It's incredibly rare to come across a television station that remains faithful to its roots since its debut. In order to keep up with the times, they'll make drastic changes solely to appeal to the younger generation while alienating the older generation. To use an example, stations like Cartoon Network, which started as a 2/47 channel known for airing all sorts of animation, from classics, to recent releases, to indie, to Anime and giving a platform to rising creators, has become a far cry from its original goal. (That will be a whole other topic on its own). Although change can be good and is also even important, often times stations take these changes a bit too far to keep up with the times. It's as if their predecessors don't matter as much as when they were most active and/or when they were still alive with the abundance works they contributed to our culture. This brings me to Classic Arts Showcase, a channel known for airing clips showcasing the fine arts.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Classic Arts Showcase (CAS) is an American 24-hour channel that hosts a variety of clips based in the classical arts, such as ballet, chamber, animation, musical theater, operatic performances, museum art, etc. The station is non-commercial and runs via satellite. Initially based out in Burbank, California (now Los Angeles) and is still on the air since its launch May 3rd, 1994, CAS continues to carry out its mission. The channel still retains the same format as it did upon its debut, while adding new clips, yet CAS never has to do anything special to keep up with the times to get its message across in order to stay relevant. What is it about the approach that still resonates to this day? To answer that question, I'll start with the organization's founder's early career, the late Lloyd E. Rigler and his vision when he conceived CAS, the reception the channel received over the years and how it measures up today in comparison to stations that fall into the mainstream banner like MTV that have turned away from their roots.
Lloyd Eugene Rigler (May 3rd 1915 - December 7th 2003) was a businessman, who later became a philanthropist. Born in Lehr, North Dakota, his parents owned and ran a general store catered to their local farming community in Wishek, North Dakota where he and his family resided. In his late teens, Rigler moved to live with relatives in Chicago, Illinois and worked to save up for college. He attended the University of Illinois and graduated 1939. Afterwards, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. As a means to support himself, Lloyd Rigler worked for a marketing research agency, conducting interviews. He later worked as a salesman at Decca Records in Los Angles. Initially, Rigler signed up to take part in the U.S. Navy during WWII, but due to poor eyesight from the left eye, he stayed in San Pedro California throughout the war. After the Second World War ended, Rigler met Lawrence E. Deutsch while he was working in the food industry. They became business partners, creating the national brand, Adolph's Meat Tenderizers, (which is owned by Mc.Cormack & Company). After selling their company, the business partners started a venture capital firm, the Ledler Corporation.
After Deutsch's death in 1977, Lloyd Rigler founded the Lloyd E. Rigler - Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. Among Rigler's other philanthropic pursuits include, Joffrey Ballet in the 1980's during its time at the Los Angeles Music Center, the restoration of Egyptian Theatre in the 1990's, founder donor of the Los Angles Music Center, refurbishing of Carnegie Hall, serving as Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors at the New York City Opera and making donations to the Los Angles County Museum of Arts.
With Lloyd Rigler's years of expertise and background in the fine arts as well as decades of capital saved up, it's no surprise he was the founder of an arts channel. So, what inspired the idea to craft Classic Arts Showcase as a 24-hour edutainment clip show? The short answer is Rigler's immense love for the fine arts and the course in which the times were changing.
Rigler took note how most Americans were increasingly becoming less exposed to the fine and performing arts. After decades of tracking tickets sales and observing the increasing amount of empty seats, this proved to be the case that a cultural shift was taking shape. As described on the official CAS website:
"CAS was the vision of Lloyd E. Rigler. It was his lifelong love of the performing arts - and his concern that the majority of Americans are rarely exposed to the world's greatest performances - that inspired this vision. After tracking ticket sales of live performances for decades, Rigler found arts organizations were performing to more empty seats every year, selling fewer tickets and charging more for them. With current audiences aging, and little or no arts exposure in homes and schools to build new audiences, Rigler sought to foster a wider appreciation of classic arts nationwide--through television. He envisioned the creation of a 24-hour non-commercial arts network, designed to bring the classic arts to the widest possible audience".
