Tate Modern: Pop Life is Rubbish

Posted by Cila Warncke

van_gogh_wheatfield_with_crows

Wheatfield with Crows

The view from the sixth-floor members’ lounge of the Tate Modern is spectacular. A cool sweep across Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and the sludge-grey curve of the Thames. After that, walking through the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition is like touring a crypt: lifeless, rigid, ostentatious, dull.

There are scenes of a sexually explicit nature (in the demure phrase of the small black-and-white signs dotted around the rooms) but the only shocking thing about them is their banality. Jeff Koons aggrandising pornographic (self) portraits are faintly amusing only for the contrast between the unremarkable dimensions of his penis (photographed) compared to its heroic amplification in the accompanying sculptures. Around me, students scribble on notepads. Hopefully they’re writing: Jeff Koons = outsized cock.

Warhol, as ever in these tributes to shit-for-brains interpretations of post-modernism, has pride of place. One whole wall devoted to tiresome screen prints of his warped, ugly little face. I feel like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf. By contrast, when I walked out of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the sky itself seemed higher.

Take the self-portraits. Jeff Koons creates himself as a comic-book character with a giant phallus; Warhol wallows in profitable narcissism. Van Gogh looked at himself unsparingly and responded with an honesty that still speaks in every rusty brushstroke. It isn’t that Van Gogh was too unsophisticated to be commercial. He worried frantically about money and his letters to brother-patron Theo are riddled with anxious survival schemes. Yet immerse yourself in his wheat-fields or sunflowers and your mind unfurls. ‘Money’ is a tiny notion, reduced to its proper place by his swirling French skies.

It is fashionable to say that technique is unimportant, but how can anyone claim to be an artist if they don’t respect their art enough to study it? Van Gogh spent his living allowance paying models in order to hone his craft. Warhol found the easiest, most repetitive, least-demanding mediums imaginable (and was too lazy to even use them inventively). In another section of the Tate an artist whose name mercifully escapes me destroyed a bunch of his paintings in some kind of ‘performance’. How original. How irritating. How insincere. If you really believe what you’re doing is art then it must have value, must have something of yourself in it. How can you just destroy it? The corollary is if you can casually wreck something then you must not feel it truly represents you; it’s not your art. In which case, go back and try harder. Van Gogh bled for his art. He worked while confined to a sanatorium, he lived in raw poverty, he wrestled with demons. The fragmentary calm in his paintings is heart-rending because it evokes peace in the midst of passionate struggle. Koons, Hirst, et al, I warrant, never fought for anything more meaningful than a parking space.

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