There was a piece in yesterday's New York Times Arts and Leisure section about a small retrospective of Mel Ramos' work, entitled "The Image Is Erotic. But Is It Art?".
Writer Ken Johnson lambasts Mr. Ramos basically as a hack who has seen his time come and go and yet persists in his comic book pop art, saying that "Mr. Ramos always painted on the teasing edge between acceptable and unacceptable taste... (recycling) the same basic formula over the ensuing decades, even up to the present... (making) a certain image of heterosexual male fantasy far too explicit."
Maybe the humor was too droll, the joke too banal and more than slightly flat (pardon the pun), but Mr. Ramos was both seeming to have been making a statement about sexuality and commercialism and of a time. I don't recall the reaction to the movie, "Prime Cut," where Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman fight over a livestock auction, featuring underage girls, including Sissy Spacek. But unless one took it as an allegory for something other than what it portrayed, it was so grossly gender objectifying so as to be patently offensive. (I don't recall it being that).
Pop art is of a time. Mr. Johnson has that right. He is also correct in stating that the rise of feminism in the 70's was the kiss of death for such tongue in cheek sexist "art" as Mr. Ramos created. But here is where it gets tricky, for me, anyway.
In making the case for Mr. Ramos being left by the wayside while "Eric Fischl's cinematic, psychologically charged paintings of domestic sex scenes in the 80's were exceptional for their Freudian candor."
In the context of making the case that Mr. Ramos is as passé as an 8-track, he not only brings up Mr. Fischl's work, which I will not bother to criticize, other than to say that a painting of a young man masturbating in a kiddie pool at night seems to haveh with have very little to do with Mr. Ramos' cartoon pop confections. One can be considered truly pornographic while the other is merely sweetly irritating. Mr. Johnson says that "so-called pornographic imagery is ubiquitous in art today," and he cites the work of Hilary Harkness, John Currin and Thomas Ruff...
Hilary Harkness (left) John Currin (right)
Thoms Ruff (who "creates" what Mr. Johnson calls, "pixelated pornographic imagery, downloaded from the Internet." Where the creativity is in applying an Adobe Photoshop Gaussian Blur filter on a porno pic lifted from the internet and then printed really big is "art" best defined by someone other than me. After all, what do I know? I think fuzzy porn is, well... fuzzy porn).
Which brings me to Mr. Johnson's seeming point in all of this. He ultimately asks, "Can pornography be high art?"
This question is posed as someone in the next room reads The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, (in the rooms where women come and go, talking of Michelangelo...) while Simon & Garfunkel are on the box, with the volume low-- just loud enough to make out the words to "The Dangling Conversation," (Yes, we speak of things that matter, With words that must be said, Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theater really dead?
In the end, Mr. Johnson admits that Mr. Ramos "may not be the answer to the contemporary sex-in-art question, but he surely belongs in the conversation.
Faint praise and fainter aesthetic acceptance. Mr. Johnson uses the word "erotic" twice in his piece-- once in the title and another when describing certain literature. In his diatribe, sexual visual art never rises above the stature of pornography. Curious.
To paraphrase the line about those who can't teach: Those who paint confuse and confound as a matter of self-legitimization. Those who can't but have the money and the voluminous vocal range become gallery owners. And those that neither paint nor shout with conviction, pontificate in empty rooms... and National newspapers.
I went to Art School. I studied graphic design and photography. I hung out with the fine art majors. They talked funny. I would go to the Whitney and MOMA, the galleries on the East Side. I laughed at what was being passed off as Avant-Garde. I had my favorites then and still do now. Most of the artists I admire stepped on the rainbow long, long ago. And here is where I stand: there has been little "new" since the Paris Armory show in 1913. Dada was the defining modern "anti-aesthetic" art movement and has never been superceded. Pornography has no place in "art," and the people who create it and the viewers who covet it like it that way just fine. Mr. Johnson makes a surprising error toward the conclusion of his piece, confusing pornography with erotica. Since Duchamp, Grosz and their contemporaries, it is damned difficult to shock with anything even vaguely approaching substance. When it comes right down to it, a kid jerking off in a kiddie pool and a masterfully rendered menage a trois pastiche do not shock. They bore. At least Mel Ramos' work still puts a smile on my face. He seems to have fun... still. His "successors" are merely tedious.