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Popped

Photo by Robert Pacheco

Last weekend, the Getty Research Institute hosted the first of three seminars centered around key cultural moments of the 1960s. The second and third will focus on specific personalities — psychedelic beatnik, folk-music anthropologist and experimental animator Harry Smith this coming weekend, and John Cage sidekick and experimental electronic composer David Tudor on May 17 through 19 (in conjunction with CalArts). The subject of the first was a little vaguer. Entitled Media Pop, it consisted of three scholarly panels assembled around unspecified themes, and one celebrity panel featuring L.A. Pop art stars Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins, and renaissance freak Dennis Hopper.

The trilogy of seminars marks a debut of sorts for GRI director Thomas Crow, who stepped into the position just over a year ago. Crow, whose writings include the highly regarded Modern Art in the Common Culture (1996), didn’t initiate all of the sessions, but his pop-cultural imprimatur has consolidated them into something of a statement about the future direction of the institute. The GRI, in operation since 1985, is the most vital part of the Getty complex — housing an enormous art-history library, acquiring and preserving vast amounts of cultural ephemera, sponsoring innovative scholarship and seeking new ways to connect the often inaccessible world of theory and scholarship with both the L.A. art world and the general public. Hence Media Pop.

What exactly does an artist/art journalist write about in reviewing a scholarly seminar, particularly one that features no primary cultural artifacts — no films, no videos, no paintings? The ideas presented, and the relative eloquence of the arguments buttressing them? The showmanship of the presenters? Okay, sure, I’ll give it a shot. The sessions I attended pretty much ran the gamut in terms of style and substance. The first speaker was Tom Crow himself, whose matter-of-fact exposure of yet another example of magpie voraciousness (remarkable similarities between the design of the Royal College of Art’s student magazine in 1957 and several later Warhol signature styles) was a little too diplomatic for my tastes. Nevertheless, Crow established one of the predominant themes of the seminar with his observation that Warhol was “de-skilling,” that is, deliberately working with technology that betrayed its limitations, while his British predecessors were striving to overcome the limited tech options available to them in order to compete with flashy Yank design.

Pamela Lee, a Stanford professor of art history, followed with a presentation that was typical of several of the papers presented. Lee focused on a timely but critically underexamined topic — the original American reception of Op art and Bridget Riley’s eye-boggling paintings in particular — proposing a number of intriguing interpretations: that Op’s alleged destabilization of physical distance in the viewer — the famous eyestrain, headaches, dizziness and nausea that Riley’s seething patterns were said to induce — was the root of the critical hostility it encountered here, and, somehow, of the artist’s own litigious reaction to a collector who produced unauthorized dresses using one of her works as a fabric print. But whenever the talk veered from straightforward narrative recounting, it lost momentum. None of the promising leads was ever chased down, interrogated or resolved.

The “Keynote Artists Panel” on Friday night â was certainly the most well-attended of the sessions. Rather than directing Ruscha, Celmins and Hopper toward any discussion specific to the seminar’s ostensible theme (“Say, Ed, how about them books of yours?”), moderator Cécile Whiting let the artists do what they usually do best in such situations — ramble through anecdotal reminiscences. Hopper revealed that his contribution to London dealer Robert Fraser’s 1966 “Los Angeles Now” show (which almost singlehandedly established L.A. in the international art scene) had been not the photographs you’d expect, but rather palm trees carved from toxic foam rubber. Celmins was particularly forthcoming, recounting the genesis of her signal body of “object” paintings, chiding Ruscha and Hopper for partying at Ferus while she painstakingly recorded every appliance in her Venice studio.

The next afternoon’s session featured Artforum contributor and October cofounder Annette Michelson presenting two distinct narratives, one critiquing the political subtext of the space race, one appreciating the succinctness of Michael Snow’s film work (the epic 1971 prairie pan-fest La Region Centrale in particular), but never getting around to tying them together convincingly, except for the barely iterated punch line: The special computer-controlled omnidirectional camera Snow had built for his movie was sort of like a lunar landing module or surveillance satellite.

