Cut ’n’ Paste Identities (Screenshot Magazine)
Perhaps a picture of Daniel Radcliffe walking dogs on the polished and hushed white wall of a west London gallery is the ultimate example of mass culture’s appropriation into fine art. Of course, this all truly kicked off with pop art, but in today’s post-digital art world, the use of symbols and icons from pop culture, mass media, paparazzi, memeification, clickbait, MTV and everything else is seamlessly merged with traditionally ‘high-art’ concerns.
Aforementioned Daniel hangs proudly in the Lisson Gallery thanks to Cory Arcangel, one of today’s most prominent post-digital artists. His entire practice is concerned with the digital world, manipulating and appropriating it into often hilarious, yet thought-provoking and tradition-crushing art. Arcangel’s work simultaneously lampoons and celebrates internet culture, taking its hashtags, “promoted content”, clickbait and elevating into fine art photography, video and installation pieces.
Arcangel is one of many contemporary artists taking the mass culture he finds both IRL and online and using it as the building blocks, or pixels, from which he makes his work. Jon Rafman takes a similarly magpie-like approach. In his incredible 2015 exhibition at London’s Zabludowicz gallery, physical relics from children’s playtime — ball ponds, gloop, a maze — act as foils to occasionally disturbing adult themes. From a ball pond, we see videos formed from merging strange internet fetish footage and other found imagery. Vomit, cigarette butts and debris strewn around a computer keyboard, and a bedroom reduced to grimy detritus, are a site for ominous voices that suggest the omnipresence and omnipotence of screens. It’s a frightening unreality that turns domestic spaces into nightmares.
Crush fetishes, furries and role play abound — while grotesque imagery is never far from the screen. Rather than simply conflating his findings in video games and memes and weird corners of the digital landscape, Jon weaves them into pieces that feel like fables or entirely new works, which make us question ourselves and the very nature of art.
These trampling over barriers of ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture is, of course, nothing new. It is the axis on which postmodernism turns. Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences lecture of 1966 highlights French theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term bricolage, showing that the postmodern author or artist “uses ‘the means at hand,’ that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary.”
In this way, artists are today perhaps more than ever availed of multiple ‘instruments’ from which to make work. Their collages can be created from infinite digital images, sounds, themes, traits and characteristics. And while artists do this in the most visible way, I’d argue that today, our very sense of being and personality is similarly a bricolage of influences and tropes.
People have always been an amalgam of nature and nurture, and in our 21st Century digital age it’s easier than ever to appropriate ideas and imagery from other people and culture to form new identities. “Fake it till you make” takes on a new dynamism in a time where, at least online, you can at the click of a button, be whoever you want to be.
Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation explored the idea that everyday reality and media were blurred, and in an age where we’re bombarded with advertising and messages through television, radio stations, newspapers and street billboards, we lose the ability to separate what is real and what is ‘simulacra’. Artists are now taking all of these things — real, simulated, simulations of simulations — and making their work from them. And as art imitates life, individuals are now also a mixture of all of these confusing things. How can we find a stable sense of identity when our ‘real’ selves are for better or for worse (I’d argue, both) obfuscated by a tsunami of digital images?
Of course, the availability of all this appropriation is a wonderful thing. We can find out almost anything; we can learn from people across the world, from art movements from centuries ago, finding new styles, languages, friends, materials, colours, texts, doctrines, lovers, talismans, ideas, facts and fictions. And from these, we mould and evolve new selves. But could this be the root of our collective unease, our mass sense of instability of the self?
Consciously or unconsciously, like post-digital art, are we becoming a strange passive conglomerate of Kim Kardashian, belfies, Deliciously Ella, Throwback Thursdays, ladettes, gender-neutral fashion, ‘disruption’, vloggers, bloggers, YouGov poll results, Friends quizzes, listicles, X-Pro II, SXSW, Bardot-shoulders, MIC, 5:2, lilac hair transformations, Newt from Hollyoaks, Bronies, legal highs, My Mad Fat Diary?
There’s a lot to be said for Umberto Eco’s definition of postmodernism in this sense, from his Reflections on The Name of the Rose, which says that in postmodernism’s deconstruction of the past, innocence is lost. He says: “I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’.
“At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.”
So in an age of art and life that appropriates and re-appropriates again and again, can we learn to be sincere? What is real? Can we truly “love madly”?