Gaga’s Law: How Art Conquered Pop and Why Jay Z Goes to Art Basel

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Lady Gaga presents Artrave in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photo: Marie Havens/@Patrick McMullan

Below, a sort of social-media-era, two-person panel discussion between our art critic Jerry Saltz and the artist Matthew Weinstein — on the nature of pop fame, art stars, and what could possibly be drawing so many celebrities into Jeffrey Deitch’s orbit these days.

Jerry Saltz: Matthew, I know you as an artist who also used to write criticism. I looked at your Facebook page the other day and got stopped in my tracks by an amazing couple of paragraphs of something like Critical Cultural Theory. You seemed to be writing that an inversion has taken place in the flow of fame. Whereas we in the art world used to go to other sectors in order to have fame or coolness rub off on us — to the worlds of fashion, music, movies, wherever — now the stars of those worlds are coming to the art world for some sort of stamp of cool approval. And I think you were saying that we tend to get pretty snooty about anyone from these other worlds who comes near us, be it Lady Gaga, James Franco, or Jay Z. Do I understand you right?

Matthew Weinstein: As someone who feels optimistic about the blurring of the virtual and what we used to optimistically call "the real," I enjoy a collapsed category. So I have no affection for any high/low binary nonsense. And I noticed a certain now-familiar reactionary art-world circling of wagons in response to the fact that certain celebrities of intergalactic fame now feel the need to sing and dance for us. I’m not talking about Patti Smith or other beloved art/rock homegrown talents, or performers collecting as quietly as they can without dealers shrieking that they just sold something to Steve Martin. But yes, the ones you mentioned.

JS: And what do you make of those people and their new interest in us?

MW: For me, the art world — my beloved home since Columbia University made me realize I was not an art historian — always had the congeniality of a hornet’s nest and the glamour of a teacher’s lounge, so I was surprised to see famous people who could be anywhere crossing the moat. And not just cross it, but really seem to have fun inside the castle. And then entertain the castle. Then the art-world grumbling started. The same tired notions of the art world being invaded by celebrity, and the transforming of the art world into the entertainment world … blah blah blah, I can’t even finish the sentence without falling asleep. But had nobody heard of the strange calculus in which the fame of a celebrity fades as the celebrity approaches the gravitational sphere of the art world?

JS: That’s your theory, right? You call it “Gaga’s Law.”

MW: Okay, it’s a crackpot theory. But don’t crackpot theories, art, and religion all have in common the fact that they might not matter?

It used to be that an artist hitting a mid-career skid and needing to feed his (it was all his, so I use that pronoun confidently) addiction for attention would start hurling himself at the actor or celebrity of the moment to get a few secondhand butterfly kisses of fame. But now I worry about the celebrities. Really. I can’t sleep. We seem to get them when they flatline. I like Miley Cyrus. I liked the "Wrecking Ball" video. She really cried, for Christ’s sake. But I worry about her. It used to be that celebrity art took the form of the Gustave Moreau-esque face-paintings of Phyllis Diller and John Wayne Gacy’s sad clowns. Chuckled at, but not laughed at. Why a celebrity would open him- or herself up to the damning ridicule of the art world by tossing their bleeding hobby into that shark tank, I have no idea. What is wrong with being loved all the time?

JS: Are they being masochistic?

MW: I am convinced that the art world is capable of denting fame. Lady Gaga’s worst press has been around Artpop. Articles popped up about how Artpop lost money. It’s called Artpop. Does my theory need any more data to support it than this? (I liked Artpop.) The art world is the new cultural succubus. The phenomenon in which a celebrity's fame becomes increasingly hobbled as s­he is drawn closer to the art world establishes the fact that there is no longer any pop culture. It is all art culture. This idea destabilizes the accepted and tired idea that Pop Art served to dissolve the art/life invisible divide. Actually, Pop Art annexed popular culture for art; thus increasing the territory for art and depriving popular culture of being perceived as anything but entertainment or decoration. The fact that huge celebrities are drawn to art-world attention proves the victory of art culture over popular culture. Celebrities cannot grasp onto art content without first offering themselves up as sacrifices to the art world. Pop Art possessed the seeds of the more conservative notions of culture and class that have grown into the world domination of "high culture" by claiming popular culture for art.

JS: Okay. Got it. And love it. I can see that money and coverage make it seem like the art world is the winner and the "place to be." But hasn’t the world of pop fame exploded much more rapidly? How can our tiny tribe of misfits have conquered Hollywood, the fashion world, and the record industry at once? People at the top of the pop-royalty pyramid (Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Jay Z and Beyoncé, etc.) — what’s that about? Is there something other than the concentration of wealth that’s attracting these people? If so, what? And what do you think art means to these people? To Lady Gaga, to Beyoncé, to Kanye West? And if you're right that "the art world takes the fame out of famous people," what does that mean? And mighn't Kanye actually be an artist?

MW: When Madonna said she was an artist, I thought, Fine, you’re an artist. I don’t really care about the definition of artist because as an artist, I know from the inside that it can be a pretty shabby thing, even when it looks good from the outside, and the category of art doesn’t, in my mind, elevate a cultural product. And yes, of course, the gravitational tug of the art world is the "throw like a girl" version of real fame. I’m speaking more crackpot/conceptually about the fact that the nebulous construction art has gobbled up culture to the point that massive celebrities need to identify with it. So it isn’t the art world so much as the idea of art; art as this magic that levitates culture into a higher place, which the art world is selling. Art is to culture as "French" was to salad dressings (I have a theory about how salad dressings can define presidencies as well). It doesn’t hurt that so much money is swirling around the art world, but I don’t think Lady Gaga started singing to make money; so I can’t imagine she is impressed, interested in, or needs the art world's newly inherited zillions. I think her performing made her a wildly rich and famous celebrity. And if she wants to call herself an artist (does she?), fine by me. I just have that Groucho Marx as channeled through Woody Allen thing about not wanting to be in a club that wants me, so I don’t know why they’d want our free drink tickets.

JS: Do you think of today’s collision of pop and art as also conservative? What are its conservative values? As recently as the Pictures Generation, you’ve described the great humility of artists with regard to pop culture. When and how and why did that disappear? And is the death of that humility a good thing? And finally, who is more humble, the artist or the pop star? Lady Gaga or Jeff Koons?

MW: First, in terms of ego, I think mine is as big as Lady Gaga’s, so I can’t even imagine that of Koons. My idea of the Pictures Generation (they hate it when you call them that) was about that humility; not personal humility, but a need to drag their image files into their own hamster nests and decide that they had decoded popular culture, which isn’t really humility, it’s grandiosity that looked like humility in the face of neo-expressionism. Warhol had that same brand of humility but even more extreme; he was on his knees before celebrity, beauty, and the grotesque like a good Catholic. I don’t think the art world is any more conservative today than it ever was. I think it has a confidence that it used to fake, so it’s a little less human. Art has never been more arty. Much of this abstract painting looks so much like art, it’s as if the message is, "We don’t need you anymore, pop culture, we are art; we are going to go all Greenberg on you." Of course there is no more pop culture. Everyone is now an artist. Just not everyone is a good artist.