The Theory of Lowbrow/Lowbrow as Theory:Some Speculations on Art Forum, Juxtapoz, HiBrow, LoBrow, and Camille Rose Garcia

by on Apr.01, 2011

I just wanted to add a few words to the lowbrow debate which is going on around Josef Horacek’s post. The point has been raised that lowbrow needs (more) theory, and/or needs critical distance. I think there is theory all over lowbrow. I think lowbrow is a theory.

The Theory of Lowbrow 1: Its NAME is its theory. Its name takes a term and uses it to mark off an intellectual, political, asthetic space. That’s a theory, and that’s theory. It’s just not the same ‘theory’ as is deployed with evident expertise in the pages of Artforum , which journal I subscribe to and love; I like its decadently luxurious production values and both its world-weariness and its piquant enthusiasms, which is like hearing Sophia Coppola describe her favorite colors or sandwiches on the set of Marie Antoinette in a lengthy New York Times Sunday Magazine profile in, like, 2006. Or this improbable, deliciously staged ad for Louis Vuitton, in which Coppola pere and fille are in drag as themselves (and have to drag themselves around on the ground by their elbows or prop themselves up with portable directors’ chairs?)

I love how Artforum comes to my house with a bored expression on its face, as if it were its own expensive purse. In Artforum theory is like the credit card decal on the door to the boutique; you implicitly pass by it, you register it whether you recognize it or not; and your little groomed magnetic credit card strip perks up a little bit between the thighs of your wallet.

But I digress. And also I buy Juxtapoz off the news-stand when I am in the campus bookstore. That may be the difference between Artforum and Juxtapoz. One you buy when you’re out in the world doing something; you consume it. One shows up at the house in drag as itself and drags itself in for a snarky chat. Both are great.
But I digress.

The Theory of Lowbrow 2: The ideal artist is a graffiti artist. Yes, this is a theory. If Baudelaire could write permanent art theory on the topic of cosmetics, fashion plates, dandies, the painter of modern life, some guy hardly no one cares about except in regards to Baudelaire, then we can invert this and see Lowbrow as a visual and aesthetic theory developed around the graffiti artist. The attributes this artist embodies are 1)quickness of execution 2)impetuousity = virtuosity 3)improvisation 4)interacts with real places and points in time (i.e. loyalty to certain cities, nostalgia for certain points in time 5)mild to moderate criminality 6)Often non-traditional training or learning disability which identifies a kind of criminal school of art running under or in beneath conventional schooling or training. Learning from one’s peers.7)The Lowbrow artist is a geek and a loser, among losers.

That’s David Choe.

The Theory of Lowbrow 3: Letter as Line. Because the ideal artist is a graffiti artist (whose motions in space might be mimicked by a guitarist, DJ, surfer, or skateboarder, doodler in detention, doodling babysitter, Raymond Pettibon) the art is almost always painterly and/or calligraphic and/or cartoonish. It makes you think the word, not writing, but ‘lettering’. It treats lettering visually, lettering as line with a dynamic visual energy quite apart from its semantics.

The Theory of Lowbrow 4: City Space is Political Space. Because the ideal artist is a graffiti artist, there’s a sense of speed and of intervening with a moment in a city’s life. This is political. It often involves an identification with coastal cities of California. Under the paving stones the beach, yes? The graffiti artist sees the beach under the vertical concrete embankments of the cities. Moreover the graffiti artist and the Lowbrow artist moves through the city in a non-linear manner, like a rat.

The Theory of Lowbrow 5: Consumerism as Anti-Consumerism.
Because the ideal artist is the graffiti artist, the Lowbrow artist works in dispersed format; his work is like a tag. It produces multiples: t-shirts, hats, sneakers, skateboards, pullouts, stickers, as well as art books, prints, sculptures. It draws from logos and advertising culture as well as other massproduced visual formats like comics, calendars, takeout menus, and highly personalized disparaged art forms like doodling (art as a record of boredom). The work of the Lowbrow artist enters the consumerist field as an anti-consumerist poison, but it cannot leave the consumer sphere; it has to function within it as a marked, mutant anti-productive subculture. (The much bemoaned sexual ‘immaturity’ of this art, its homage to childish imagism and its permanent adolescent vibe, is a commitment to non-productive citizenship, its rejection of the reproductive future as well as a future in the canon.) Lowbrow art functions within consumerism, it captures its drippings, it clots it up.

The Theory of Lowbrow 6: Environmentalism, Anticorporatism, and the Drip. Some Lowbrow combines a calligraphic attention to line with a general visual drippiness, the drippiness of the spray paint can. This is evident even in artists who do not work in a graffiti idiom, like Camille Rose Garcia, and its an artificial presence of media that reminds me of the work of both Kara Walker and Chris Ofili.

Camille Rose Garcia, The Sleepwitch, from the series Ambien Somnambulants

drippy environment/alism of Kara Walker

Ornate and drippy; Chris Ofili. Those buzzing bees are asses cut out of porn plus the trademark elephant dung. This is the painting made Guiliani lose his mind, where terrorists couldn't.

