” just mounted by the Museum of Modern Art, seems to have crashed and burned on impact like one of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop-art jet fighters. The reviewers in the daily and weekly press have seen to that. It is not often, after all, that the New York Times is willing to label as “a disaster” such a major and long-anticipated undertaking by a kindred civic institution. The exhibition, along with what remains of its credibility, will now limp across the continent to Chicago and Los Angeles over the coming year. But this protracted aftermath is potentially a more interesting spectacle than the one stage-managed within the confines of the museum, because it will go on demonstrating a fundamental fact about its chosen subject: it won’t stay in the museum or, for that matter, within the boundaries of the polite consumption of art.

The exhibition’s first failure of containment, which is not a matter of opinion or interpretation, has been an inability to maintain the aura of preternatural success that the Times—in no less than three flattering profiles that I saw—has obligingly created around the new director of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, Kirk Varnedoe. As few now need to be told, he organized “High and Low” as his first large project. These profiles—along with similar stories in Artnews and Vanity Fair that further inflated the preexhibition bubble—were something more than empty exercises in professional public relations: in each Varnedoe reiterated a program that has now been enshrined in the introduction to the catalogue. The show’s organizers, Varnedoe and his collaborator, Adam Gopnik, we were told, were writing off in advance the reactions of two groups within the art world: the neoconservatives on the one hand and the “downtown” critical theorists on the other. As Varnedoe or the museum’s PR department explained it to each receptive journalist, both were sure to damn his project, the first out of snobbery and canon-fixation, the second out of antipathy toward any distinctions of level or quality. In effect, his anticipation was that each group would see in the exhibition the image of its equal and opposite number; their protests would therefore cancel each other out, and the field would be left clear for the triumph of moderate good sense.

From this overinsistent effort at spin-control (to borrow a term from manipulative media politics seems entirely apt), something of the otherwise puzzling logic of the whole enterprise—the choice of this subject, now, under these auspices—emerges. The two communities that Varnedoe is evoking in these pronouncements have jointly held a monopoly over strongly voiced writing on art for the last decade or so. Moreover, these are the communities for whom hierarchies and distinctions in culture are a central preoccupation, though of course for different reasons, to the extent that the status of criticism itself, its continued vividness and power in the present, has come to be tied to the interest that this issue can compel.

This development has left large, consensus-seeking institutions like the Museum of Modern Art rather out in the cold, without an influential voice and certainly without power of leadership. The initiative in curatorship of recent art, where not assumed by the private galleries, has passed to smaller downtown institutions or outside of New York. If the Modern was to begin again to speak with any impact in the contemporary field, it was this issue more than any other, that is, the cultural boundary-crossings and border disputes that are rife in recent art production, that it had to reclaim.

The question then was how to do it. One path might have been an opening to people who had already invested a lot of their lives and energies in researching and thinking through the question, to make the exhibition a collaborative forum (as, for example, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, or the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, has consistently done). But that has never been the style of the Modern, nor would such a gesture preserve much distinction between it and its smaller, more flexible rivals in the contemporary sphere. Out of habit and institutional imperatives, the voice of the museum had to be embodied in an authoritative individual. It had become clear, certainly since the contentious reception that greeted the 1984 “‘Primitivism’” exhibition, that a shift away from William Rubin’s olympian certainties about the Modern tradition was long overdue. His retirement and Varnedoe’s appointment provided, it must have seemed at the time, a perfect opportunity to steal a march on the museum’s rivals and critics by assuming energetic command over their chosen ground.

The press has proved extremely receptive to the campaign of publicity that ensued, particularly to its theme of manly energy. One article after another, for example, has emphasized the otherwise mundane and irrelevant fact that Varnedoe played sports in his youth, invariably including old photographs of him in football or rugby gear. This image of all-American masculinity has been consistently linked to a line of comforting reassurance that runs through Varnedoe’s recent statements in print, one he appears to be directing over the heads of the professional artistic community to the Modern’s patrons and traditional core audience. They can safely ignore, he tells them, the demandingly difficult language and theoretical sophistication that currently characterize ambitious writing in criticism and art history; none of this need interfere with their customary pleasures and sense of belonging.

