The Pictures Generation

I Hate My Generation

I hate my generation, I offer no apologiesI hate my generation, yeah–Cracker

My recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “The Pictures Generation, 1974-84" made this song, from 1996, leap to mind. Interestingly, in her review of the show for the Village Voice, Martha Schwendener bookended her take on the show with two generational markers: a comment from a seventy-something viewer (‘I have no appreciation for this’) and an anecdote by Robert Longo (one of the artists in the show) in which a 15-year-old asked if he got the idea for his Men in the Cities drawings from an iPod ad. Schwendener uses these bookends to talk about how art is generational, marked by what’s in the air at a given time; art can be distanced from us by the convictions we’ve spent a lifetime acquiring (the seventy-year-old), or as immediate as our own ignorance (the 15-year-old).

I appropriate Schwendener’s opening as my opening because I’m supposedly ‘of’ the ‘generation’ being represented in this show. Which is to say that the artists represented, born from the mid-40s to the mid-50s for the most part, are from fifteen to five years older than I am. In 1977, when the Pictures show was up at Artists Space, that seminal event from which this exhibit, curated by Douglas Eklund, takes its name, I graduated from high school. So these artists are my elders in the way that older siblings and such can be: which is to say: annoying in their know-it-all cool, their endgame of art as no longer having ‘aesthetic’ quality, no longer being something specifically made as an ‘art object,’ but rather something concocted from images and existing only as commentary on the ubiquity of image, both as something we look at everywhere, as spectators and voyeurs, and as something that shows us ourselves, as reflection and simulacrum.

This, as almost every commentator on the show has underscored, is the first generation to come of age with TVs in the home. And that, we’re made to think, has made all the difference. Though why television should spell the death of the aesthetic object is another one of those mysterious givens of art history, as for instance when it became clear, to use Wallace Stevens line, that ‘it must be abstract.’ We can rehearse the reasons why -- point to Abstraction, point to Conceptualism and Minimalism, point to Pop Art -- and then sum up why the only self-respecting response to the ubiquity of Madison Avenue, as the moneyed little brat it is, is: to appropriate it, thus making images of its images. Only this time with irony.

Fine. I can accept that. It was 1977, after all. Disco . . . Punk . . . New Wave, you get the idea. And, what’s worse, these people were all recently in art school. Let them have fun, let it rip . . . never mind the bollocks. But howevermuch one might have been sympathetic to the stance at the time, something rankles when these brittle disquistions on the staging of objecthood and send-ups of the mechanisms of attention, generally known as The Tube, get appropriated by The Museum and then hoisted onto walls where formerly masters of their medium had hung.

Is there a sense in which these artists -- Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, David Salle, Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, to name but a few -- are masters? Yes, if we mean ‘masters of an idiom,’ ‘masters of manipulation,’ for how else explain the manner by which these largely ephemeral works have become ‘permanent’ as art objects? Where once these artists might have protested The Tube’s appropriation of virtually every image, The Artworld’s appropriation of every possible style, The Museum’s appropriation of every ‘aesthetic object’ so-called (da Vinci to Duchamp, etc.), offering their appropriations as flick-offs of the Pop Art/Minimalist aesthetic that, to quote Saint Andy, was all surface or mere object, they have now, via this show, appropriated The Museum, appropriately enough. Because this day had to come. But as with the idea of exhibits in The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, I can’t help feeling that everything about the art that gave it charm and brio has become a casualty of its enshrinement.

And what’s maybe even worse than that is the fact that the note-cards in the show play back to us the tired tale of epic struggle, not against the Artworld, or even against the bourgeoisie, but against The Image, and yet one is left wondering in whose name such struggle takes place. If it’s artist decrying advertising, such an idea is not new at the time and certainly not accurate to the world of the artist after Pop Art; if it’s the more thinky pleasure of deconstructing the Image, it’s not clear who can really receive this message. For there’s no evidence, in all this surfacedom, that anyone here can think outside the Image or that they would want to. When Sherrie Levine takes pictures of Walker Evans pictures she trades on the fact that those photographs are already known images. And her images of those photos become objects, but objects whose only purpose is the ancillary role of objectifying imagehood. When we watch clips of the TV show Wonder Woman we might hear an internal voice asking us: why was this televised, what does it say about the medium, and about the advertisers who aired to support it, and about those who tuned in -- or at least we might in an exhibit cataloguing eras of broadcast television -- but the question I ask myself here is what makes this objectification of an Image salient, provocative ... enduring?

The big gun of the show, we’re told by everyone, including Barry Schwabsky, whose critical take on the show for The Nation I’m mostly in agreement with, is Cindy Sherman, and it’s true that, in rooms of forgettable stuff, her images of herself as ‘forgotten film stills’ are already ‘unforgettable.’ But is that because they really do look like images of movies we may have seen once upon a time, or is it because we have seen these images before -- in the aggrandizing use of Sherman as the poster child of self-exploitative manipulation of gender signals in which every ‘look’ is aimed to see/show a cliché? Striking as these photographs might have been in their day, they now seem already to be like Walker Evans’ photos chez Levine, now objectified by the curatorial effort to tell a story in which the Image of the object (here ‘woman,’ the great absent signifié) reigns. And Sherman’s sad one-shot psychodramas are the best way to ‘reflect’ that.

The reason the seventy-year-old has no appreciation for this, we may say, is because a good part of her life was lived before The Tube changed forever the meanings of looking and watching and being seen ... enviable woman, she existed before The Image was everything. But the reason I have no appreciation for this is that I don’t see why The Museum has to capitulate to The Tube, nor why my looking at things and beings (odd that I should think such may be found in the world I live in, independent of images of them) has to be inflected by ersatz renderings of more commercial mediums (TV, magazine ads, pop music) for the sake of art history, and po-mo art history at that. For if the grand narrative was already kaput when this stuff first surfaced -- and these artists were cool with that in their glib image-happy heyday -- then the deflating irony comes in when we realize that, without those art-critic gestures to the narratives of Pop Art and Objectivism, these particular images mean -- to borrow another line from a song -- less than zero