Trash as a Cultural System (1998)

“Trash as a Cultural System: Rauschenberg, Warhol, Smith and Shifting Museum Practices,” C Magazine, no. 58 (May – August 1998), pp. 17-25.

What was happening in the mid-1990s reflected a paradigmatic (and generational) shift in museum practices. This article analyzed it. Trash, an inverted and degraded Glamour, was a cultural system; and the "flatbed" strategies of certain artists forty years previous had begun to inflect curatorial practice—queering it. We were forging a new relationship to the photograph as the "archive" became a principle site for creating narratives that altered the fundamental status of this ephemeral material and made it culturally equivalent to artworks. It was no coincidence that this was happening precisely when the history of the underground began its entry into the museum.

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Trash as a Cultural System:
Rauschenberg, Warhol, Smith and Shifting Museum Practices

The lives of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jack Smith are lessons, for good or ill, in career management. Their popular (or lack thereof, in Smith’s case) have even determined the ways in which their careers, rather than just their art works, have been assembled recently in three major New York exhibitions. All opened in 1997: the two-part “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective” at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum and Guggenheim Museum Soho; “The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion,” organized by The Warhol Museum with its première At the Whitney Museum of American Art; and “Flaming Creature: The Times of Jack Smith” at P.S.1. These presentations undoubtedly influence the way in which the artists’ work is received in the future. But their organization also indicates a paradigmatic shift curating strategies that goes beyond these particular exhibitions and there may be good reason why these three artistic careers provide the occasion for this change.

It is entirely appropriate that these exhibitions are taking place at the same time, linked as the artists are, generationally: Rauschenberg born in 1925, Warhol in 1928 and Smith in 1932. Given their slight differences in age, each elder became an obsessed-upon symbol for the younger of what it meant to be a success in the art world—a fact that produced the usual subtle and volatile mix of ambition, resentment, rivalry and influence. This artistically productive mix however ushered in significant cultural changes. Revisiting the period through these artists brings new material into view. Not only are the artists’ uses of film, performance and photography emphasized in these shows, but we also begin to see an unprecedented alliance of art works and extra-artistic artifacts: fan photos, print ephemera, clothing, etc. At times, some of these artifacts seem all too uncannily like relics of the artist, as when Warhol’s clothes or wigs are enshrined in “The Warhol Look.”

Both past production and current presentation undermine categories of high culture. Both consider works of art to be one factor within a generalized visual culture where the borders between high and low, fine and commercial art, are collapsed. Forty years after these artists started working, the principles of their practice begin to influence the way that cultural history is conducted and museum shows are organized.

Thirty years ago the critic and art historian Leo Steinberg proposed that Rauschenberg’s combine paintings from the 1950s initiated what he called the postmodernist “flatbed picture plane.” This procedural torque, by which “the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes,” obliged a consequential “shift from nature to culture” in the forms of content. In other words, the painting was no longer a window that opened onto the world but a tabletop on which to arrange pre-given cultural material. This shift from the perceptual to the cultural is now an organizing principle applicable to exhibitions. Or, at least, the Warhol and Smith exhibitions suggest so. Ironically, this observation cannot be applied to Rauschenberg’s own exhibition. Here the traditional retrospective format is the purely visual analogue of Steinberg’s criteria while Steinberg’s “flatbed” operational processes now organize the Warhol and Smith exhibitions. The discrepancy between these exhibition strategies leads to the questions: Is the traditional format of the Rauschenberg exhibition proof of failure to understand the principles of his work? Should an exhibition reflect such principles in its organization and installation? Can these transposed principles serve as criteria for judging an exhibition? It also suggests that if a shift from a visual mode of thinking to one of operational processes is taking place, it takes time to unfold in different institutions.

This change in our understanding of artistic culture coincides with an institutionalization of underground activity. As its representation enters the mainstream, emphasis is beginning to be put on the artifacts that express underground values. However, the underground is notorious for leaving few traces in the way of works of art. (That Warhol could be so productive is a testimony to his concentration of purpose—his studio was called the Factory, after all.) Yet works of art are only one record of a cultural community. “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965,” as the Whitney Museum called its 1995 summation of a period sensibility, for instance, was a presentation of a material culture that extended far beyond the printed page of the literary community. Beat culture, its title boldly claimed! The installation, however, still found it hard to jive the art to the artifacts since the hooks, photographs of the scene, films, magazines, manuscripts and other print ephemera of the beat artists and writers were both the core of the exhibition and evidence of a gregarious conviviality; and these were much more compelling than the paintings—mostly by fellow travellers rather than true beat exponents.

