Art: Wednesday, January 23, 2003
Subversion Inc.

Mistaking messages for meaning: the work of Illegal Art.


Copyright law gets skewered by each work exhibited in Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age. Here, consumer-culture icons we all know and love become, alternately, bloody cadavers, pieces of op-art constructs, sex fiends, and, consequently, lightning rods for a debate on fair use and free speech. Most of the show’s stuff is hilarious. One of the better pieces is Wally Wood’s classic “Disneyland Memorial Orgy.” If you always thought Tinkerbell was a little tease, flying around half-nekkid, here’s your proof — the pint-sized pin-up strips on a table surrounded by Peter Pan, Captain Hook (in drag), Jiminy Cricket, a few other panting voyeurs, and some woodland creatures. It’s all Wood’s way of singing the song of uninhibited artistic creation. To the show’s curator, Stay Free! magazine’s Carrie McLaren, this is the sound of music.

This isn’t to say the show is worth the time it takes to observe it (which is about 10 minutes, tops, on line at As part of a hurly-burlyish campaign to raise awareness for freedom of expression, Illegal Art merely champions the idea that what the world needs now isn’t copyright law reform but more original cartoonists and graphic designers. Not only would most pieces here fail conceptually if their references were stripped away, but very few pieces would qualify to the discerning viewer as works of private, personal endeavor. A few decades ago, the art world said it was A-OK for an artist to put as much effort into recreating mass-produced, commercial art as into doing something original. Illegal Art will likely prod you to ask, “Is that all there is? Quotations on top of quotations?”

It would seem so, what with the rise in popularity of this type of “underground” art. Gathering some of it now and throwing it up on walls in New York City and, later this month, Chicago allows McLaren and her supporters to chime in on the debate surrounding the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (pejoratively also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act — because Disney lobbied hard for CTEA). Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s term ends this upcoming summer, the high judges will rule on the constitutionality of the act’s extending ownership of copyrighted material by 20 years — that’s in addition to the 75 years already granted under existing copyright law. What McLaren et al are fighting for is boundlessly free use. They want artists to have the freedom to cut, paste, chop, slice, and dice any image or sound or paragraph currently under copyright protection to ostensibly be able to create “richer” art. Richer art? It wouldn’t seem to me that drawings of Barney Rubble in a pool of blood or of Binky socking Trix the Rabbit make for necessarily “richer” art. Goofier? Maybe. Richer? I don’t think so.

Consider the work of Kieron Dwyer. Anti-capitalism sentiment doesn’t get any more heavy-handed than in Dwyer’s reconfiguration of the ubiquitous Starbucks logo. He turns the image of what appears to be a regal female with long tresses surrounded by the words “Starbucks Coffee” into a similar-looking queen whose long hair can’t hide her nipples, holding a cup of coffee and smoking a pipe, encircled by the words “Consumer Whore.” (Dwyer’s work, which appeared in comic books, on t-shirts, and on stickers, was so popular that it earned the “artist” a court date with the Seattle-based java giant.) The sad truth is that Dwyer’s mindless, juvenile, punch-line-oriented graphic gag amounts to nothing more than a coy rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Also, if Dwyer were truly the vulgar Marxist that his knack for retooling an existing corporate logo suggest he is, he, according to vulgar Marxist orthodoxy, wouldn’t be wasting his time making “art”; he’d be out leading the local joe-slingers’ union in a march. You can’t help but think that Dwyer’s mental processes make him seem even lazier than his graphic designs reveal him to be.

“All art,” wrote culture critic Peter Guralnick, “challenges the status quo,” but when politics subsumes content, the smartest piece likely to come out of this arrangement will register merely as propaganda — propaganda for some “movement” or for the artist behind the work in question. General gallerygoers have always been taught that art prizes subversion, and so most may believe that the demonizing of big business or big religion or big whatever is part of a grand tradition stretching back to the Renaissance. These gallerygoers expect art to raise questions instead of expecting it to offer solutions. The reference or parody, as represented by contemporary postmodern art, is the most readily accessible device through which an “artist” can get her message across. Gazing on the reference or parody, we’re tricked into a one-way “dialogue” on, say, Disney’s hegemony over kids’ entertainment when, in essence, we should be marveling at a universe where the marriage of form and content, not just the wily bachelor ways of content, seeks to show us truth. If the best art elicits multiple interpretations, then what can be said of a piece of graphic design, traveling under the aegis of Art, whose strident politics allow for only a single interpretation? In two words: Not much.

Existentialism has long plagued artists of every discipline: No matter how well told the tale, it doesn’t seem to matter one bit if it’s not dreary and dour. In the visual arts, specifically art of this anti-CTEA genus, existentialism is all there is. Observing this show reminded me of watching a hipper-than-thou movie about a serial killer who uses sharp objects to dice attractive teens — the war against evil can always be easily conducted in the arena of populist morality. The problem is that real morality is fuzzy. Good art reflects this; bad art doesn’t. Only one of the pieces on display in Illegal Art struck me as the work of an artist who understands this: The complex geometric shapes of Aric Obrosey’s “Oily Doily,” made out of three oil company logos, are, simply, beautiful. Never mind that the artist has said that his imagery is supposed to “symbolize the spilled oil breaking up and spreading outward.” Obrosey’s shapes are alive. What you’ll likely take away from his work is a sense of pleasure derived from the heart, not the head — as well you should.

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