In this pose of bluff impatience with the difficulties and complications of interpretive theory, he is, I think, underestimating his public. What is more, in the present-day context, the whole package carries a somewhat sinister overtone. The rugby-playing persona has an all-too-ready appeal for a less-sophisticated audience suspicious that gay men are overrepresented among curators and in the art world generally. The stigmatization of the theoretical ambitions of other writers reinforces that implicit prejudice. Those in the art world trying to speak for groups and points of view excluded by established institutions are the ones who have had no choice but to intervene on the level of theory. They have had to overturn the unstated assumptions, the consensus attitudes, that have been instrumental in their exclusion, and the only way to do that is by explicit argument from first principles, using the most powerful analytical tools available. Particularly prominent here have been gay men and lesbians trying, with great success, to integrate a nonrepressive, nonexclusionary vision of sexuality and politics into the practice and the interpretation of art. Understandably, they tend to be uncompromisingly serious about what they are doing, all the more so as the representation of difference has come to touch on matters of life and death.

This exhibition and its attendant penumbra of publicity instead speaks back to them about playfulness and privilege. When I referred above to the public-relations image of all-American sporting masculinity, it would have been more accurate to say all-Anglo-American, given that Varnedoe’s recently published reflections on Modernism—which anticipate the premises of the catalogue—carry for their title (A Fine Disregard) a slogan commemorating the insouciant improvisations of an English public (that is, private) schoolboy on the playing fields of Rugby. One day in 1823, so the story goes, this lad displayed “a fine disregard” for the existing rules of English football by picking up the ball, and thereby invented the game thereafter named for his school. Modern artists, so Varnedoe avers, can be understood as having behaved analogously toward the existing rules of art.

The power of this anecdote is reduced considerably by its being, in all likelihood, a retrospective myth fostered in the late 19th century by some old Rugbeians, anxious to assert their prior, gentlemanly claims over the sport in the face of the increasing popularity of the professional game, which was played largely by and for the northern working classes.1 Even if it were true, I would have thought the English public-school ethos, if only because of the philistinism embodied in its cult of games, to be among the least promising metaphors for the essence of Modernism. But if it seems stunningly inappropriate to me, it probably carries considerable appeal elsewhere in that it plays on the ignorant reverence once felt by many in the American middle class for the English gentry and aristocracy. Ralph Lauren has made a lot of money out of such fantasies of identification, and their enlistment by Varnedoe adds a gloss of inherited privilege to the authority embodied in a normatively “healthy” masculinity and to his recreational paradigm for artmaking and art consumption.

The opening look of the installation, with its bright simulacrum of a Parisian newspaper kiosk, and the introduction to the catalogue, offer no relief from the tone and appeal of the advance publicity. The first words of the latter are of a piece with the kiosk, offering the visitor a fantasy figure with whom to identify—a decidedly male artist of impeccably elevated imagination, who takes possession of his surroundings with a sovereign mastery of all he surveys:

Go back to Paris around the turn of the century, and follow an artist as he returns from the Louvre to his studio at the end of the day. Exiting the galleries onto the quai, still charged by the grandeur of the Panathenaic frieze, the dynamism of the Victory of Samothrace, or the masterly countenances in Rembrandt, he dreams of an art that will revive their ideals and rival their grasp of human experience. Yet, crossing the boulevards and public parks, he recognizes that the experience with which he must contend will not be theirs, but his. . . . Beside, beneath, and behind him in that stroll, in the apparently trivial and marginal things taken for granted along his path—in the cheap reproductions he brushed past on his way out of the museum, in the brightly colored commercial posters along the boulevard and in the shop windows of the department stores, in the newspapers and cartoon journals [cartoon journals?] of the morning, stacked up in kiosks along the quai, and even in the mean scrawlings on the walls of the darkened side streets—was an alphabet for art’s new language.2

Via identification with this figure, the visitor is meant to understand the futility of “grand theoretical frameworks”; instead, this vicarious flânerie will attempt no more than to “indulge our curiosity about particulars.”

Unless intended as a parody, this vision of the inner life of Modernist man is an appalling farrago of banalities. But I am afraid that the visitor is meant to take it straight. The entire catalogue, on which the intellectual legacy of the show will rest, is written in this vein of forced “lightness”—I am tempted to say “liteness.” And it encapsulates the self-created difficulties that bedevil it.

The first of these difficulties involves again the substitution of a middle-brow appeal to the visitor’s assumed limitations for an engagement with its subject matter at an appropriate intellectual level. In a rather mean-spirited defense of their reversed priorities, the organizers dismiss those who have attempted some general theorizing of mass culture for their “sublime lack of curiosity” about the variety and detail of vernacular expression. Even if this verdict were true, however, their authority to offer it is unearned. As it happens, it is far from true, but the research assistants who searched out and compiled the bibliography simply missed key texts that would have amply proved the contrary—and that might have helped their supervisors get a better handle on their material (the bibliography under “Theories of Mass Culture” doesn’t even begin to be adequate, and the content summaries of their entries are unintentionally hilarious).3