A complementary trend was evident in the Whitney Museum’s Richard Avedon exhibition of 1994: figures traditionally marginal to the art world, because of celebrity achieved in the commercial arts of fashion or the social world of portraiture, are now being accorded museum treatment. Still, there was little of Avedon’s fashion photography in the exhibition which could have more forcefully pressed the issue of this endorsement of Avedon as artist or the centrality of fashion photography to a vital visual discourse. The popularity of fashion photography today fulfills people’s hunger for images—one that representational painting obliged in the past and that contemporary art apparently cannot. In fact, fashion is the only place in his oeuvre where Avedon, for instance, tells a story. And we are equally attracted to the narrative told in the grungy record of the Factory, presented by its official or unofficial photographers (Billy Name, Stephen Shore, David McCabe, Nat Finkelstein)—as numerous recent publications and exhibitions attest. This fascination is not always in Warhol’s interest. For a “fine” artist who in the early 1960s tried to escape the stigma of his commercial background in order to be taken seriously as an artist, Warhol’s career is now being sacrificed to fashion and portraiture in “The Warhol Look.” (In the macho painting world of the early I960s, Warhol did not worry about his provocative swish persona. In the 1990s, “The Warhol Look” is the revenge of the swish on the cultural system.)
By the mid 1960s, Warhol’s Factory was the gray, itational centre where the worlds of fashion, the under-ground and art met. Fashion is a socially sanctioned theatri-cality that mirrors the under-ground theatricality of a pro,. vocative avant-garde. Today, the art museum wants to usurp that function, at least, in rep-resentation. It issues periodic updates, such as the Whitney’s nomination of Nan Goldin and Keith Haring as exemplary artists at the confluence of art and a downtown scene in the eighties. Art may be the context for reception of fashion, but such museum strategies suggest that fashion is now the model for understanding art.

The ground for the reception of the underground scene and the fashion industry in the museum has been prepared by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Robert Rauschenberg, not only in terms of the contents of their works but also by their privileging of various “flatbed” principles in their art. The latter have extended far from the picture plane through all the experimental modes these artists worked in—film, photography and performance. Initiated by their works of the 1950s, these practices were transformed in the 1960s away from a material base towards theatricalizing roles and now, years later, slowly begin to influence curating.

Robert Rauschenberg has been so widely celebrated for so many decades, his work so well positioned in collections and his place long secure in art history that he seems a prisoner of his own success. In his exhibition, each work is set as a self-enclosed emblem, incarcerated in one of the quasi-panoptical cells of the Guggenheim’s architectural spiral, uncontaminated by other works around it. This additive style of retrospective curating (one work following another) is resolutely denied in the Warhol exhibition. Not a retrospective (a function woefully administered by the Museum of Modern Art in 1989), “The Warhol Look” is not even devoted solely to Warhol’s work. On the contrary, his art plays a minor role in the presentation. Emphasis is on the influence of fashion and glamour on his art and the counter-influence of his art in fashion’s domain. Such an exhibition benefits from an archival source (the vast holdings of the Warhol Museum which is the originator of the exhibition) and assumes as its organizational base a mode of publicity that Warhol himself was all too eager to employ. To say so is only to understand the exhibition succeeding on its own terms, recognizing the centrality of Warhol to our culture and the malleable sign that he has become. He is now, as he was in life, a blank façade on which we can project almost anything. He would be only too happy to encourage this “Warhol effect.” Of Jack Smith, the man who taught Warhol so many of his film strategies and who “lent” him so many of his superstars, the same claim to fame cannot be made. The Jack Smith mystique is as much a result of the tactics Smith used to frustrate his actors and audience as it is of the unavailability of his work—both of which have been detrimental to a consideration of the beauty and richness of his art until now.

