How pop can save the Arts

Merlijn Twaalfhoven
12 min readMay 19, 2017

Where pop tries to become art, it often goes wrong.

Written June 2005.

Pop and art are opposites.

Pop is accessible. It implies singing along to a tune, swinging on a rhythm.

Art finds itself at an underlying layer of confusion of the ambiguous. It is original and inimitable. It’s beyond the percipience of senses; it finds beauty in elusiveness.

Where pop tries to become art, it often goes wrong.

The painting of the milkmaid of Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum is moving, maybe called glaring or carefully worded exquisite. This much can’t be said about its reproduction on a biscuit tin.

André Rieu turns Shostakovich’s compositions in cheerful football songs and squanders profound tragic happiness on roguish singalongs.

String quartet Bond performs in their bikinis. Classical masterpieces are being flattened by loud beats and exuberant running on stage. The audience screams, dances and throws beer.

In the Concert hall this isn’t allowed. There you ought to listen carefully, solemnly and show regard for the musicians who are not to be disturbed whilst in utmost concentration.

Yet is has been only a century since the coffee tables have been removed from the Concert hall. Of course the Thursday evening series are for most people to keep in touch, but as a matter of fact this doesn’t happen until during the intervals and after the performance. Experiencing art is clearly kept separate from small talk.

People seem to agree that serious art is shown up best in its pure form, without distraction from or interaction with the outside world. This protected setting offers the audience to watch calmly, but doesn’t tolerate participation. The audience may go through a lot, but doesn’t give it the room to share. Applause in the Concert hall doesn’t indicate fellowship! Lying awake from loneliness is rough.

In popular culture the aroused emotions are often unambiguous. For that reason the experience can be a joint one and possible artistic elements are seasoned with a world of information and stimulation to make it digest well and to shovel it down easily.

Pop is a consumer article; it is instant-emotion, bite-sized identity with ideology of life free of charge. Familiar beauty that’s to be appropriated, with which one can whistle along. Stylized forms of group behavior in which participation, creation and watching coincide.

As a matter of fact Pop has existed ever since cave paintings. Rituals, traditions, unambiguous manifestations of power, image and wealth all are more or less pop. Art as an artistic expression autonomous within her own artistic domain, but without a clear function outside, was born only a few ages ago (Josquin, Donatello) and hasn’t grown to maturity until a century ago (Picasso, Debussy). Moreover it is a Western, intellectual patent; I dare say that all traditional and non-Western forms of art, both folk as well as classical, are in fact pop.

Pop is the ritual; form is it’s content.

Social customs integrate mysteries of life and death and offer grip in a situation that’s hard to describe; it’s all pop. Birth, christening, marriage and death are surrounded with dance, music and symbols that offer the people concerned the chance to participate actively in an event that can’t be explained rationally. The more primitive the culture, the more rituals, symbols and traditions play a role in people’s lives. When the Indian plays the flute, the moon rises. By dancing as if an animal, one becomes the animal; by being the animal one understands it.

It may not be surprising that the term ‘pop’ originated when science had begun to unravel all mystery from human life and less and less attention was given to religion. Pop offers grip, role models and identity at moments of confusion or lack of control.

Therefore Pop is in the first place functional. It entertains, touches and confirms. It entices you, wants to be heard, wants to be yours.

Art doesn’t need all that. It simply is. In it’s pure form of existence it’s worth more than all objects that exist by grace of their function.

By not serving as something Art can be what it is. The observer is not forced upon bite-sized emotions, only the thing itself. It’s not necessary that you understand, for you are given the chance to perceive a thing and let it sink in without immediately understanding it.

Art is the field in which impressions wander before they’re being analyzed and are fitted with a box marked by a label. The longer it wanders, the more impressive, confusing, special or shocking a work of art is.

Art is confusion. The elusive, the inexpressible that couldn’t have had another form than the work of art itself, and therefore doesn’t connect logically with the human world, and instead withdraws to it’s own field.

The way Art doesn’t exist without a medium, in the same way confusion, emotion and anxiety don’t exist without Art telling a story, playing on emotions or at least being beautiful. These are powerful means that are necessary to bring about an experience of art. Artists often cling to these external forms and want to become good in doing their Thing. The Thing becomes its purpose. The magic takes place between the Artist and the Thing; the visitors may humbly admire the result, and be entranced, but certainly not intervene.

This form of art is clear-cut, and fits well in a pigeonhole. Thing art is recognizable, can be analyzed, evaluated and understood. In doing that it deprives itself straight of the possibilities of anxiety or surprise. The perception hasn’t been given the chance to wander in the mind, but is neatly wrapped up and put away. The observer makes the connection with other art within the same pigeonhole, but places it outside his everyday reality. Despite of its artistic appearance this form of art is as safe, tame and entertaining as pop. Form and audience differ, but in essence both offer entertainment, nostalgia and confirmation.

