I was driving through Westwood last week and stopped at the light at Westwood and Santa Monica boulevards next to an idling Big Blue Bus loading passengers, when I noticed an ad on the side in austere museum text-panel drag, reading:

People on a Bus, 2001

Metal, rubber, glass, diesel, people, on concrete

Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art,

Los Angeles

This sighting caused an immediate reaction among my vehicle’s occupants, uniformly negative. What were they thinking? ”Rejoice, subautomotive working-class scum of L.A.! For now you are a work of art!“ Still, we talked about it all the way to Pico, and I couldn‘t get it out of my mind — usually signs of powerful advertising, though I doubt impoverished art professionals fall within the targeted demographic. In short order I became aware that this lone bus ad was just the tip of a public-relations iceberg, ”MOCA’s first-ever awareness campaign,“ created by corporate advertising giant TWBAChiatDay, the firm responsible for Absolut Vodka‘s art-friendly ads, the Energizer Bunny, Apple’s ”Think Different“ campaign and ”Yo Quiero Taco Bell.“

Over the next month or so, and continuing through June, MOCA‘s ”2001 Brand Awareness Campaign“ will position 60 site-specific labels as billboards throughout the city, allowing Angelenos to see anew such overlooked ready-mades as freeway congestion on the 405 at Centinela (Serenity, a Study, 2001), the Bar Marmont (Beautiful People Standing Around Hotel Lobbies, 2001) and the Circuit City just east of the Sunset-and-Hollywood junction (Untitled [Six Palm Trees and an Electronics Shop], 2001). In addition, the campaign will appear in the L.A. Times, on the Sunset Boulevard video-loop board, on those post-card racks in bars and restaurants, on movie-theater slides, KCRW radio, local TV, dry-cleaning hangers, paper coffee-cup bands and gas-pump handles. And on the buses.

Apart from the unfathomable condescension inherent to what amounts to a smug citywide territorial pissing, the wholesale conversion of arbitrary chunks of nonmuseum life (chosen mostly for their adjacency to billboards running from the Westside to downtown) into second-rate ’60s conceptual art is hardly going to convince the ”sometimes wary advertising-bombarded youthful audience“ targeted by the campaign that a wealth of cutting-edge creativity is lurking on Bunker Hill. Nor will it ingratiate itself with many artists, even the ones who still think using a museum label to identify smog as art is a pretty neat idea. Apart from the fact that MOCA commissioned a multinational advertising conglomerate to do what could have been done by individual professional artists, the jokes just plain suck.

Admittedly, TWBAChiatDay Los Angeles had to come up with almost 90 simultaneous variations on the same one-liner, where with, say, the Energizer Bunny, they just need one new one every few months. But the general shoddiness of these punch lines suggests that not much editing occurred between their first brainstorming session and taking it to the printers. Most rely on a sort of all-purpose irony that suggests there‘s something unspeakably droll about valet parking or furniture stores; some aren’t even funny, but strive for some sort of twee Fluxus-lite poeticism. The most scathing billboard captions seem reserved for the not-beautiful people — the billboard at Lincoln and Rose purports to identify ”Why Lincoln is ugly“ in Car Washes and a Couple of Taquerias, 2000 (the canyon of fascist architecture along Grand Avenue being so much more visually stimulating than Pic ‘n’ Save and La Cabaña). Quite apart from the decidedly unrigorous, scattershot thematic array, the glib assertion that the campaign ”is intended to prompt people to consider afresh their surroundings“ is patently hypocritical, as the desired response to the ads is clearly ”What a clever ad! Maybe I‘ll try some of that Museum of Contemporary Art.“ I’m not saying that advertising isn‘t art, or that TWBAChiatDay isn’t responsible for some of the best, but neither they nor MOCA is going to gain any credibility from clumsily co-opting what was (40-plus years ago!) a serious artistic attempt to alter people‘s way of seeing the world, in an attempt to compete with the Lakers.

So what does happen when an institution does the right thing and turns to an actual artist to generate public awareness? The Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station imported the young Brooklynite Stephen Keene to fill its space with 10,000 of his dashed-off acrylic-on-plywood paintings as both a publicity-generating event and a fund-raising drive — Keene’s paintings being priced between $3 and $25. The artist has been installed in a makeshift studio in the center of the large space, constantly refilling the walls-full of nearly identical takes on the buildings and collections of Los Angeles‘ other museums. As a fund-raising idea, this isn’t bad. As art it is. About one-half of all painters go through a phase of churning, indiscriminate productivity, and more than a few get stuck there. But they haven‘t made it their shtick. There are probably a hundred local painters who would’ve taken this gig for the exposure alone, but because Keene has labeled his graphomania a higher order of creative activity — an ongoing performance that critiques the commodification of art, the preciousness of objects, the elitism of collector culture, etc. — he got the nod and invited critical scrutiny of the project as a conceptual art piece.

As a conceptual art piece, The Miracle Half-Mile, as Keene‘s installation is titled, is straight out of the ’80s East Village scene. Nobody has come close to Andy Warhol‘s deft undermining of art as commodity during the Factory days, but Mark Kostabi, Howard Finster and many others gave it their best shot in the Reagan era. And unlike somebody like Jean Tinguely, who unveiled a mechanical abstract-painting machine that spewed out automatist gestures by the yard, their ”critiques“ were always safely couched within the bosom of the art market. Keene’s claim to any kind of sociopolitical oppositional status holds even less water. There are a dozen Mexican artists on Venice boardwalk who‘ll gladly undermine the system with a spray-paint-on-dinner-plate outer-space painting for about the same price. And it’s better painting.

What really makes The Miracle Half-Mile decidedly less than miraculous is the ugliness of the work. Forgetting for a moment that the subject matter was apparently picked at random from a pile of catalogs from Los Angeles–area museums (and repeated to the point where it seems there are maybe 20 distinct compositions repeated monotonously), the formal execution on its own is strongly reminiscent of some of the worst pseudo-expressionist painting to emerge in the ‘80s, sloppy diagonal strokes of straight-from-the-tube primaries and pthalos masking incompetent draftsmanship with a factory-fresh coat of simulacral angst. I honestly couldn’t find a painting I was willing to spend $3 on, in spite of the worthy cause, so I bought a catalog for Rebecca Rickman‘s almost-convincing essay, with citations running the gamut from the Doge’s Palace in Venice to Allan McCollum‘s ”plaster surrogates.“

If a big-time museum in a sweetheart deal with the largest ad company in America doesn’t do it for me, and a smalltime museum collaborating with an earnest solitary painting zombie for a Neo-Ex bake sale doesn‘t do it for me, is there any marriage of art and commerce this critic can see his way clear to endorsing? Hell, yes! Thank God for the United States Postal Service! I don’t know how many people have been keeping tabs on the ”Celebrate the Century“ series of stamps, but what started out as a fairly straightforward cataloging of cultural and political milestones became increasingly surreal with each chronicled decade. Since the issuance of the 1990s pane in May 2000, the post office has been quietly circulating one of the most peculiar artistic takes on art and popular culture yet. Forget the lip service to Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. Whoever picks the stamp art has a bent vision all their own. Executed in a variety of professional illustrational styles, the first four-fifths of the ”Celebrate the Century“ series had a few standout peculiarities, such as the Household Conveniences stamp from the ”Celebrate the Depression“ series (depicting an electric mixing bowl). It wasn‘t until the ’80s set that things got really creative. Some of the historical milestones of that decade: Figure Skating, Cabbage Patch Kids, CATS Musical Smash, Cable TV, The Cosby Show and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Maybe this sudden burst of idiosyncrasy was the work of some anonymous genius, or maybe the post office‘s balloting campaign, in which consumers were asked to pick from 100 or so historically significant options, went funny when voters had to sort through their own memories instead of widely ratified important events. Whatever the case, the ’90s set didn‘t disappoint, equating the snuff-TV miniseries The Gulf War with blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Seinfeld and Titanic (A James Cameron Film), technological innovations like Cellular Phones and Sport Utility Vehicles, and curiously underreported social transformations such as Improving Education and Recovering Species. Fantastic! The postal system is one of the most powerful and underrecognized systems of visual dissemination in our culture. Much as I enjoy using these particular stamps to horrify European pen pals, I think they truly represent a unique and surprising hybrid of art, commerce, and popular consensus about what culture is and who gets to say so. Which is something certain other institutions only pretend to do.

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