The format in which Rigler planned to accomplish this goal was by airing a select number of five to seven minute clips to fill eight hours and run them all day long. The line-up would change each week without a fixed schedule. This was similar to that of MTV's original 1981 format. The Founder's Profile states as follows:
"In 1981, MTV began airing short 3- to 5-minute rock music videos in succession, with no schedule and no particular order of play - and millions of viewers tuned in to see what was coming next. Rigler believed this format would be ideal for presenting classic arts performances - one in which viewers could see a wide variety of short performance videos, each of which would be a rare and unexpected gem."
The profile indicates what separates their content from other stations at the time:
"At a time when most offerings on television consist of "reality" shows, grisly crime dramas, sitcoms and "info-tainment," Classic Arts Showcase presents the greatest recorded performances of all time at no cost to the viewer, and with no commercial interruptions".
To this day, Classic Arts Showcase continues with its 'Expect the Unexpected' format. No schedule, "because the beauty of CAS is that you'll never know what to expect". The reason this approach proves to be effective, especially in an era of instant gratification, is that this delayed gratification of coming across an unexpected clip by surprise can easily draw viewers in. I'll get into what prompted MTV's change in format while CAS is still faithful to its original format towards the end, but first, I want to cover the reception CAS received over the years.
The overall reception of Classic Arts Showcase throughout the mid-1990's to the early 2000's truly speaks volumes to how viewers hold the station and its founder with high regards. In 1998, The Kansas City Star television critic, Aaron Barnhart starts his article, Classic Arts Showcase provides a midwinter cable treat, with the following:
"Viewers in upgraded American Cablevision zones may have noticed it already: In the last two weeks, some sort of classical-music video jukebox has taken over Channel 17, the local educational access channel operated by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Classical-music lovers will find it hard not to get roped in by the mix of ballet, operatic singing and instrumental pieces, most of them culled from old film stock or European music videos. Yes, many of the selections are beyond the familiar - Pavarotti singing the "Ave Maria," I Musici belting out a "Four Seasons" suite - but unlike a certain radio station in town, there are no annoying commercials or announcers to disrupt the relaxing ambiance on this TV channel. There's even the occasional vintage film clip from Alfred Hitchcock or Buster Keaton".
Barnhart quotes Jay Francis, Rigler's then assistant for the reasoning behind keeping CAS non-profit. "Mr. Rigler doesn't do any advertising because he doesn't believe in marketing a free product". Tom Brenneman, the founder of UMKC's IVN network and who also programmed for Channels 17 and 18 is also quoted in the article indicating "[t]here are a lot of things that say they're educational but there are lots of advertisements embedded in them , or they're trying to sway your opinion, and I won't put those on", to which he told TVKC. American art critic, Alan Klevit sheds CAS in a positive light in his book, The Art Beat, highlighting that Classic Arts Showcase prompts "habit-forming". Once a viewer catches sight of it, it can be difficult to turn away. From his own viewing experience, he delves into the excitement that he usually is "unwilling to turn the set off, for fear of missing a Buster Keaton vignette, or perhaps Lillian Gish, or Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, or some other classic [he] will treasure" (Klevit pp. 117-19). There's even an article published in The New York Times in 2002 by David Finkle, titled TELEVISION/RADIO; A Video Variety You Won't See on MTV. In the article, Finkle writes about the $26 million check Rigler wrote for the required transporter for the channel's signals to be directed at a satellite, indicating "[t]hat's $26 million Mr. Rigler will not see again. Nor will he recoup the $4 million he spends annually to keep his enterprise going. He figures he's more than $50 million in a hole he's happy to have dug for himself". And from the reception Classic Arts Showcase receives, even from the younger generation of viewers, rightly so. As Finkle continues with one very charming testimony, "[t]he gratification comes, [Rigler] said, from estimates that 10 percent of "Classic Arts Showcase" watchers are college age or younger. One viewer in that group sent a note saying, "I'm 12 years old, and I never knew you could dance on your toes"." Even so, present day CAS has a social media presence on Facebook and is available for streaming on Roku's channel store, as an app on Apple for Apple TV and is even available for streaming on its own website.