How can art be confronting, when it is embedded in the safe environment like the Concert hall or gallery, where all conventions are clear?

How can a work of art cause confusion when Art has already given itself away and the notion of art has for most people become synonymous to a thing that doesn’t even want to be understood?

How can a thing be profound when it shuts out the observer?

And how can art truly amaze when the surprise exists by grace of the variation on another form of art, and that’s granted solely for the adept with insight?

The answer to this is Popkunst.

Popkunst goes beyond communication. It’s the unification of Art and observer. Popkunst is by definition interactive and multi-sensory. The audience is participant as a person who watches, listens, feels and thinks.

The artist doesn’t function as author, but acts as a host. He’s the facilitator; he creates a situation within which a perception of art can take place. The complete history of arts and media are at his service. Popkunst moves freely between conventions, traditions and customs. After all it’s the situation that’s decisive for the aesthetics to either come across or not, which means everything may be used, be it in the right way. For this reason Popkunst isn’t simply a countermovement, rather a logical alternative. The Popkunst-artist depends on the world, plays with conventions, customs and traditions of subcultures and target groups. He’s not after creating a new language, but wants to share existing stories in an intensive way.

For the world has since long been finished.

Artists may keep adding works of art, but as long as the audience doesn’t listen, it doesn’t make a difference, really. It would be useful if artists learn to perceive the public. Suddenly the world itself appears to meet all demands of a good work of art; it is unfamiliar, original and inimitable. The distinction between Art and Real solves itself in an open and knowing fascination for life; basis for happiness.

Popkunst makes the audience aware of the world by bringing to the surface the unfamiliar in the well known. By having the Bach-lover discover the unexpected Bach. By preventing the audience from watching passively, but instead involve them in an overall experience and have it take part in the experience from within.

It gets rid of the proper distance, the objective, judging view with which we usually analyze and store our experiences- rendering them harmless to make sure they can no longer cause surprise.

It is possible for the public to immerse only if the work of art is convincing and at first sight it must seem to be at it’s right spot in it’s current setting. In a pop setting the work of art must therefore be easily accessible or entertaining at first sight; in an artier setting it must on the other hand seem rather abstract and unruly.

By initially giving the public what it expects, and not run off with expectations until later on, the public stays involved and is so to speak guided to the unknown.

The ultimate challenge for the Popkunst-artist is to minimalize the distance to the public without making concessions concerning content.

By playing with codes, the public may become aware of the effect the codes have on their experience. By focusing on form, the public has the chance to become aware of the form and as a result may get a clearer view on the content.

For that reason the Popkuns-artist must be well up in many forms, styles and disciplines, but at the same time be aware of the way the work of art comes across and of the excess baggage it carries. Excess baggage is the enemy of the art experience. A perception is framed and labelled in associations and memory; the singularity of the experience is being overshadowed by recognition and ideas about forms in the past.

Knowing the enemy is essential for choosing the right strategy. By having a thorough command of the forms and being profound in many languages, the artist is able to smuggle in his ideas with the horse of Troy.

A successful action not only demands the knowledge and the interests of the average Trojan, but also the full conviction that Troy needs to be destroyed.

Therefore a plea for the increase of Popkunst in the contemporary human world.

Popkunst is necessary.

It brings the concept “culture” to a higher plan.

Culture offers structure to the world around you and makes you identify with your surroundings.

Cultural exchange breaks through the general tendency of dispersion that shows in several parts in society. Cultural activities bring to the front the positive wealth and energy of the youngest generation and various sections of the population within the country. In this way culture occupies a key position in the integration of all sections of the population in today’s colourful Netherlands. Differences become visible, and therefore the more interesting and striking instead of unfamiliar and threatening.

Culture is the cement of society. But it’s only possible to build when the cement is still fluid and at the moment it all got stuck. Culture is pigeonholed. Every pigeonhole has it’s own code of conduct, playing field and door policy. Culture is outgoing, and that’s positive. But when a cultural expression is primarily self-affirmative, and is addressed to a defined group with a predictable message, society will remain scattered like patchwork and the slightest tinge of suspicion will close all carefully opened doors immediately.

Popkunst breaches frameworks and pigeonholes. It is art through encounter. Art by convergence of divergent styles and ideas, in which the public takes on the role of participant rather than onlooker. It opens up subcultures, not by observing them and making a documentary film about it, but by including the public and turning it into an experience from within. The Popkunst-artist will have to leave behind the safety of his own scene and must move through the variety of cultural expressions like a pioneer to carry along a new audience. This is far from simple. Artists have learned a language, and have found an audience that understands this language. Artists feel at home in the protection of a space with clearly defined codes and expectations, and will lose a big part of their audience by leaving these clear-cut places.