Perhaps it was the (invariably unobserved) 20-minute limit on individual talks that made them play like film trailers, teasers that show the big bangs but don’t give away the ending. But I think rather that this is merely the dominant mode of academic discourse, relying on an atmosphere of pomo indeterminacy as an excuse for hedging your bets. A couple of decent rudimentary ideas burrowed deep within a nest of obliquely related Walter Benjamin (pronounced “Ben-ya-min,” thank you) references does not an argument make, no matter how much alpha posturing and authoritarian vocal inflections you couch it in. Of course, it is convincing to others playing the same game, and to those who attribute the absence of content (let alone style) to their own intellectual shortcomings — both of which (and more often than not in combination) may be found in abundance in academia.

The most notable exception came, surprisingly, from conference organizer (with Whiting) David Joselit, whose dynamically structured and cogently argued exegesis of Abbie Hoffman’s 1968 citation of Fidel Castro and Andy Warhol as dual exemplars of political engagement was at least as intellectually exciting as any of the papers presented, but conscientiously accessible in structure and tone. Using another Hoffman comment about the figure/ground relationship between ads and programming on TV, Joselit sketched a convincing graphic gestalt model for understanding Warhol’s political significance, and was lauded for his intelligibility by audience member Barbara Kruger. During the Q&A period, Joselit went on to lament the absence of art scholars as “public intellectuals” in comparison to literary figures who regularly contribute to op-ed pages, especially given the vast predominance of the visual in popular culture.

Appropriately enough, the problem would seem to be a figure/ground disparity: The blaring social signals involved in competitive academic jostling — the contorted body language, the jargon, the subtle slights and carefully worded faint praise, the squabble of barely contained derision that greets all but the slightest deviation from accepted doctrine — are invisible to those immersed in academic subculture, so the nuances of new content and presentation style “pop out.” For the rest of us, the pecking order is the spectacle. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be critiquing the participants from within the context of their practice, but, rather, with Joselit and the GRI, exhorting the imagining of a broad-based lay intellectual audience for the often compelling insights buried in the semantic subterfuge. The GRI has a commitment to providing an unprecedented interface between cultural scholars and a curious public, but it’s up to the scholars to generate convincing nonexclusive entertainments for the bodies, minds and spirits of the literate masses.

The upcoming Harry Smith conference, with the inclusion of more populist idea-mongers like Greil Marcus and Jonas Mekas, as well as film screenings, displays culled from the Smith archives, and star-studded concerts (the one organized at UCLA’s Royce Hall by Hal Willner marking the first project brought to fruition by UCLA Performing Arts’ new director, David Seston), promises to go a long way in realizing that potential. And to be fair, it is a much more ambitious program and more wholly Tom Crow’s baby. The Tudor conference, too, extends the boundaries of scholarship with an installation/performance of Tudor’s landmark Rainforest IV at CalArts. Still, it remains for the academics to take their insights on de-skilling, the serendipitous epiphanies in untutored technique, and the radical assault on authoritarian modes of communication posed by multimedia art, and apply them, for everybody’s sake, to their own insular practice.

NOTE: The Reverend Ethan Acres, having recently performed a marriage in the Sistine Chapel, will be sharing the resultant good art karma with L.A. at the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station this Saturday. Commencing at 3 p.m. with a “Blessing of the Arts and All Creative Endeavors,” the reverend will follow with the latest of his inimitable sermons, entitled “The Parable of Mothra.” Tickets are $8 for members, $10 for non-members. For information, call (310) 586-6488.

MEDIA POP The Getty Research Institute April 6-7

HARRY SMITH: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular The Getty Research Institute Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Getty Center | April 20-21 Film screening Friday, April 20, 7:30 p.m.

Hal Willner’s The Harry Smith Project | UCLA Performing Arts | Royce Hall, UCLA | April 25-26, 8 p.m. For ticket information, call (310) 825-2101