Dead two-and-a-half years after Warhol and virtually unknown outside underground film and theatre circles, Jack Smith is the most likely of the three to benefit from the belated exposure. Drawn from the same sort of resources as the Warhol exhibition, but without Warhol’s institutional backing, “Flaming Creature: The Art and Times of Jack Smith” is a first attempt to take Smith beyond the ghetto in which he imprisoned himself. Some may know Smith through the scandal of his censored filmwork, Flaming Creatures. Others may have sought out scattered essays by him (gathered in a complementary volume to the exhibition catalogue, Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool) or read descriptions of his legendary performances held mainly in his loft and documented, for instance, in Stefan Brecht’s Queer Theatre. For all, his early photographic tableaux and his restored film work will be stunning revelations. Without the benefit of Smith’s hand (but would the exhibition then ever have taken place given Smith’s notorious reluctance to share his work for fear of influencing others?), the exhibition producers have been wisely unwilling to separate any part from the whole. Smith was an inveterate tinkerer and he constantly took apart and recycled elements of his work. His unfinished films are, unfortunately, a testimony to this obsession. Some idea of this ongoing recycling is captured in the exhibition in Smith’s collages and photocopy posters for his screenings and performances. But much of the display, which includes costumes for his performances, could be called postmortem collaborations: since the whole that comprises Smith’s work was really enacted by the exacting persona of the artist himself, any current installation is only an approximation. We sense the sad sentiment of rescue when the organizers create a diorama of his loft—an Arabian fantasy considered by some to be his supreme installation work—in one of the galleries at P. S. 1. Procurer to his vision, Smith inducted “slaves” to assist in the making of his installation-like sets; this practice continues after his death, though without his meticulous supervision.

Before she wrote her famous article on camp—no doubt influenced by such attitudes as Smith’s—Susan Sontag called Flaming Creatures a Pop Art film. Steinberg too included most of Pop Art within the catch-all “flatbed picture plane.” As an underlying organizational principle, it thus unites art of different appearances, that of the sad sack fifties and the slick sixties. Similarly, the sensibilities of these three artists, formed of the materials of the fifties, defined the look of the sixties. Though already somewhat disguised by the transition to the reproducible images of Rauschenberg’s and Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of the early 1960s, this formative principle is also obscured by the aura of these artists’ achievements over the decades since, in Rauschenberg’s easy elegance and Warhol’s media manipulations. However restricted Steinberg’s analysis was to painting, the moment he identified now profoundly inflects museum thinking. The image of the countercultural sixties now found in the museum masks the continuing pertinence of the “flatbed” principles of the fifties.

All three artists started in the shadow of a triumphant Abstract Expressionism. Like most younger artists of the 1950s, they participated in an assemblage/happening aesthetic whose material, substance and psychology derived from distressed urban sources. With the glut of refuse from its manufacturing and warehouse districts available for artistic recycling, New York City provided the raw material as well as the haunts for its bohemian underground. Many of these artists made their living in the cross-over field of commercial art where Warhol first made his name. Material differences aside, the dross of Rauschenberg’s combine paintings and the gold leaf of Warhol’s commercial assignments show that the two artists worked the same territory. And, where did the fine line between glamour and trash fall for jack Smith (with his ambitions to be a fashion photographer) when he transformed trash and debased glamour through the lens of art in his photographic and film shoots in the railroad flats of the Lower East Side and the ruined lots of the city? “Glamorize your messes,” his aesthetic advocates. In Smith’s case, this aesthetic could be called “beat camp.”

The first works of Pop Art, such as Warhol’s paintings of crude images lifted from the funny pages or tabloid advertisements, sprang from this complex urban milieu. Yet we continue to think that the classic Pop look mirrored the rapid transformation of American society by the advertising industry and Madison Avenue’s sublimation of the hard facts of production by the soft image of consumption. It does in part: the sullied pigments of Rauschenberg’s 1950s combine paintings metamorphosed into the printer’s prism of pure colours of his 1960s silkscreen paintings that hastily transcribed the new icons of an American imperial age (JFK, army transport helicopters, space shots). At the same time, Warhol captured the supreme product of American society in the iconic aura of Hollywood studio stars Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor. But the deteriorated images of Warhol’s disaster paintings showed the opposite face of the American dream. In an attempt to depict a new world consciousness born under America’s triumvirate oligarchy of capitalism, Hollywood and the mass media, Warhol ruthlessly submitted himself and his viewers simultaneously to the images’ means of commercial manufacture and to their immediate effects. The result is not a pretty picture. We would thus be mistaken if we thought that Pop art cleansed the image of a debased art like so much soap detergent.