When it comes to how the organization updates CAS, (aside from the changes made to the address screen when their headquarters moved from Burbank to Los Angeles), the only updates ever added on CAS are the addition of new clips once they acquire the rights from the respective copyright owners to air them. Other than that, the 'look and feel' of the channel still resembles its 1994 debut, yet is still going strong while MTV (and other mainstream channels) made drastic changes to keep up with the times. Why is that?
The reason I can best describe is something my voice instructor, Brandon Santini once said when he and I were discussing the differences between classical music and mainstream pop. Classic music is consistent, whereas pop is constantly reliant on trends. That's why when you try to compare MTV from its early days to its current trends with Classic Art Showcase drawing inspiration from its original model and sticking to it to this day, you'll immediately notice that there are specific surrounding factors that contribute to how both stations evolved. Because MTV is so mainstream and thus competing with other mainstream platforms, the channel adds other content in order to stay as 'relevant' as possible. Plus there is also YouTube, which offers easy access to the same pop/rock music videos as MTV with just one instant click, tap or swipe to access. People already are familiar with mainstream music by name because it's plastered everywhere, from TV to radio, to internet, to social media, to streaming services, etc. Again, instant gratification with no surprises. Once the trend or pop star is no longer relevant, everyone moves on to, what we call, 'the next big thing'. Classic Arts Showcase's model, despite the early 1980's MTV influence still works today because most people know the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy by growing up with a familiar piece written by these composers, but may not know the full story behind the great masters. Some of us might have heard classical music or references to opera from cartoons like Tom and Jerry, The Smurfs, Loony Tunes or even Ren and Stimpy and Sponge Bob Square Pants to name a few or even seen such references from commercials. Some of us who are old enough to remember the Windows 95 operating system came with a few MIDI files of classical music renditions. Any which way, much of our culture and its lush history is easily embedded in our subconscious mind, so it stayed rooted there. We feel connected to it in some form or another, whether we are aware of it or not. With a seemingly endless library of culture from all walks of life, we feel that connection more than we realize. After all, societies and cultures would cease to exist without their roots and origins. That's why pop culture pays homage to the classic arts.
This would explain why when people stumble across CAS by chance, be it through channel surfing, internet recommendations, in an article or even through an app store, they feel drawn into it. One video after another, one would be so intrigued to see what they might find next. I think it's also the excitement of seeing something some audiences thought might be boring to watch, especially after being so accustomed to something constantly sold to them via easy access in all their waking hours. The new thing ends up becoming the same old routine and monotony. Because the arts are designed to speak to the human condition, they start to organically click with people. Even young children are surprised when they find they liked what they saw more than they expected. The arts even exceed their expectations. An episode of the educational children's series, Arthur titled Lights, Camera...Opera! (with guest star, Rodney Gilfry), covers this topic as well as the popular Nickelodeon Nick Toon, Hey, Arnold!, in the episode What's Opera Arnold?. (It's also important to note that the episode of Hey, Arnold! not only pays homage to the operatic arts, but also pays homage to the 1957 Loony Toons episode, What's Opera, Doc?, which as the title suggests, paid homage to the performing arts. Again, another example of pop culture drawing references to their roots, in this case a more modern animation drawing from the Golden Era of animation, which I plan to cover in a later post).
I'll even briefly add my own story of how I learned about Classic Arts Showcase. While my family and I were staying for the first time at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach in 2010 (the now demolished 1973 building, but nonetheless), I started browsing the television channels. I stopped at VA Beach's educational local channel, 46 or 47 and saw they were playing a music video paired with classical music. I noticed the ARTS logo at the lower right hand corner of the screen. As someone who was in her early 20's at the time, I wasn't really into classical music. I would just study the material for assignments I was given in school, but not something I would go all in for on my own accord. I didn't think CAS was going to stick with me. Lo and behold, I've been a frequent viewer of Classic Arts Showcase ever since then!
