Is LowBrow Art Just A Fad?

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, defines lowbrow art as follows:

Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s. Lowbrow is a widespread populist art movement with origins in the underground comix world, punk music, hot-rod street culture, and other California subcultures. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism.

The majority of lowbrow artworks are paintings; there are also toys (vinyl and plush), and sculptures.

The definition goes on to discuss the first artists to create what came to be known as 'lowbrow' art, magazines in the genre (the most famous being Juxtapoz, whose editor, Robert Williams, claims to have coined the name "lowbrow"), and 'alternative' galleries that carry these types of works.

Just so you know to whose work I am referring, some of the most well-known of these artists are: SHAG (Josh Agle), Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Todd Schorr, Elizabeth McGrath, Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman, Gary Taxali, Anthony Ausgang, Camille Rose Garcia, Joe Sorren, Tara McPherson and Raymond Pettibon.

The Wikipedia definition goes on to historically compare the Lowbrow artists to the Dadaists.

This is where they lose me.

Now, I really enjoy looking at their works, even own a few of their books. I am entertained by their not so subtle interpretation of pop culture and their 'jabs' at historic art. I even enjoy seeing how 'creepy and offensive' some of them can get.

But since when are illustrations, comic books, tattoos and graffiti considered an art movement?

Art, yes. Movement? Nah.

Comparing Shag to Marcel Duchamp makes me cringe.

Okay, so the first time Marcel Duchamp penned R. Mutt on a urinal and called it a "Fountain", the art world was aghast at what he considered art. But he was the first (the first) to take an everyday object and ascribe some ironic meaning to it.

Jeff Koons, a well respected contemporary artist, merely did the same years later and his work has recently been rapidly declining in value. You may recall the white porcelain puppy planters or blue balloon dogs on plates that appear in online auctions weekly.

Even Nara and Murakami (two asian artists whose work treads the fine line between 'fine art' and lowbrow' art and are referred to as Neo-Pop Japanese art) have also declined in value.

Just take a look at the chart below. It is January 2007 data from artprice on auction and sales values in the art world.

So, as I was saying before I got off on an art tangent there, Did Shag have the same impact on society that Marcel Duchamp did?

To compare some fun retro cocktail party scenes or cute tiki illustrations and altoid tins to Man Ray's Photographs or Duchamp's urinal is not only a stretch, it's a disservice to the fine art world.

Nowhere in the Wikipedia definition do the words goth, creepy, alien, retro or macabre appear, yet you can ascribe most of these adjectives to the work in this genre.

Yes, I'd pay a lot of money for an original Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud painting (similarly described as macabre, goth, creepy...even disturbing) but probably not for an original Mark Ryden. And that's not because Mr. Bacon is dead and Mr. Ryden is alive and kicking, but because, to me, Francis Bacon is an artist and Mark Ryden is an illustrator. Albeit an excellent illustrator. The difference between their work however is not merely because of the style or medium in which they work, but it's because of their originality, conceptuality and the emotion evoked by their works. Bacon's work is open to interpretation, multiple manifestations of theory and conjecture, whereas what you see is what you get with Ryden's work. One can look at Bacon's paintings and see something different every time, not so much with Ryden's.

Please understand me, I believe the aforementioned lowbrow artists are talented. I think their works are amusing at the very least and valid expressions of culture and society at the very most. I'd happily buy Shag's cocktail party invites to mail out or wear a Nara T-shirt. I hope these artists make money. I believe they work hard and have great talent. But is it art or a fad?

Over 15 years ago, I hired Gary Baseman to do some illustrations for a piece for Dayrunner (the organizational agenda company) and he did an excellent job. I picked him after looking through what was then the bible for art directors to find illustrators (the blackbook). But would I have considered going to a show of his works? Probably not.

I do believe that those people who plopped down 2500$ for a Shag lithograph 5 years ago, couldn't sell it on ebay for even half that today.

To whom exactly does low-brow art appeal? It's not like you can equate lowbrow with low cost anymore. Many of these artists sell pieces of their work for thousands of dollars. But will the value of these pieces increase?

According to market indeces and art world trends, the answer is no. I am not privy to Juxtapoz Magazines' circulation numbers or Shag's personal income, but I bet it's not climbing steadily.

So, before you 'invest' in a piece of lowbrow art, I have two words for you: Patrick Nagel.


Ash said...

Hell yes!

I live in East Atlanta, which has a booming lowbrow art scene and it's just so much junk! I'm glad to find a reasoned, calm refutation of the lowbrow fad. I hadn't thought of using the word "fad" but it's right on the money. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of what you are saying, especially about lowbrow being a fad. However one thing strikes me as being very odd about what you said. You say the likes of Mark Ryden are illustrators, not artists. Yet he paints in a style similar to the old masters (not in subject, but rather in technique). So was Leonardo Da Vinci also not an artist? What about nearly every single painting from the baroque period? As for Francis Bacon and Marcel Duchamp, I personally would not spend a cent of either of their artworks. What on earth would I do with a urinal with R Mutt written on it or an ugly painting of a figure with meat?

Phil Wiltzius said...

I wouldn't devalue lowbrow artists based on the amount of money their art is worth. I would say the rich people buying into lowbrow art is fad, whereas the movement itself has nothing to do with money.

For example, many lowbrow artists did much of their work with little appreciation from the greater art world, and were in fact snubbed for quite a long time. Regardless of acceptance into the greater art community, I definitely see distinct styles and themes that make lowbrow art a movement.

While I think lowbrow art has some roots in Dadaism by it's focus against popular culture and art, I think there is a big difference between the two. I don't think you can hold the two up to a light and compare them fairly, because they are distinctly different in my eyes.

Call it a fad if you want, but appreciate it for its roots and its meaning and not for the commercialism that has been wrapped around it.

Denise Ross said...

I agree with the above poster (Phil Wiltzius). All too often art is viewed as what is marketable or popular. At the moment I see fine art galleries in my area closing their doors and etsy sellers thriving.
At this point I think some of the original Dadaists would be thrilled with the prospect that art has become a parody of itself because anyone can make art, copy art forms and then sell it to anyone willing to buy it. Art has become a conversation piece for the masses and not only for bourgeois yuppies.
Many artists have their 15 minutes and then fade into obscurity. More than a few of the old masters died poor. Real art (of all classifications and even those without) will continue to evolve because real artists NEED to create something regardless of popularity or marketability.

C'mon people, it's only a dollar.