For many artists it’s really scary to use a form that’s been contaminated with the smell of making money by commercial culture. When it’s only a flirt, they still find it quite exiting, but one will often see that the artist will want to get rid of the commercial sheepskin he’s been wearing and go back to identifying himself as contrary and rebellious.

He doesn’t dare to see the form as form, and is afraid to be pigeonholed wrongly.

Numerous babies are washed away with bath water that refused to scent of Zwitsal.

The Popkunst-artist does like the scent of Zwitsal, puberty’s gel and woman’s perfume. Museums, concert halls and theatres are stuffy prisons for the arts from which one can walk away to explore world’s own playground, experimenting field and working terrain.

When you leave behind the safe protection of the art temples and move into the hostile outside world, you also leave behind the organised infrastructure of art and with that the regulated, subsidized art sector (including it’s collective labour agreement). The Popkunst-artist will therefore often have to establish, communicate and finance his own happenings and encounters. This will give him the opportunity to create his own setting, to determine his own set of rules or choose for an existing setting and deviate from the existing rules. In this way he can use his influence on every detail of the visitor’s experience, and is no longer bound by the wardrobe, coffee, the hall, the stage, the interval etc. The Popkunst-artist will have to be an initiator. The world isn’t waiting on art; no one will miss you if the work of art hadn’t been there. That’s why you can’t sit and wait to be called up, instead you‘ll have to draw up a plan for yourself and find the money to finance it.

Popkunst is therefore meaningful, necessary and an enrichment for humans and animals, but will demand a great deal from the artist. The world is big outside the pigeonholes and art temples. Money, public and attention aren’t always growing on trees, and the academy can’t possibly teach you all expertise you need to keep yourself going from the start.

The learned and carefully considering ladies and gentlemen of art academies, funds and governments won’t dare to give way to Popkunst until they start to realize that art could gain in communication and public reach, without having to compromise in quality.

By describing what’s going on in the art world, and how Popkunst can anticipate, I would like to draw support for a new image of the artist in society, namely: an artist who’s like an architect: fully up to date to the constructional demands of the environment, the climate and the hardness of the soil, but at the same time autonomous in creating a self-willed aesthetic statement. Basic assumption is the way the building is used and the role that will be given to the residents. The work of the architect is therefore both applied as well as autonomous, and the fact that the public will appropriate the construction and be part of it actively, will be rather a challenge for the designer than a concession; more likely a additional value than a setback; rather the attraction of the profession than a limit to it’s freedom.

At art academy it rather seems as if you’re trained to be a bricklayer or carpenter instead of architect. You learn the profession, the technical and creative aspects, and count on the presence of a building contractor (read: orchestra, school of music or company) who needs you. With a little luck one can follow an accounting course in addition to this in case you aspire to start your own business.

A Popkunst-artist on the other hand will have to develop a personal view on society, prove the necessity of his work in the world, at the same time react on practical circumstances and build up a relation with the public.

For that reason every art student should get insight in the layers of his field of work in an early stage and should be guided in developing a vision on the position of Art in the world. From this a choice results to either broaden or deepen one’s knowledge, which is essential for the chosen set of course options. The years of education could be spent more fruitful: skilled specialists aren’t distracted too much by subsidiary subjects being in their way, Popkunst-artists will not be inhibited by specialized teachers who miss in on the wider context of things.

Apart from the teacher of main subjects, who logically rarely forsakes his own territory, students should be able to choose who can serve as an artistic supervisor in the broad sense, as inspirator, as a teacher of the subject ‘future perspectives’. As a violinist one can easily be supervised by for example a singing teacher or even a teacher of drama or visual arts who shares your artistic view, while on the other hand one wants to keep the violin expert for technical lessons. A supervisor of another subject has more distance to the technical aspects that so often overshadow the artistic learning process. It’s possible for the teacher to build a closer bond between him and the student and be able to support the student in making difficult choices that exceed the restricted field of study. He can recognize that sometimes to broaden means to deepen the subject, and on the other hand prevent the too-eager-to-learn young Popkunst-artists from drowning under the overwhelming quantity of education.

Choices create room, and room is essential for the art student who wants to discover how to situate his work in the middle of the world. Room to get stuck in, to become empty or to go wrong.

Flaws of the academy that give room to depart from the beaten tracks to set up one’s own projects and by that reveal one’s limitations.

To get the process going the lecturer will have to produce the material that makes relevant artists (and I count myself among them) accessible for students. By means of a website, but also through publications and events students, teachers and other professionals will be involved in the discussion that can substantiate the young notion of Popkunst.

Fear of lost quality of a piece of art will have to be substituted for the ambition to improve the quality of communication of Art.

I am delighted that ArtEZ accommodates this development by setting up the lectoraat Popkunst.