Times will always change and with that, trends will continue to evolve. Hence why stations catered to the mainstream will always take drastic steps to stay afloat. When it comes to the arts, Classic Arts Showcase is a unique channel that sticks to the less is more mantra. It all started with Lloyd E. Rigler's lifelong fondness for the arts and thanks to his past experience as businessman and his philanthropic work, he saved up and used that capital to bring his vision to fruition. The efforts well paid off, even long after Rigler's death. While other stations steer from their early roots due to pressures to compete for relevance, CAS retains its timeless lure and continues to draw new viewers in. It's also very refreshing that CAS never needs to over pronounce its educational value. Most audiences don't like to be preached to, so Classic Arts Showcase encourages its viewers to explore the world of the arts naturally and organically and sometimes, that's all it takes. All you need to peak people's interest and entice them to attend an upcoming ballet, spend an afternoon touring their local museum or browse through a collection of classic films from the Silent Era is just a simple approach and mission that will resonate for years to come.
In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
Blending the Traditional with the Modern according to Takashi Murakami. Post MFA Boston Visit Reflections
To say that the art of Takashi Murakami is eccentric is without a doubt a huge understatement. With a fine blend of traditional Japanese art and modern day pop art, Murakami mixes, not only the old and the new, but elements of the high art and the low art in ways that leads spectators to another level of imagination. From October 18th, 2017 to April 1st, 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented an exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, which featured a selection of traditional Japanese art from the museum's own collection and a selection of pieces created by Murakami himself.
At first, it seems like the most unlikely combination one could dream up of, but given the context of the rich history behind the arts of Japan and how it shaped the Japanese pop culture of the 21st century, the meaning behind the art of Murakami becomes clearer. The exhibition, fittingly titled Lineage of Eccentrics showcases the heritage Murakami's art depicts through a display of his own works and which traditional pieces influenced them. On one side, museum visitors will see a piece of traditional Japanese art and next to it, a piece created by Murakami himself that borrows from it, mixed with vibrant colors and his signature cartoon (anime) character art. For example, the 17th century folding screen, Poppies from the School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu is among the featured pieces from the MFA's collection. The materials used to create it consists of gold-leafed paper, ink and color paint. Looking to the wall on the right, viewers would see Murakami's rendition, titled Kawaii - Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) circa 2008, in which one of the materials similarly consists of gold-leafed paper. In contrast to Poppies, the flowers are made with acrylic. Also, the flowers depicted in Poppies are rendered with a slight sense of simplicity, yet more realistically detailed while set in front of a spacious golden background. Murakami's Kawaii - Vacances flowers are arranged in a similar fashion as the ones from Poppies in that they are also in front of a golden spacious backdrop (with clouds behind them in contrast). Unlike the more realistically rendered Poppies, Kawaii - Vacances features flat lined multi-colored anthropomorphic cartoon-like flowers with smiling faces.
So what is it about the collection that makes it so appealing? What possible sort of cultural significance could an art form known for blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer? Why does something 'commercialized' even need to draw from traditional art? For artists who want to learn how to create his/her signature style, Murakami sets a superb example of how to do it. Because he is both a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, he knows how to build from the arts of the past and offer new insights into them with a modern twist. Without drawing from the traditional arts of Japan as a foundation, the response to post WWII Japan would be very disconnected. To delve into specific detail, when taking Murakami's early career into account, it's known that he is a fan of anime and manga. Even so, at one point, he had dreams of working in the animation industry. Although initially he went to school to garner the skills for it, his career focus shifted and thus majored in the art of Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings dating back to 1900), instead. Despite earning his Ph.D, he became disenchanted with the art of Nihonga due to its overtly political nature. As a result, he went on to expand his artistic boundaries. The main set back he could see in modern Japanese art was that there was a major focus on incorporating Western trends, which his 90's projects would satirize, receiving less favorable reviews in Japan. Murakami did however, receive a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 1994 and traveled to New York City as part of a studio program from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was living in the city, he discovered modern Western contemporary artists and became influenced by their works. The works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer stood out the most for Murakami. Upon his return to Japan, Murakami defined his signature artistic practices and showcased his recent works at major exhibitions in Europe and the United States. By establishing a cultural foundation for himself as an artist both in the West and Japan, Murakami could take full control over his work and build his own market.