Rather than any glorification of America’s values, Warhol’s method was one of redeeming reversal, “I like to be the right thing in the wrong place and the wrong thing in the right place,” he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. If the right place posthumously is the museum, is glamour the wrong thing? What is glamour in the Warhol look? In Warhol’s and Smith’s worlds, glamour is more important than either of the other subtitled terms of “The Warhol Look” (fashion and style). The return of Hollywood glamour in underground film’s camp portrayals makes it an altogether different category than its source. Given Warhol’s predilection for things outside the norm, we should not expect a definition that descends top down from fashion, but rather one that rises bottom up from various subcultures. For all the “trashy” aspects of the installation, glamour is not kitsch elevated by camp. Invoking glamour is an operation on material, typically involving for Warhol some sort of right-wrong reversal. Warhol had another word for glamour’s materials: “leftovers.” Leftovers of the entertainment business especially were recycled at the Factory. If Warhol’s Factory could manufacture products where art mimicked the artifacts of American commercial culture, Campbell soup cans Brillo boxes, it could also make stars. Who needed Hollywood? The Factory would have its own star system and Warhol’s entourage of hard-core refuse—junkies, speed freaks, hoods, hustlers, drag queens and poor little rich girls—would be its raw material. What the Factory was to the Hollywood studio system, Warhol superstar would be to Hollywood stars. However redeemed they were through the film image, though, his performers we still debased by the plot, a humiliation that was thereby shared as well by the Hollywood stars they played.

Warhol’s and Smith’s camp staging of thirties and forties Hollywood film through drag pitches glamour its highest theoretical niveau in the arts. The stars of Hollywood’s golden era were the unapproachable embodiment of the artificial. They, thus, inhabited a mythological system, “Hollywood [being] the mythology Americans have in common,” as noted by Warhol screen-writer Ronald Tavel. In reality, fans are enthralled by a baser Hollywood Babylon, a condition which these film artists all too gleefully manipulate. When Warhol said “Drag queens are reminders that some stars aren’t just like you and me,” he only confirmed the otherworldliness of stardom and dragdom. Moreover, in that drag performs a male masquerade of the female, the biological is superseded by the cultural order of representation in Warhol’s and Smith’s films. As Warhol said, a drag queen is “an imitation woman of what was only a fantasy woman in the first place.” Who would have expected that, through assuming and abusing the image of an American ideal—the Hollywood star—the drag queen would become the embodiment of glamour? The underground star system, thus, parallels other contemporaneous material art practices where refuse was transformed into glittering artifact. Through the category “glamour,” the “flatbed” principle, likewise, finds its highest formulation in gay camp theatricality.

The juxtapositions of fashion to art and photography in the Warhol exhibition—whether Warhol’s leather and jeans S&M gear with the images of the Factory period or the confections of Halston et al with Warhol’s commissioned portraits of the seventies and eighties—may make us think that this categorical equivalency is the most obvious sign of a new collusion between high and popular culture in the museum, and an example of the “flatbed” principle in curatorial action. But, why is the fashion in this exhibition so bad? Was Warhol influential only when fashion was slumming? In fact, his influence is not on fashion per se, but on its representation in advertising and fashion magazine spreads. Now, in its museum context, behind these spectacles of conspicuous consumption, the photograph begins to function in new ways. The museum accommodation of the various guises and genres of photography is really only a sign of the pervasive, yet generally unremarked influence of the medium on curating at present.

The eighties’ ethnographic turn and its critique of museum politics in interpreting, collecting and exhibiting has had a positive bounce in the 1990s as the insights of cultural anthropology are applied to our own society and specifically to a subset within it called the art community. Since we are no dealing with representations of others, but with those of ourselves at an earlier moment, curators feel free to put these images to work. Suddenly, a whole new range of materials has become available for museum exhibitions, though perhaps not yet as acquisitions. Take one section of “The Warhol Look” where Warhol’s large collection of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor fan photographs are hung alongside Warhol’s iconic silkscreen images of these same stars. Are these photographs offered merely as examples of source materials for Warhol’s paintings or does this taxonomic arrangement, which mimics the grid-like installations of conceptual art, create new objects for museum examination? Installation and juxtaposition invest the genres of Hollywood studio portraiture and paparazzi snaps with new-found cultural status.