This drippiness is the ‘fat’ of Lowbrow, the bad news which is the inverse of the good news capitalism is constantly selling us, the oil dripping sea birds and poisoned fetuses and catastrophic nuclear plants. I think Lowbrow is implicitly concerned with the environment, filling up its own frame, overproducing itself, or withdrawing to strange placement and tiny figures like tiny doomed mutant lifeforms which nevertheless persist, again in the urban embankments and suburban storm drains, as a kind of subnature. At the same time, the narrativeness of Garcia’s lowbrow art, its horizontalness and verticalness, is itself a kind of ecological or environmental theory: everything in this artworld is a poison, and a victim of poisoning, and stays in the system to poison others. Nothing can leave the system, which is why everything becomes a poison to the system. Also this persistent, buzzing, drippy quality may be called ‘ornamentation’.

The Theory of Lowbrow 7: There is no normal or represntative body. Lowbrow takes the distortions of the human form (yes, usually the female form) from marketing, advertising, cartoons, and porn and tatoo art and exagerates these to something that is hyper-erotic, hyper-cute, hyper-mutant, calligraphic, unreal, sickly, and/or doomed. This is also an environmental theory. The body is doomed, even the hyper-engineered body.

From Lady Boy by Judith Supine

Conclusions so far: I like Lowbrow because it is non-Utopian while at the same time re-fashioning the world in a complete and cross-referential aesthetic vocabulary which to me is plainly political. Lowbrow’s theory is absorbed into its imagery, into its sameness, and into its divisions and diversions, into the way each artist creates a brand that is also a defective brand, branding and branding and branding its defective world, stamping its products like a demented assembly line inspector. But Lowbrow is a product that cannot be recalled. Lowbrow accumulates around cities and artist-celebrities and then disperses itself into trashy sneakers and t-shirts and further disperses itself electronically. Lowbrow does not believe we can break out of this ecology or this economy. That’s why it’s doomed to the ‘lower’ regions, and why it thrives there.

13 comments for this entry:
  1. A Post of Links « Prodigies & Monsters

    […] at Montevidayo, Joyelle McSweeney has a post up on The Theory of Lowbrow. It is a great post, but I wonder about it’s ‘non-Utopian’ status and why this is […]

  2. Ryan Sanford Smith

    David Choe is GOD. That’s all I really have to say on this brilliant subject.

    I guess I’d add I adore street art, and it’s probably the only art about which I accept the cliche that all art is political, because it obviously is at least tangentially due to legality issues.

  3. Johannes

    I think one key – called attention to with its name, like you note – is that lowbrow art is an embrace of kitsch.

    Now, I know that the high art work supposedly embraced kitsch – in the form of massproduced items and such – in the 1990s, and in lowbrow there is, as you say, an engagement with mass culture too.

    But there’s another element of kitsch and that is an embrace of aesthetics that became kitsch with conceputal and minimalist art. For example, lowbrow embraces the retinal (or even ultra-retinal), it embraces “the hand” of the artist over the anti-kitsch rhetoric of “the hand” (the painter’s hand, the “expressive” hand).(True you can see that return in a lot of contemporary art, but that’s another post.) As I noted in my response to Josef below: thisi s not art in need of critical distance, it is art based on saturation, engulfing. Camille Rose Garcia’s art is overwhelming – like “the yellow wallpaper” is creates a total embrace, it’s obsessively retinal. Once you start looking (/reading) you can’t tear yourself away.

    And it finds its modernism not just in tattoo art and graffiti, but also in anachronistic modernism – Beardsley, Egon Shiele, Klimt the kind of figures Josef talked about a while back. And also of course surrealism, but the “bad” kind of surrealism, the dorm-room surrealism – Dali for example. Or B-movies. Or Gothic reveries. Thus “pop surrealism.” Tattoo, ornament – these terms already suggests a kind of environment, art that surrounds and infects.

    Beardsly might actually be key for Camille Rose Garcia since her work is hyper ornamental (as I suggested by including her in my post about the ornamentalism of the gothic – read her against all the curtains of Poe, read her against his dead-women-as-the-most-poetical-topic aesthetics). Or Shiele’s sick, pale bodies – Rose Garcia take those bodies and turn them almost membrane-like, dripping with poison in her necropastoral vision. This is a fascinating embrace of the anachronistic and degenerate in many ways.

    I’m no Art expert, but it seems a lot of conservative, anti-modernist folks are often callign for a return to figuration and painting (often in the name of the common man and other fake populism), but what those folks probably don’t appreciate is that the lowbrow has totally “returned” to a lot of that – many of Rose’s paintings are allegorical even.

    Of course, it’s not as simple as that division makes it seem. As Joyelle suggests in her post, there is quite a bit of connection between Kara Walker or Ryan Trecartin or Nathalie Djurberg (of institutional “high art” acclaim) and Camille Rose Garcia and other “lowbrow” art. But it seems to me that this is one of the key dynamic of the “lowbrow” art’s sense of its place. I’ve no doubt simplified modern art, but I hope this makes some sense.