Once he was already well rooted in the high arts, he started to blend the "low" arts of Japanese subculture such as manga and anime into the mix. Eventually, he coined the term, Superflat in 2000, which is a term to describe the 2D flatness of traditional Japanese art and anime and manga. The term, Superflat also takes on an array of other meanings as well, such as the superficial nature of the consumer culture in Japan. It also represents Japan's post-war society, where according to Murakami, trends and various social classes were geared towards flatness, by which he means that after WWII, tastes regarding what can be defined as 'high' and 'low' art have been blurred. When asked about the over commercialization of today's art market in a 2007 interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Murakami's response is as follows:
"It's always funny when people say this, because it sounds like they don't understand what a "market" is. Isn't it a place to buy and sell? Personally, I think that the more commercialized the art market, the easier it is to understand strategically. I do appreciate all different kinds of art, though; just like I appreciate all different kinds of people. There are some people who compete in the commercial arena and there are some who abide by more personal, spiritual or idealistic guidelines. If done well, both can be equally satisfying".
And when asked if there is a risk involved in 'straddl[ing] between art and commercial products', Murakami replies:
"I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the past-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of "high art." In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay - I'm ready with my hard hat".
To summarize Murakami's statements as well as his experiences throughout his career, whether artists are meeting the criteria of 'high' art or 'low' art, either way, they are all in it to market and sell their works. Regardless of their values represented in their art, all artists are marketing and branding themselves every time they put their work out into the public eye. In either case, if the art the artists are selling display a level of craftsmanship and a solid understanding of stylization, the end results that come of their efforts are truly rewarding. As for the 'straddling' effect, Murakami deftly puts it that in port-War Japan, both 'high' and 'low' art intertwine and receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance. Blending the 'high' and 'low' art in the United States on the other hand, often receives a negative reaction and thus, are seen as separate.
Returning to the question of what possible cultural significance could art blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer and why would commercial art even be drawn from traditional art, it all boils down to a deep rooted connection to one's own heritage and that the commercial world would never have existed without such a rich history. As bizarre as the works of Takashi Murakami tend to be, when given context from the traditional art of Japan, the branded art contains a deeper meaning behind it. Murakami demonstrates that without that connection and understanding of cultural heritage, what is defined as commercial art wouldn't have a platform to stand on. Even so, in order for artists to come up with a signature style, (as discussed in my previous blog post), understanding that lineage is what gives the artist's effort a significance. It is truly quite surprising to see how much of commercialized art came to be as a result of art history and Murakami as both a branded business man and traditional artist proves it best.
With a resurgence of 1980’s and early 1990’s nostalgia, there has been an abundance of art and music that draws inspiration from the decade of excess. From the creative visual and musical artists showcased on New Retro Wave to Indie pop to video games as well as revivals of classic characters and intellectual properties in mainstream popular culture, there’s no doubt that the retro styles of the recent past have their appeal.
Today I will be focusing on one very prominent visual artist of the 1980’s, who’s illustrative works have famously defined the entire decade and has become a major inspiration for some of our contemporary artists. Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) was an America illustrator known for his flat, 2-D art, which were simplistic, yet complex renditions of women. Although his birthplace was in Dayton, Ohio, he lived most of his life in Los Angeles, California. Nagel attended the Chouinard Art Institute after serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He received his bachelor's degree at the California State University, Fullerton in 1969 and began his art career, teaching at the Art Center College of Design while building his value up as a professional illustrator and graphic designer.
In 1971, he worked as a graphic designer for ABC Television and as a freelance artist for other companies and magazines such as IBM, Rolling Stone, MGM and Universal Studios. in 1972. 1976 was the year that would hint at the direction Nagel’s later efforts would take. During that year, he worked on contributions for Playboy magazine, where his work received a wider audience and his signature “Nagel Woman” name.