Installations such as “The Warhol Look” may make us think that curating is becoming a species of exhibition design, with the distance between the two collapsed and traditional safeguards abandoned. Usually, the curator respects the art work and the intentions of the artist by attempting to keep the work true to the sites of its first receptions: that of the studio for the artist and the commercial gallery for the art public. Within the museum, this has meant the perpetuation of a white-cube mentality. Now, the curatorial use of photographs begins to break down these inhibitions. Curators now manipulate photo graphs as if they were objects of intellectual montage—with a freedom we do not extend to ourselves with works of art. So the curators of “The Warhol Look” use the portrait capacity of photography and film, not works of painting or sculpture, to recreate the ambience of the Factory and other Warhol scenes.

Because curators now tell stories by manipulating sequences of extant photographs, they cannot afford to maintain a hierarchy between different practices of photography—between those that have achieved an art status and those, such as various sorts of commercial or journalistic photography, that have not (yet). Merely including these forms of photography within the museum’s purview or presenting them in art-like formats is hardly the ambition. The art scenes and undergrounds that corresponded to our youth are being retrieved and resuscitated through the photograph, not only out of the needs of historical research,

Given that members of the countercultural sixties are now the cultural counters of the nineties (gatekeepers of what gets inside the museum’s precincts and shapers of how its meaning is constructed), we might think that such reversion to photography is a manifestation of baby-boom curators’ nostalgia for the period and popular culture of their youth—photography having captured its essence for them in iconic images. But, whereas in the 1960s, the photograph was an artistic tool for the exposure of subcultural personalities and roles, today, it is both an archive of past scenes and an object of fascination in itself. Our attraction to these photographic images parallels the one set up by Warhol’s and Smith’s works. There, the relation of spectator to image is modelled on that of fan to star. Warhol’s and Smith’s own bonds to the image are exposed in their camp recreation of 1940s and 1930s Hollywood films, which were the films of their childhood and adolescence.

Judging by the caricatures that first greeted the underground in the American mass media in the 1960s, its artists were triumphant in disseminating images of self-fashioning individuality in subversive subcultural roles. Previously, these images of deviancy had been constructed by a normative sociology. Yet the underground was only the vanguard of a culture of theatricality that filtered through art, fashion, music and youth culture, and swept through the mass media into every corner of American society virtually turning the United States into a street theatre. So Leo Steinberg concluded that the shift to the flatbed picture plane was “no more than a symptom of changes which go far beyond the questions of picture planes, or of painting as such. It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories.” The sixties shakeup in society put art criticism on the defensive. Today, cultural critics might fear an infectious theatricality in, of all unlikely places of conservation, the museum.

The 1960s underground did not outlive the theatricality of the era itself. But just as the “flatbed” practices collected in the Rauschenberg, Warhol and Smith works begin to inform the very organization of the shows themselves, so too, might theatricality return in institutional reception. The role of film and performance should be re-enacted somehow curatorally: not as their re-presentation in the museum which would assign some artifactual status to these temporal modes, but as a theatricality in curating itself. That curating is performative we know from the power of its installations to institute histories; but what would a theatrical curating be? A theatrical curating may not have appeared yet. However, as several exhibitions now evidence, there is a keen curatorial interest in the photographic image of performance, whether as a document of an event or as a category of fictionalizing self-presentation.

Today, in our culture of the spectacle, the museum openly acknowledges the greater power of fashion to confer status (which is always essentially myth-making) and so has sought an accommodation with this competitor for attention. Why is the Warhol show taking place now if not in realization of fashion having surpassed art in mass appeal? In the game of names, Versace has more draw than Warhol, even if exhibitions can be made to show art’s greater influence on fashion than vice versa.

Can curating claim for itself a larger cultural function by redefining the materials it examines? If so, it could do what it does best: tell stories of our culture through its images and objects without the need of a text. Such exhibitions would be of the histories we share. Their making, at their most interesting, might be thought of as a type of Curatorial memoir. Just as Jack Smith collaged himself with Hollywood studio stills of Maria Montez flicks, so too this curating would perform within the material it presents. Then, perhaps curating would itself be theatrical.