One of the first of the missing texts should have been Phil Cohen’s seminal (the word is entirely deserved) study “Subcultural Conflict and Working Class Community” of 1972. There Cohen showed himself engaged enough with the menacing particulars of the original skinhead style in London’s East End to try to recover the meaning of the boots and braces, the shaved scalps and the selective racist marauding, where others could not see past stereotypes of working-class deviance. (Memo to Varnedoe and Gopnik: vernacular culture does not always arrange itself in agreeable patterns.) What he found was a precisely coded response to the changes in the city’s economy and land use that had eroded the fabric of neighborhood life the skinheads’ parents had known. An imaginary belonging to a lost local culture, a refusal to assent to fraudulent substitutes for community, were figured in the dress, speech, and rituals of enforced idleness that so alarmed and threatened outsiders. Though this in no way redeemed the racism, ignorance, and apathy on view, what Cohen decoded amounted at least to an eloquence in choices of style and imagery; he could see particulars, moreover, because he saw them as articulate within a system of meaning, a stylistic semiotics, that belonged to a developing general theory of youth subcultures (the issue of Working Papers in Cultural Studies in which his article appeared contained a fresh translation of Theodor Adorno’s “Theses on the Sociology of Art”; the previous number had offered the first English version of Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image”). Does it really have to be said all over again that there are no “particulars” except in relation to some theoretical totality, however provisionally advanced?

The exhibition team would have done well to reflect on Cohen’s dictum that “subcultures are produced by dominated culture, not by dominant culture,” because they have missed throughout the crucial moments of invention that take place before their hypothetical artist casts his museum-trained eye on the results. What is required is getting inside the experience of those who lack access to the world of cultivated fine art but who have nevertheless forced that world to take account — usually by a domesticating appropriation—of their expressive means and innovations. And theory has proved to be a necessary guide in the noncondescending work of translation that is called for.

Condescending is the only way to characterize the catalogue’s concession that the extravagant lettering style of some subway graffiti writers “touchingly” approaches the standard of European art nouveau. (It is worth noting that no work by the subway graffitists is in the show itself.) Less loftiness, along with a more generous incorporation of theoretical work, might have saved them from embarrassing missteps in this territory, such as their blundering over the identity and stature of the late independent comic artist Vaughn Bode (or Bodé, it varies), who was especially revered by the subway graffiti writers and who still commands a large international following and cultlike admiration some 15 years after his early death. Bode (born in 1941) is misidentified as the “largely forgotten” artist of the family newspaper strip Dondi, which is dated—a decade too early—to the 1940s.4 In the tone of expert connoisseurs of the graffiti form, they go on to confuse, so far as I can tell, the signature image of one writer, the high-profile Dondi, who was influenced by Bode, with a nonexistent, “still unexplained” group preoccupation with the war-orphan Dondi character. At this rate, it’s going to stay unexplained for a long time.

This one iconographic particular may not have seemed worth sorting out, but if it was worth bringing up, it was worth researching. To a member of the subculture in question, this would seem a preposterous error; its relative gravity depends on where you stand. The whole observation is offered as a demonstration of where expertise can legitimately leave off and indifference take over; what gets exhibited in fact is something one might well call “sublime lack of curiosity.”

The rushing of the very unforgotten Bode into premature oblivion is of a piece with a persistent reflex on the part of the organizers to push the artist’s appropriations from vernacular culture into premature obsolescence. In their view, the professional fine artist, in using these materials, is typically engaged in retrieving the “archaic and nostalgic.”5 They insist on the point by means of some otherwise inexplicable editing. Their Warhol, for example, finds his models in “dated or generic” small advertisements in the backs of magazines and in long-lived package designs that define “consumer culture as a static reservoir of invariance.”6 For that reason, the exhibition offers the mock ads for wigs, storm windows, and bargain plastic surgery, but no images of the Hollywood Elvis Presley, just back from the army, of Marilyn Monroe, whose suicide had just been dominating the headlines, or of the Kennedy assassination. Over and over, we are asked to see the “low” contribution as weakened and lifeless, with little urgency or even vitality in the present.

