Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Strip-Mine the Classics?

This is a thinking-point, a question that's been niggling at me...  When did it become matter-of-course to use iconic past art as the basis for new work?  
Warhol gets out-Warhol-ed
image borrowed from

I'm not talking about inspiration or about transformation - for instance, taking the Romeo and Juliet story and turning it into West Side Story or turning Hamlet into The Lion King.  Nor of outright theft, like the "novelist" who found a fine but forgotten novel, replaced the original author's locations with India and the original writer's name with her own... and won a honking big literary prize! (Until caught by a librarian - perfect.).  The motive there seems obvious.  No, I'm talking about mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the poor Mona Lisa wearing silly hats on coffee mugs etc.  (Mind you, I've made Botticelli's Venus look silly a few times myself.)

Co-opted masterpieces can be very clever, as ...Zombies is.  I enjoyed that.  The icon can be brilliantly commented upon by their new context, which is fair game, and vice versa.  (There's a fascinating discussion near the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop talking about what Warhol did to the icons and what the main character/subject of the film did to Warhol and really did to the icons.)

But too often the icon is slapped onto a new context as a kid slaps a sticker randomly on a bus stop bench.  The impulse is everywhere!  Perhaps at the Millenium (more or less) it's reasonable to evaluate what we've accomplished as a culture and to reuse the icons.  Are we rescuing them from dusty museum-hood?  Or kidnapping and exploiting them?  ...Zombies and some street art are well done, but overall this trend seems to be getting lazier and... well, trivializing or even degrading to the original work.  Cynically, I wonder if using an icon doesn't just ensure public attention along the lines of, "Hey! I know that face!" which I suspect adds to sales.

As artists of this period in history, are we reevaluating tradition?  Are we lazy?  Are we just disrespectful?  Why don't we create NEW icons?  Are we?  Please point me to 'em...

image borrowed from

From an actual coffee mug:
Image borrowed from Cafe Press
image borrowed from

Some days poor Mona Lisa... well, I worry about her.
Is she sleeping under a bridge now?

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