Hiroshige & Warhol sittin’ in a tree: an essay on art & culture

Does the reproduction of art first degrade or enhance it? This context-sensitive question comes from one of art’s central demands: to truly impress itself on a culture, art needs attention, so it must be positioned as relevant. It must speak effectively to what we do, but it needs to be where people can see and hear its wordplay.

So art is produced and reproduced, sometimes sparingly and sometimes up into the magnificent numbers. For the former, the vast power of rarity, often exploited, is wielded not to prevent the audience from associating with the art, but to incite interest and compel the public to pay more attention to the art. For the latter, we’re all familiar with the now-erstwhile deluge of attempts at connecting the audience to more art, the stories of spectacular reach radiating from the work resonating just right with people flung across area codes, and the far more common casualties, where hopeful art meets a sea of blank faces. These both are necessities for art’s importance in any dynamic culture. We’ve seen this.

We’ve seen it in the woodcuts of Japan, xylography used skillfully to both bring about Japonism in 20th century Europe (reviving the flagging woodcut as an artistic medium in the area) and impress another view of Japanese identity into the leagues-long rippling banner that is the culture of the island nation.

Art extended out of the carefully-incised woodprints of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and patterned everything from folding screens to any water-resistant canvas available to hold the sights; it made/is making contact with the audience, likewise patterning how people see something as simple as a Riverside Bamboo Market. This artwork allows for the beginning of conversations on various perspectives of Edo — now modern Tokyo — and here we see art’s intense concern with what we do enhanced by an ongoing reproduction of breathtaking scope.

But eventually, the picture on your folding screen stops mattering as much as what the folding screen’s function is, or the famed framed picture and the book of prints falls into a pleasantly normal dinner’s background, subsumed into the gist of subconscious awareness. For art exposed with that level of scope, time does indeed bring subsumption, which is almost always corrosive to the aims of the art. You can only see a sculpture in front of a hospital so many times before you don’t think of it as an attempt to communicate: it becomes the signpost you see before you enter to bring something to your brother, in traction after a car crash, for the fifth time in the past two days; it becomes the shape present before you visit your withering patients; it becomes anything but a taxing conversation concerning life.

Let me give you an example. I work at a supermarket, and I live in perpetual fear of the moment when Kroger Co. gets the rights to play the hits from Courtney Barnett’s album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit in its faux-genial aisles. This fear has nothing to do with how relevant the album would be to that setting; it’s poppy indie rock, it will work anywhere social, which is how I know that if Kroger is savvy, they’re shoving cash in the Australian group’s general direction right now. The day they get the rights will mark the death of my obsessive desire to give the album my undivided aural attention, because that horse will be beaten to its knees whenever I go to work.

There’s such a thing as artistic saturation, and commercializing art is how you get there — ‘there’ being the vacation of the audience’s finicky willingness to offer its attention to the artist. This may be a hipster impulse on my part, but the idea that repeated exposure can lead to dissociation with/erosion of feelings a stimulus can muster — “growing jaded” — is a lodestone in more significant cultures than ‘hipsterdom.’

So, given that artistic saturation can be a legitimate cultural problem, we have to ask how a culture manages it. The immediate answer is “Don’t oversaturate: practice temperance and moderation,” but that’s tantamount to saying the solution is to avoid the problem entirely. The important question is “How do we grapple with oversaturation when it’s here, there, and everywhere?”

Andy Warhol’s apropos, brilliant response with Double Elvis and many of his other works was to turn the phenomenon of artistic saturation into art; he figuratively fought fire with a picture of fire, opening a critical conversation on our cultural bingeing with an ironic gesture that outlined the degradation caused by our culture’s impulse towards consuming marketing with ever-broadening aplomb.

Let’s say you’re an artist at the dawning of the age of mass media, 1963. Elvis is everywhere, doing his little dances, and the recognition he engenders is making him into a powerful tool for advertisers. Elvis is talented, obviously, and his existence in the public ethos is a net positive, but double the Elvis — say another musician puts his foot into the ethos, using Presley’s exact stance — and you’re going to run into the bedeviling problem of saturation, which, personal jading aside, will degrade the genre and medium over time. How do we disarm this well-meaning cowboy, whose image is inadvertently pointing a gun at artistry’s lifeblood: the willingness of people lend their attention and be an audience? Double Elvis simultaneously expresses the power of commercialism in the culture of the day while outlining some of its unintended effects through the obfuscation of the second Elvis.

In this deconstruction of the major obstacle spawned by the advent of increasingly-impressive communicative capacities in our society, Warhol makes a convincing case for art’s relevance to the modern world as a means of cultural examination, and shows the popularity of modern versions of cultural touchstones like Ando Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo to be manageable in a world where information — and attention — are increasingly being recognized as the true commodities that dictate the contours of a culture.

Originally published at mark-ik.tumblr.com.

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