It follows from this that the consumers of these static and deadening appeals to routine and lost hopes would offer little interest to a dynamic avant-gardist. They too, in this account, are invariably weak and on the wane, as much as the vestigial cultural products they keep alive: not worth much independent attention or sympathy unless a sophisticated expert has found their predicament useful. Included among these experts are not only professional fine artists, but also the amateur middle-class merchants of nostalgia. In its extended treatment, for example, of Lichtenstein’s transformation of panels from romance comic books in the early 1960s, the catalogue applauds collectors of vintage comics for having the connoisseur’s eyes of Bernard Berenson and Richard Offner (I’m not kidding). Following their lead, it is scrupulous in its attention to the individual hands of the creators of his source material. It singles out a hierarchy of quality, characterizes these male comic illustrators as aspiring to reach the heights of fine art individuation. But it contains not a word that I can find about the women who read them, whose (mediated) needs those artists had somehow to be addressing. Apparently, the illustrators were able to carry on their competitive pursuit of new esthetic feats—and so commend themselves to Lichtenstein’s attention—with complete unconcern for their readership.

This picture seems to me drastically incomplete, given that the purveyors of generic fiction for women are known to be scrupulous in their attention to the marginal profitability of every formula and convention that their authors employ.7 But the catalogue is quick to invoke the nostalgia reflex, to assert that the genre was on the way out, thereby dismissing its consumers from consideration and releasing the employees of the comic publishers into the free, self-governing space of art. These commercial draftsmen thus no longer need be seen as intermediaries between their industry and an audience of women limited by education, circumstance, or temperament to this kind of distraction and consolation; they are simply to be equated with Lichtenstein along the governing axis of high to low: “High art on the way down to the bottom met, without quite knowing it, low art struggling to find its way back up.”8 The authors cannot see as a significant question the shift in audience and use that the transfer between contexts and media would have had to entail. One would have to be interested in those readers as women to get at this and finally to understand the meanings of Lichtenstein’s editing in the interests of a male-dominated fiefdom of fine art. (The lack of theoretical curiosity evident in the exhibition excludes, of course, not only the intellectual contributions of gays and lesbians, but much of feminist criticism and scholarship as well.) Their notion of an audience, on the other hand, can be satisfied by the nerdish, suburban hobbyists whose point of view they adopt as their own.

Shadowing the sovereign maleness of the catalogue’s strolling artist is this less commanding, but no less male figure of the teenage collector and enthusiast, sublimating his terror of women and sexuality in the accumulation of private treasures and expertise. Relations between the sexes, and indeed anything having to do with eroticism and sexual experience, remain largely outside the concerns of the exhibition, though one would have thought this terrain lay at the heart of its subject. In the end, one can see that “High and Low” wins its serene, undisturbed outlook by virtue of such massive exclusions. The most terrifying prospect would have been to recognize that every artist who found him- or herself in need of the already handled, already transformed expressions of vernacular culture admitted to his or her creative project a multitude of anonymous collaborators. Though Varnedoe and Gopnik attempt to ground their selectivity by appeal to the sovereignty of the artist’s imagination, they lag far behind the complexity of attitude and conception displayed by Picasso, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, or any number of others in the show. These artists operated on the contrary assumption that their practiced and assured sovereignty over their means and materials could be as much a problem as a source of power. Privileged expertise in art, they knew better than anyone, has its unique rewards, but they also knew that it carries builtin limitations: a congealing of professional codes of competence, a facility that too easily makes formula look like invention, and a constraint on breadth of human sympathy. Their way around that impasse, at critical junctures, was to set aside the prerogatives of unique authorship, to assume, with confident generosity, the imaginative strengths (not weaknesses) of others. To give an adequate account of the work of these artists, one has to follow the same path.

Thomas Crow is a professor of art history at the University of Sussex, England.



1. See E. Dunning and K. Sheard, Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football, New York: New York University Press, 1979, p. 60.

2. Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, “Introduction,” High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, exhibition catalogue, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1990, p. 15.

3. For Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the summary reads, in its entirety, “The art object, stripped of its ‘aura,’ or ritual cult status, is considered as a tool of political control” (ibid., p. 429).

4. No citation is given, but the error seems to have arisen from a hasty conclusion drawn from one caption in a popular picture book, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984, p. 36, in the edition I consulted). Bode’s attraction for his young male admirers stems in large part from his ability to combine a raunchy (and objectionable) adolescent sexism with the Disneyesque child-appeal of his draftsmanship. The innocuously wholesome Dondi was begun in 1955 by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen for the Chicago Tribune and syndicate.

5. As accurately pointed out by Rosalind Krauss at the conference “ ‘High/Low’: Art and Mass Culture,” held at the DIA Center for the Arts, New York, 3 November 1990. Varnedoe and Gopnik, “Advertising,” High and Low, p. 344.

6. Ibid., pp. 338 and 345.

7. On this see, for example, M. A. Jensen, Love’s Sweet Return: The Harlequin Story, Toronto: Women’s Press, 1984.

8. Varnedoe and Gopnik, “Comics,” High and Low, p. 199.