Aside from Playboy, Patrick Nagel also designed album covers of popular musicians of the time, most notably Duran Daran’s 1982 album, Rio. Other recording artists’ albums included Think It Over (1978) by Cissy Houston, In Touch (1976) by Tommy James, and I’ve Got the Music in Me (1975) by Thelma Houston & Pressure Cooker.
According to the official website of Patrick Nagel regarding his poster art, during the 100 years prior to his time, “poster art has been one of the most humble, influential and pervasive of all the arts.” Unfortunately, it was a dying artform in the United States in the 1970’s as it was losing much of its effectiveness to capture audiences’ attention. Nagel reinvented the art form by displaying something of value to the market that he could offer with his skills:
“[I]n partnership with Mirage Editions and fine art printer Jeff Wasserman, [Nagel] sought to recapture the beauty and power that posters once held in popular culture by returning to a model created at the turn of the century with artists such as Toulouse Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre. They sought to produce the highest quality hand screened art prints that would also serve as collectable advertising art for businesses. Over Nagel’s career, 60 limited edition silk-screened prints were completed and were sold out upon release and Nagel’s iconic women found their way to worldwide recognition.”
Because Nagel showcased rare works that the market could reward, his career proved to be a major success, not only in quality, but also in subject matter. The women depicted in his prints were always known to be “complicated”, creating a rather fascinating ambiguity into her mind. What the Nagel women wants from the viewer is lure their attention towards her. There is a bit of self-importance, yet she’s very reserved. There is also a sense of indifference, yet astuteness and elegance that adds to that ambiguity in her character. There was a reason Nagel retained this vagueness as his official bio adds:
“Nagel often said that he didn’t really want to know these women too well. He imagined them as creatures of the night who drank and smoked too much. Perhaps, but they remain always in control. In the pin-up tradition of women as object, Nagel’s portrayal of them was a break from the past, reflecting the rapidly changing role of women in America. His style evolved subtly along with the times. His women of the seventies are shown as softer, more vulnerable and innocent than his stronger, more self assured women of the eighties.”
Because of the way Nagel portrayed his subject matter, it made his work and their traits memorable. As the Nagel Women continued to take shape throughout his career, he kept increasing their worth in the the art world and market. Even in the fashion and music scene, his works became iconic.
In the years after Patrick Nagel’s death in 1984, his works remain highly regarded worldwide. Zach Kelly’s piece on New Retro Wave covers Nagel’s impact on today’s artists as well as his contemporaries. Examples of such include Comedy Central’s short-lived 2015 adult animated series, Moonbeam City, created by Scott Gairdner (Parental Advisory Warning for language and adult humor). Kelly highlights that “Gairdner encapsulates many facets of the [retro] movement, through a nostalgic Miami-Vice theme, however the distinctive character illustrations and some of the execution of colour is a direct throw to the art of Nagel”. He then describes the album covers of the artists whom are often featured on NRW. ALEX’s 2017 EP, entitled Youth features art by Jacqueline Ruther, Mizucat, which adopts a similar approach to how Nagel portrayed women, while incorporating color and more detail to the woman in the image. The woman featured on Trevor Something’s 2014 release, Trevor Something Does Not Exist, displays a similar art style, by Ariel Zucker (Parental Advisory Warning for gruesome imagery), with the figure’s own elegance and ambiguity blended with more detail. Synthwave musician, SelloRek/LA Dreams pays homage to Nagel with a track, titled Nagel Girl, which Kelly praises how it “matches Nagel’s art well.”
As for Nagel’s contemporaries whom Kelly mentions, such as Carlos Sanchez, Dennis Mukai and Luis Preciado, they each have created works of art, depicting the Nagel-esque woman, while “[adding] their own flavour to the artsphere”. Kelly includes one piece from each artist to illustrate the similarities and contrasts to Nagel’s work. Thrill Me by Carlos Sanchez shows a woman smoking, expressing a similar aloofness to that of the Nagel Women. In contrast to Nagel’s works, however, Sanchez illustrated more detail on the woman’s face and features much like that of the styles of Ruther and Zucker. Dennis Mukai’s Special Friend compares to Nagel’s style by adopting a slightly different, yet similar minimalistic technique in the design, while retaining that sense of elegance seen in Nagel’s posters. Genevieve by Luis Preciado is similar in composition, concept and style. It is distinguishable in its spotty backdrop, making the piece a bit more playful than Nagel’s design.
