The Keats Manifesto: 'Art Ought to Be Mediocre'

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An artist seeks to enlighten viewers to the blandness and disorder of the universe

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Jonathon Keats

Even today's most radical and controversial artists are still like the canonical masters of old. The word "masterpiece" may have fallen out of favor, but in the pricing and promotion of their work, artists still are in the business of producing masterpieces. And even critics hostile to their work don't question the idea of the masterpiece.

At least one prominent conceptual artist, Jonathon Keats, now does. Keats is advocating what he calls a "Copernican Revolution" in art: He wants art to recognize that "the world is an average place, and that our place in the cosmos is nothing special."  Keats' vision is on display in an exhibition running through this month at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, and he has published his manifesto in the magazine Zyzzyva.

Nearly all artists probably just shrugged off the news that the universe is beige--the averaged color of all light from the cosmos as seen by the human eye--a few years ago, if they heard it at all. But not Keats: His paintings have a flat coat scientifically formulated to match this background color, as illustrated here.

Story continues after the gallery

Keats is part of a long tradition of art commenting on art. He has supplied a gallery of his work with captions, and replied to some questions I posed about his work.


Did any other artists or movements experiment with Copernican themes? For example, were the Black Paintings of the New York School Copernican, or were they really the pursuit of masterpieces by other means?

I don't think it would be right to claim the Black Paintings as predecessors to Copernican art. Though Ad Reinhardt was obsessed with attaining universality in his art, he presented those specific works as uniquely up to the task, and considered them to be the exclusive creations of his personal genius. They belong to the same tradition as, say, Barnett Newman's zips or even Jackson Pollock's drips. So you're right, I think, to call them masterpieces by other means. 

Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings perhaps come closer to the Copernican ideal, and not only because they come closer to being the average color of the universe: Rauschenberg's notion that the paintings were ambient, a sort of backdrop for shadows, intended to heighten awareness of their surroundings, resonates philosophically with the Copernican idea of discovering profound truths through the experience of unexceptional artwork. (The White Paintings have, alas, been made to look like masterpieces by their present keepers, who ignore Rauschenberg's wish that they be replaced or repainted as needed, and treat them as precious objects. Visually and conceptually, they're ruined by their patina.)  

I think it would be fair also to consider pop art a predecessor to Copernican art. After all, Warhol's Brillo boxes and soup cans were emphatically banal. The genius of pop was to recognize that our society could be understood by examining the average products of the era. Yet ultimately the mediocrity taken up by Pop was local in place and time. (Though Campbell's soup may have been one of the most popular foods in post-War America, it's doubtful that Campbell's is the leading brand throughout the Milky Way, let alone in Andromeda.) In other words, pop was parochially Copernican. The aim of Copernican art is to be the most average artwork in the universe. Naturally my present efforts come far short. Most likely no individual can achieve the Copernican ideal. That's why, unlike Reinhart's Black Paintings (for instance), Copernican art is first and foremost open-source.

Do you know of any other artists or students who have been inspired by your work to create their own Copernican works? 

I have heard some interest, notably in Copernican fashion and Copernican dance, and someone proposed that the ideal Copernican food may simply be boiled rice, but I have not yet seen (or tasted) anything concrete. Honestly I'm not surprised, given that the First Copernican Art Manifesto was just published, and that the First Copernican Art Exposition opened only a week ago. (After all, the Copernican revolution in the sciences took hundreds of years to reach maturity.)  My primary job now, I think, is to encourage others to explore Copernican ideas, and to keep out of their way. Toward that end, I've been in touch with several schools, including my alma mater, Amherst College, and have also been doing my best to circulate these ideas through the media.

Since poetry is the most concentrated form of verbal information, would an attempt to create a Copernican poem just produce a garbled one, or could it become so uninteresting it became interesting?

I do believe that Copernican poetry would be very interesting for the reason you suggest, and I don't think a Copernican poem would necessarily be incomprehensibly garbled. If we think of poetry in terms of verbal information, one possibility is that a Copernican poem would simply be a law of logic, universally true and minimally informative. (You might have the following cycle of poems: A=A, B=B, C=C, etc. If nothing else, it would be easier for mediocre students to memorize than Shakespeare's sonnets.) Another possibility is that Copernican poetry would be the verbal equivalent of the Copernican music I've created, since entropy is a key aspect of information theory. In that case, you might randomize one word in every four of a prearranged poem, or perhaps the decomposition would operate at the level of the line, or the meter or rhyme. My point in all this speculation is to say that there's no one solution to the problem, and this is also true in the ciences: As simple as the mediocrity principle might seem, the average is not at all a straightforward concept as generally assumed. The First Copernican Art Exposition is intended as much to be an exploration of the underlying assumptions of science as an investigation of the underlying assumptions of art.

One more project came to mind, Komar and Melamid's Most Wanted Paintings (and an accompanying CD).  They weren't truly Copernican, but weren't they still questioning the idea of the masterpiece in creating ironic kitsch?

Indeed, I have a deep interest in Komar & Melamid's project, and I agree there's some resonance with Copernican art, though I'm not sure that I see the resonance in quite the way you do. As I see it, they perfected a new methodology for producing a masterpiece, crowdsourcing it (a decade or more before 'crowdsourcing' was a word). For me, the connection to Copernican art instead is this: The Most Wanted Paintings brilliantly use the social sciences to reflect on the arts and vice versa, and in a sense you could say that I'm attempting something akin to that in terms of the so-called hard sciences of astrophysics and cosmology. I'm also indebted to them for their philosophical handling of absurdity.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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