The death of Lou Reed has been felt most sharply across popular music, but his absence resonates in the art world, which he inhabited as an accomplished photographer and as an earlier product and documentarian of Andy Warhol.
This week an aspiring boundary-breaker in the mold of Reed, Lady Gaga, released her latest album, with the intention of doing what she terms a reversal of Warhol: "Instead of putting pop onto the canvas, we wanted to put art onto the soup can." (Of course many, Warhol included, have already pulled that move). To achieve this somewhat muddled goal, Gaga has famously cozied up to established artists such as flavor-of-the-past-few-years Marina Abramović, and the creator of the Artpop cover imagery, Jeff Koons.
It's been argued elsewhere that Gaga will be a poor substitute if history records her as this generation’s Lou Reed or Velvet Underground; ditto for Jay Z, whose own dalliance with Abramović has been called the “day performance art died.” Both stars seem more interested in aligning themselves with art for its cultural cachet, rather than out of much appreciation for the work itself. But what’s more worrying—and significant—is the way that musicians such as Gaga and Jay Z, artists like Abramović, and aspiring creative polymaths such as James Franco have put the projection of their own image and experience to the fore of their endeavors: They’re known more for being who they are than for what they create.
Plenty of people agree we're living through an unusually narcissistic age, and you could make a valid argument that art should reflect our "selfie"-drenched reality. But should this really be done without the degree of criticism implicit in Warhol and his oeuvre? In a way Gaga has succeeded in attempting to invert Warhol, but mostly by showing us how to generate pure commodity from art, rather than how to turn fame and the everyday objects of capitalism on their head as he did. Even if she does operate with a degree of self-awareness and cheek, most listeners no doubt hear a chorus like “I live for the applause” less as parody and more as yet another endorsement of celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
Of course, Reed, Warhol, and plenty of other creative individuals throughout history have also been egocentrics. But the most successful and critically lauded among them have still felt some degree of discomfort in the spotlight, and have expressed at least a little reluctance to engage with the media machine that sustains it. Reed’s well-known reticence to offer much to interviewers is a good example, and the sense of mystique this created probably helped to prolong our interest.
At the very least, creatives have in the past largely lived by one of Abramović’s own supposed commandments, that “an artist should not make themselves into an idol." This she revealed, straight-faced, in the course of the HBO account of her Museum of Modern Art retrospective The Artist is Present, whose central experience involved a waiting period that would have tested Saint Simeon, before a brief seat at her altar could be gained. This work was also the logical extension of Tracy Emin’s and other Young British Artists’ earlier explorations of the fairly unengaging minutiae of their existences.
In contrast, no one offers a more compelling contemporary case for the power of putting identity to one side than the world’s most documented street artist, Banksy. His recent month-long open-air “residency” of New York City held both mainstream and niche media in the metropolis deep within its thrall, and ended with Banksy's familiar pronouncement that art should live well outside the gallery, in easy reach of the masses. While that would indeed be a utopian turn, Banksy’s revolution until now has been to preserve his anonymity while amassing a huge body of work and an army of global admirers.
This is not to say that he is all that enigmatic. His art is fairly overt in its political and cultural ideology, he maintains a blog, has produced a highly entertaining documentary, gives interviews (sometimes face-to-face), and has frequently published op-eds and other material. However, all of these actions ultimately serve as an outwards projection of his work; there are no stories of his private life, no obsessing over his appearance, and no other distractions to concern us. And the result has, contrary to the mantra of Gaga and her ilk, elevated the work above others operating in a similar space. Despite remaining open to significant criticism (his pieces can be a bit simplistic and his messages a little ham-fisted or cloying), Banksy remains the consummate artist of his times by swimming against the tide of self-aggrandizement and constant image management.
Contemporary music has seen a corresponding rise in the number of anonymous or shadowy figures operating at the margins of popular consciousness in recent years: people like Burial, Zomby, and for a while, The Weeknd, who mainly work in the realm of electronica and operate out of their own private studios. These artists have made the most of the advances in musical production and distribution technologies to eradicate the need to engage in traditional promotion and image manipulation, and have still produced some of the most critically lauded and affecting work going around.
You could even argue that Burial is the closest this generation has to a Lou Reed, having inspired a mythology around the hedonistic yet lonely metropolitan experience just as the Velvet Underground front man did, though in this case only through employing snippets of human voices set against sounds that manage to invoke the nighttime city. Burial may not have the art-world connections Reed and his band developed in the heyday of Warhol, but the sense of isolationism, of avoiding the trappings of the publicity machine and the commodification of creativity, of putting the artist to the background and his or her work to the foreground, now seems the most vital of reactions to our age—the true counterculture.
There has of course been a longer, stronger tradition of shunning the self in the literary world, with the apogee of this remaining Tomas Pynchon’s ability to hide out in Manhattan while writing 1,000-page opuses at will (much to the frustration of critics, many of who still obsess over the true identity of Shakespeare). Some writers have shunned public life once they felt their work was done, JD Salinger in particular, and others have published under pen names or even anonymously. This may largely result from the introspective nature of writing and the form of the novel in particular. It has always been a life that has attracted the hermits, and doesn’t really require performance as an integral part of the experience.
It’d be nice if the technological advancements in contemporary music and the ongoing street-art boom made this literary model more widely adopted. Bringing focus back on art and not artist could only be a boon for the creativity of our society. A greater embrace of anonymity would also allow the blossoming of many more of those individuals who suffer the most self-doubt; those who the late art critic Robert Hughes famously claimed were more often possessed of true talent. At the least we can hope for some pullback on the trend of artists and musicians unquestionably engaging with the worship of the self and their own celebrity. The mixed reception for Lady Gaga’s Artpop indicates her popularity may be waning, proving the truth of Warhol’s most famous aphorism. If she can’t prolong her 15 minutes, perhaps she could retire and reset the clock under a new identity unknown to us.