Without a doubt, Patrick Nagel's short lived career has left major impact for the culture of his time as well as today's creative artists. By reinventing the art of the poster and expressing a unique perspective for his subject matters, Nagel not only created memorable works of art that art lovers would remember him by, but he displayed a tremendous amount of value through his skills that both the market and the art world could reward. When looking back on the traits that made Nagel's art distinctive, it's not just the sense of nostalgia one feels from viewing his work, but the vision and craftsmanship behind them that extends one's appreciation for them.
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of early 20th century art, but from Cubism to the Dada movement to Surrealism, no one can deny the art of the time had a major influence in the art world going forward and into the 21st century. Throughout those years, the definition of what constitutes as art became immensely loose as artists in the late 19th and early 20th century were drifting away from the classical art to the absurd, often being subversive in their pieces. Before World War I, from the Neo-Impressionist works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac to the Post-Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to the Fauvism works of Henri Matisse, leading up to the works of Pablo Picasso, the craftsmanship of the classical art was slowly starting to decline in favor of more free-flowing types of art styles and movements.
Taking place after the first World War began, the Dada movement originated as a reactionary response to, not only the war itself, but to traditional values in art and modern capitalist society as well. The Dada movement as defined according to manraytrust.com, is “[a] European artistic movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity”. With that definition of Dadaism in mind, the movement steered away from the complexities, beauty and logical to the carefree and put forth that anything, - just anything - can be considered ‘art’. Alongside Marcel Duchamp (who infamously signed and dated a urinal, which he titled, Fountain (1917) to emphasize the anything-can-be-art/anti-art mentality), Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were also prominent figures in the movement. After WWI and the start of the 1920’s, the Dada movement was phased out by Surrealism, which evolved from Dadaism and continued to display similar traits and mindsets. While practices of Surrealism also consisted the anti-art mentality of Dadaism, it distinguished itself from the previous movement by putting more emphasis on dreams and the unconscious mind. Amongst the major figures in the Surrealist movement were Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Breton was a Surrealist writer and poet and was known as the founder of the movement. Dali was a painter, illustrator and sculptor. Ernst was also known for his paintings and sculptures and Magritte was also a painter. While the main figures of the Surrealist movement were, no doubt influential, the works of Man Ray set fourth new, innovative ways to depict such absurdities and illusions to the art movement, not only through photography, but via the art of photogram (camera-less photography).
Although the art of photogram had existed decades prior to Man Ray’s time, Man Ray used the medium to his advantage to display his signature dream-like illusions. Referred to as rayographs, Man Ray’s subjects consisted of everyday items and would utilize his composition in rather peculiar and imaginative ways. Take for example, a pair of scissors, a nail filer and a strip of film and those ordinary objects would be arranged to depict a surreal, image that looked like it was derived from a dream.
Other photographic techniques Man Ray was known for was the thick black lining of the people he photographed. At first glance, it appeared that he used ink on the images, when in reality, he created this technique via solarization. In a translated interview from the documentary, The Adventure of Photography from Kultur Video, Man Ray stated it was “a method of re exposing a print to light during the development stage to produce unearthly pictures of people with mysterious halos” and that it was “a matter of luck” at first. Eventually it became a repeated process and after several experiments, he refined the technique that it became old hat.
While the Surrealist movement may have been primarily a literary one, and paintings and sculptures were also other predominant forms of media used to depict this bizarre art style, the influence of Man Ray’s photography is important to note when delving into the history of the movement. As other artists of the period were known for their roles in influencing Surrealism through such art forms, Man Ray was a main driving force for photography in which he brought something truly unique to the table. With his outlandish approaches to camera less photography and his quirky techniques he developed using the camera, there’s no denying Man Ray was also of a creative and innovative mind in his medium. Whether the viewer deems it art or ‘anti-art’, the craftsmanship behind Man Ray’s works merits its place in art history.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.