The power of the banal

Is the only difference between art and commerce that of glamour and replicability?

Published : Feb 22, 2024 00:55 IST - 6 MINS READ

Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol

Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol | Photo Credit: Source:

Pushed out of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC), where a lazy afternoon was spent walking through the three-storey (four storeys really, but the fourth is sort of folded into the third’s high ceiling, dangling in the skies) exhibition on pop art, “Pop: Fame, Love, Power”, we stood outside in the heat, waiting for an autorickshaw.

The last floor—the fourth, but really the third—was still playing in my mind. It was Warhol’s Silver Clouds, created in 1966, a “touch-friendly, immersive installation” with silver balloons made of metallic scotchpak, filled with air and pure helium, with fans placed around the edge of the room, the “clouds” circulating like aluminium streams, the security personnel dislodging “clouds” that comfortably snuck into a corner of the room untouched by the wind, un-circulating. You stand in the centre of the room—or sit, as we did—and watch these strange reflections of you on these balloons passing by. Outside, as we waited in the heat, a clear, ballooned plastic bag flew towards us and tangled itself in my friend’s feet until a stronger wind blew, and it disappeared into the city. Like a silver cloud escaped. Like the footpath, for that second, turned into a gallery space.

The pop art genre

The writer Joan Acocella, when speaking of Andy Warhol’s art—Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo cartons, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy—speaks of the “power of the banal” that he unleashed, congealing into the pop art genre, making the American public in the 1960s unlearn spectatorship, to look at art and discern it differently, unsteadying their conceptions of what art could be, forget whether it was good or bad, rigorous or slapdash.

To stand in front of a thing—a photograph or a painting or a painting as photograph, as Warhol provocated—and posture, how is this art? To then look at its value in the market and wonder, how is this art worth this much? This, too, is art. This, too, has value. Deal with it. It is a brash posture, aggressively reactionary, seductively lively, scathingly democratic, something almost carnal about its pouty, agitated irreverence, what the critic Peter Schjeldahl called Warhol’s “reduction of art’s once sacred aura to a cult of the obvious”.

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For me, Warhol, and the cult of pop art, asked a fundamentally difficult question: is the only difference between art and commerce that of glamour and replicability? It is strange to be in the presence of pop art because it can feel both powerful and vacuous, both a provocation and a concession, an ironic statement against and an unironic deference towards commerce. It is ideologically empty, as is anything that draws its force from the market.

“It is strange to be in the presence of pop art because it can feel both powerful and vacuous, both a provocation and a concession, an ironic statement against and an unironic deference towards commerce.”

The thrust of pop art was to take life and elevate it to art; or perhaps higher—or lower—to commerce, not just by straining your gaze towards it, with intention, but by stylising it—in saturation, in silhouette, in dollar bills. It had a winking levity that was missing in the sincerity of both the curation and the writing around the curation, the thematic reductions into the banal—“fame”, “love”, and “power”—instead of revelling in the fantasmal, the strange, the decadent, the depraved, ideas from which the genre of pop art emerged. That is the thing about canon, you can only touch it with museum gloves, carefully.

It is only with the silver clouds that the gloves come off, are encouraged to come off, to gently touch—gently, only, we were warned by the guards, as a friend excitedly kicked one of the clouds on entering the room. Here, the question further unsteadies, when you are invited to participate with the art, the art is being made constantly, with each new interaction imprinting its own memory, its own body in the space, as small dents on the clouds that smooth out.

Last year, at the NMACC, the Toilet Paper’s “immersive” exhibit “Run As Slow As You Can”, ushered a similar, silly possibility of art being not what you see but what you make of it by interacting with it. The exhibit you see as loam out of which you sculpt art by becoming one with it. The surreal, absurd, strange images offered prompt you to pose against them. The pool of plastic bananas was not the art, but you playing dead in it was, perhaps. Each group got one minute to frolic in it, and then off you go. The bedrooms with strange furniture and claustrophobically detailed prints were not the art, but they were invocations to press yourself up against the prints, to sit on the bed, pose, make art against what they provided. To not pay attention to it but to become the object of attention.

Here, we are seeing a new way of interfacing with art, turning a gallery space into a photography studio, to not foreground but background art, foregrounding, instead, the spectator, where what we traditionally consider “art” is actually the canvas. This is a strange new direction in not just art-making but in art spectatorship.

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When the movement from realism towards impressionism, and later, cubism and abstraction, was taking place, what was at stake was the role of material, how an artist wields it, and what a spectator demands from it—the replication of realism, moving towards an emotional approximation of it, towards a complete renunciation of realism. If pop art came from the embrace of mass culture, the flinging of mass culture into the stratosphere in our post-capitalist world, where attention has been monetised, requires a new genre, and this new form of being, of seeing is, perhaps, that.

In all of those movements, the art was always seen as separate from the spectator. The spectator makes of art; now, the spectator makes art. The terms of engagement have, thus, changed. How do you critique something that requires you to participate in it in order to be considered complete? How to see yourself from a distance?

I suppose it also brings up the testy issue of “value”. What can be the worth of these new works of ephemera we create on the go? Some, but never too many, likes on Instagram, 15 minutes of attention, until it rots in the archive of our home page. A life cycle that fits the art form, perhaps? To flicker and die out. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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