    This reminds me of Poetry, where art-trained Kenny Goldsmith uses anti-kitsch rhetoric to put down “creative writing” and has recently curated an institutionally-supported tome of Taste, called “Against Expression” – ie “expression” is again the kitschy, the literary (like “the hand”) is kitschy in a lot of experimental writing (ie metaphors, simile, narrative). And likewise, I would say that Tony Hoagland and his type of poetry critics (unlike painting, these folks are actually very powerful in poetry) are always calling for a return to narrative, a return to the image, not realizeing that poetry has already “returned” to narrative poetry. Only it’s not a return to his boring old narrative. The return is Chelsey Minnis, Abe Smith, Daniel Borzutzky.A kind of anachronistic, tasteless – lowbrow? – poetry of viscerality,spasms, gothic ornaments, violence and necropastorals. To quote that cheesy movie starring Jack Nicholson: “You want narrative, you can’t handle narrative.”

  4. James Pate

    I think “the overwhelming” aspect of kitsch, the way it not only frequently overwhelms a frame, but is actually excessive within that frame, creates a threat against a certain classical (and often modernist) notion of distance. As Steven Shaviro and Linda Williams have both argued (though in differing ways), horror, porn, and melodramatic films are considered lowbrow because they directly effect us, they go for the body.

    There’s something deeply Cartesian about certain branches of High Modernism.

    I’ve also always thought of Kara Walker, who is one of my favorite contemporary painters, as very much an artist of kitsch. Like Ishmael Reed and Robert Crumb, she turns our POP worlds inside out, luring out the monsters and shadows…

  5. Johannes

    I agree james
    right now im in jonathan levines gallery in chelsea looking at a very fun show by garybaseman. Im struck again by the love of busy (yellow) wallpaper and the gothed up warhol aspect.
    Im also thinking abt the heroic role of the girl, and why it has to be the girl, like in darger, the girl as emblem of a certain saturated way of moving through the world.

  6. Johannes

    I also went to the show every expression possiblewhich may notstrictlyspeaking be lowbrow but is certwinly interested in the same terrain. That was at the gallery freight and volume and the artist was matt jones. Im judt touristing thru all the gallerires of chelsea.

  7. Johannes

    According to the receptionist chelsea a lot of these artists actually make their own wallpaper.

  8. Joyelle McSweeney


  9. Josef Horáček

    I absolutely agree that lowbrow has a theory – after all, what doesn’t? Racism, sexism, colonialism, totalitarian regimes – they all rely on some form of theory, whether explicit or implicit, and they’re not just social theories but aesthetic theories also. Unlike the examples I just gave, many of us seem to think or intuitively understand that lowbrow espouses pluralism and presents a challenge to the powers-that-be. But is that really always true and in what ways does it happen? I think it’s the role and responsibility of the theorist-critic to articulate the theories of lowbrow, and Joyelle’s post is a promising start in that direction.

    What strikes me as interesting is that many of the features that Joyelle highlighted are strongly reminiscent of the early avant-gardes: the name as theory, words as visual objects, the close bond between art and advertising/propaganda (Johanna Drucker has a great book on the origins of visual poetry in late 19th-century advertisement), challenges to the normal body, etc. The difference is that, as Joyelle says, lowbrow is not utopian, doesn’t envision the possibility of life outside capitalism.

    The question for me is whether the historical avant-gardes, especially prior to WWI, were really as utopian as we generally claim them to be, or whether certain theorists (Burger, Jameson) centered their definitions of the avant-garde around the utopian drive precisely so they could present them as failed projects. I’m hoping to revisit that question in a future extended project but wanted to just pose it here for now.

  10. adam strauss

    I love this: “I like…………………both its world-weariness and its piquant enthusiasms, which is like hearing Sophia Coppola describe her favorite colors or sandwiches on the set of Marie Antoinette in a lengthy New York Times Sunday Magazine profile in, like, 2006”; and I’m a fan of this: “I love how Artforum comes to my house with a bored expression on its face, as if it were its own expensive purse. In Artforum theory is like the credit card decal on the door to the boutique; you implicitly pass by it, you register it whether you recognize it or not; and your little groomed magnetic credit card strip perks up a little bit between the thighs of your wallet.”

  11. Silent Brooding Pondering | Whimsy Speaks

    […] Johannes:  “I love how Artforum comes to my house with a bored expression on its face, as if it were its own expensive purse. In Artforum theory is like the credit card decal on the door to the boutique; you implicitly pass by it, you register it whether you recognize it or not; and your little groomed magnetic credit card strip perks up a little bit between the thighs of your wallet.” […]

  12. Elizabeth Caffey

    I don’t know where to ask this question so I am posting it here. Where do I subscribe? I stumbled upon this blog and it is really fantastic!

  13. Johannes

    Thanks Elizabeth, I don’t think one can subscribe to this blog. As far as I know. But please feel free to ask questions or make comments.