BY Jan Kedves in Opinion | 15 AUG 13
Featured in
Issue 11

Let Them Eat Cake

Why have art collaborations become so annoying?

BY Jan Kedves in Opinion | 15 AUG 13

Not again! That was my immediate reaction when Lady Gaga recently unveiled plans to mark the November release of her new album Artpop with an ‘artRave’ featuring artists including Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic´. The latter seems to be the must-have artist of the moment for pop stars. She was also ‘present’ in July when Jay Z performed his track Picasso Baby for six hours at New York’s Pace Gallery. The artist stood close to the rapper on a low platform, rubbing her forehead a little against his while the audience cheered. Later, Abramovic´ said into the camera that it was ‘super challenging’ and ‘wonderful to cross the borders’ between music and art. Exactly what Gaga and Abramovic´ are planning for November is not yet clear – the announcement reveals only that it will be about ‘aura’ and ‘icons’ and that Gaga will pass ‘through the mediums of each artist she collaborates with’. But one thing is certain: we are living in a time when artists are often asked to lend their lustre to others, to let it rub off on them, and the artists are happy to oblige. But we have already reached the stage where announcements of such actions, rather than sparking interest, are more likely to draw groans of exasperation.

Why is that? It can’t just be because such collaborations are publicity events designed to give both parties a mutual upgrade: the artist shifts the pop star into the white cube context, with its promise of exclusivity and prestige, while the pop star introduces the artist to his or her fans, broadening the artist’s reach. If that were all, then one could ignore such events without being annoyed by them. The frustrating part lies in the redundant claim that something more is going on here. In most cases, there are murmured references to a meeting of ‘different worlds’, as if this alone guaranteed aesthetically groundbreaking content. The results of Lady Gaga’s artRave remain to be seen, but Jay Z’s YouTube channel suggests where such an action might lead: to a short film like Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film, which as a music video is boring and as performance art little more than a more up-beat, less reverential, lightweight version of Abramovic´’s usual stamina art. In his New Yorker blog, Sasha Frere-Jones glibly suggested that instead of staging a battle with Abramovic´ at Pace Gallery, Jay Z could have re-enacted the showdown between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. At least it would have made for something more interesting.

In the German-speaking world, few comparable actions have taken place to date. Why? Do the artists and pop stars of corresponding calibre lack the necessary self-indulgence? Of course not: Bushido and Jonathan Meese would be perfect candidates. Although Meese – currently fighting a court case for his right to use the Hitler salute as art – is usually polite enough to refrain from tirades against specific individuals, the Tunisian-German gangster rapper would complement him beautifully in this respect: in his lyrics, Bushido heaps such hatred upon social democrats, greens and gays so as to be barely distinguishable from a neo-Nazi. If Meese and Bushido joined forces for a performance on the theme of ‘megalomania’, broadsheet art critics would go ballistic.

What the German-speaking world has seen in recent times is collaboration between art and fashion. The ribbed underwear brand Schiesser, for example, persuaded artists including Monica Bonvicini, Tobias Rehberger, Pola Sieverding and Thomas Zipp to transform white undershirts into artworks. The results – available as limited editions – simply put, look bad (with the exception of design by Marc Brandenburg who cunningly conjured up a spooky children’s striped shirt in his signature black-and-white pencil style). As for the others, it is hard to imagine more than ten minutes work going into them. Nonetheless, there was some brazen puffery from the PR department: ‘Art and fashion – playfully skipping over the past and the present to show us the future.’

In Der Spiegel ’s 2010 profile of Abramovic´, she is quoted as saying: ‘The best baker in town bakes very fancy, very good cakes. As long as he does this in his bakery, he is just a very good baker. But if he does it in a museum with an intention that goes beyond baking cakes, he is an artist.’ The bakery, here, is entirely interchangeable with the underwear factory or the record company. But the precise nature of the ‘intention’ must be kept in the dark – it would come off as diresputable to openly state that it is purely a matter of boosting fame and glamour. And precisely this beating around the bush is what grates. Abramovic´’s claim also highlights the fact that ‘crossover’ actions like those with Jay Z or Lady Gaga can only work if everyone pretends that the dividing line between bakery and museum that must now be crossed is a new discovery. In other words: the divisiveness of the border must be continually emphasized so that when it is crossed, one can say: ‘Whoa!’ And what could be more obvious?

An acquaintance of mine, following Wittgenstein, recently posted on Facebook: ‘first rule of criticism in the cultural industry: that which one seeks not to promote, thereof one must be silent.’ Whenever another art rave or artist’s undershirt is announced, this sounds like a tempting option. But instead of remaining silent, one must do the opposite: criticize.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Kedves is a writer, editor and author of Talking Fashion. From Nick Knight to Raf Simons in Their Own Words (Prestel, 2013). He is based in Berlin.