Common Culture

Gasworks 10th November -10th December 2000

The relationship between high and low culture is no longer what it was.In a society that tends to privilege inclusion over division, the idea that different cultural forms should exist in a hierarchy of value has fallen out of fashion, a development that has recently impacted on the high arts in the noisy controversies over opera, theatre and literature.The definition and criticism of cultural forms according to the social make-up of their audience has inevitably thrown into question the validity of those forms whose constituencies have been historically narrow. In this respect, opera has fared worst, succumbing to the easy criticism of being an elitist social club for toffs, as much as an antiquated and impenetrable cultural form. In the case of contemporary art, the tension between social and cultural division has always been more tortuous and less easily resolved; contemporary artís utopian democratic impulse and its commitment to disruptive innovation has often destabilised its relationship to the established structures of cultural patronage.Nevertheless, the cultural eliteís loss of nerve has not gone unnoticed in contemporary art, as those practices that prioritise popular content and participation have moved to the fore.

Common Cultureís exhibition at Gasworks is no exception to this development.Hijacking contemporary art at its most rarefied, the group (made up of David Campbell, Mark Durden and Paul Rooney) take international minimalism for a joyride through the suburbs of contemporary Britain.In the group of works at Gasworks, a room is cluttered with cardboard packing boxes filled with polystyrene packing chips.As if just unpacked, various takeaway cartons and small aluminium light boxes illuminate the darkened room.Looking a lot like the kind of Ďspecific objectsí that Don Judd might have carefully fixed to a pristine gallery wall, these boxes however present the viewer with back-lit fast food menus; one Chinese, another Indian, one proposing ĎEnglish foodí and lastly, side orders and extras.Further illumination comes from a large two-step flashing neon unit that resembles one of Bruce Naumanís figure neons. But in Common Cultureís version, the neon figure involved seems to be suffering from artistic indigestion.Confronted with a schematic outline of a white cube, the figure then leans forward to vomit heartily into the abstract geometry before it.The meaning of Ďfast foodí takes a further twist in the accompanying video projection; ĎCommon Culture are Comingí declares the opening title, as we follow the progress of a mobile food kiosk towed from the chip shops of Liverpool, through the beer and puke of a Saturday night to the trashy neon lights of Piccadilly Circus. As the kiosk ends its journey in London, the titles pronounce that ĎCommon Culture have Arrivedí.Somewhat forlornly, the trailer kiosk itself sits squeezed into the adjacent space, a too-specific object reflecting the white walls of the gallery in its steel-and-spray-paint bodywork.

As cultural showdowns go, this contest is a little one-sided.The most visceral, inclusive and democratic form of mass culture, its food, is pitted against the most abstruse and cerebral form of art, and minimalism is the easiest of targets if your concern is to eliminate the trace of difference between the world of the art object and the rest of culture.The minimalist objectís dependence on a consensual artistic context, its final, logical extension of pure form into pure space, however expressed in the materials of the everyday, make it entirely vulnerable to the contemporary privileging of the culturally contingent and heterogeneous.

But whilst it may be simple for Common Culture to knock down minimalismís cardboard opponent, the reference to Nauman causes greater problems.Naumanís use of neon is, like their own, rooted in the culture of the urban scene.But unlike Naumanís Punch and Judy, Common Cultureís vomiting figure is perversely dependent on an art insiderís contextualising knowledge of minimalism; otherwise it is simply a figure vomiting into a box. Naumanís work in contrast isnít dependent on such a layer of interpretation; its effect is self explanatory, regardless of whether one chooses to regard it as high art, contemporary art or whatever.

This approach to the experience of contemporary art, and for that matter any cultural form, is only possible if the context in which it operates is not problematised by extrinsic demands.A critique that seeks to subordinate any cultural form to an ethically correct deference for mass culture is inevitably blind to the specific artistic potential of that form.But the experience of Naumanís work, and indeed the best of minimalist practice, demonstrates some of that potential.Although Naumanís work declares its source in common experience, itís treatment is anything but banal, and even with minimalism one could argue that its phenomenological universalism offers some insight into a commonality of experience that goes beyond the merely contemporaneous.And these are justifications enough, both for their individual qualities and as a defence of artistic practice more generally, regardless of the institutional and social framework in which it operates:Thereís a value to the form of contemporary artistic practice which isnít entirely reducible to the social divisions of the common culture.

This however also calls into question what is meant by the Ďcommon cultureí.In the context of the exhibition at Gasworks, one might ask why mass processed fast food should count as culture at all.Fast food is only common culture in the sense that itís what brings us together when thereís nothing else to eat. If food has a culture, it lies outside the mere sating of hunger.But to think that Ďculturedí eating is merely the middle class pretension that provides Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith with jobs is to miss the point, unless the point is to celebrate the basest, most mediocre forms of everyday life as Ďauthenticí representations of the life of ordinary people.This kind of fawning, inverted condescension towards the masses is symptomatic of an art that has lost faith not only in its own potential to engage peopleís intelligence and imagination, but also in their capacity to deal with it.And if Common Culture donít believe me, then they have never eaten at Mirch Masala in Norbury.

The paucity and opportunistic cowardice of this kind of synthetic philistinism is obvious. Giving up on contemporary artís imaginative engagement with the common culture has led many artists to fill the void with the negation of culture per se.The problem, not just for art but for all culture, is that when one is faced with the choice of being outside the box vomiting in, or inside the box vomiting out, itís difficult to care much either way.



Published in Art Monthly 242, December 2000- January 2001 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated