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“Multiplex America” & the Notion of Audience

In this month’s issue of The Brooklyn Rail, poet and art critic John Yau has an entertaining and thought provoking retort to Jerry Saltz’s recent praise of Jeff Koons’ massive fin de siècle sculpture Puppy.  Yau basically challenges Saltz for over-enthusiastically associating Jeff Koons’ artistic vision with what Saltz calls “our America.”

This is Saltz’s appraisal of Koons (which comes from the pages of New York Magazine):

Koons’s work has always stood apart for its one-at-a-time perfection, epic theatricality, a corrupted, almost sick drive for purification, and an obsession with traditional artistic values. His work embodies our time and our America: It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy.

And this is Yau’s critique:

I wasn’t bothered by Saltz’s overheated imitation of Frank O’Hara’s prose, its bad alliteration and doubly obvious onomatopoeia. His goo-goo eyed, love-struck declaration that Koons was “the emblematic artist of the decade” was predictable, but not depressingly so. It was his blithe characterization of “our America” that I had trouble with. When he ticked off “big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat seeking…” it seemed to me as if Saltz were talking about what personality traits he and Koons have in common, their ideal attributes, and that America was actually nowhere in sight.

To me, Yau has a slam dunk here; whoever makes such broad generalizations about “America” does so at his or her own peril.  And while it is true that Saltz puts his finger on certain aspects of America, he doesn’t find enough critical distance to say anything productive.

Yau goes on to address wider issues about art and the American audience:

Hasn’t it occurred to Mr. Saltz that museums are multiplexes lumbering into the 21st century, hoping to provide something entertaining for everyone? In Saltz’s America, Puppy is great public art and Tom Cruise is the good, handsome German with an eye patch, trying to save the world from Hitler. (He nearly succeeds.) In multiplex America, we’ve had Tim Burton thinking at MoMA, Mathew Barney climbing the walls at SFMOMA, Marc Quinn’s self-portrait made from his frozen blood at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Disney-packaged animation show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In my America (call it the Brooklyn Rail), lots of people know that there are works that will not likely ever be shown in a museum or multiplex, or gossiped about in a glossy magazine, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be kept alive above all else and passed on. Their goal is not to be “crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted.” (And I’m not talking about what Mr. Saltz calls “savvy art-about-art gestures,” which is a red herring that gets trotted out whenever the audience might be asked to think. The idea that people can think for themselves is frightening, as anyone who reads a museum wall label or gallery press release knows. Better they be spoonfed.)

These comments have stayed with me for a while and make me think about Tarsem Singh’s blockbuster movie The Cell (New Line Cinema, 2000), starring Jennifer Lopez, which so aptly demonstrates the feedback loop between the contemporary museum and the contemporary multiplex– as has been noted in numerous reviews, Singh’s visual language draws heavily on art world superstars such as Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst.  In the movie, Vincent D’Onofrio, who is perhaps best known for his acting on Law & Order, plays a serial killer, Carl Stargher, who falls into a coma before authorities can rescue his final victim.  Enter J-Lo (who plays the character Catherine Deane) who travels into the killer’s consciousness through a virtual reality device to find Stargher’s own imago– a kind of demonical satyr king à la Matthew Barney.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Carl Stargher
from Matthew Barney's DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 (1993)

And as Deane perseveres through the dark recesses of Stargher’s mind, she encounters disturbing events such as the dramatic vivisection of a horse via glass panes which calls to mind Hirst’s formaldehyde concoctions– notably the cross sections of two cows in Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.

still from THE CELL (2000)


In an interview with Dike Blair (that originally appeared in Time Out New York),  Michael Manson, an Art Director for New Line Cinema, makes some eyebrowing-raising comments about the movie’s audience.  Notice how Manson does a complete 180 after Blair’s suggestion:

Michael Manson: …Many times the American audience is not given enough credit for understanding high concept art. I think Tarsem realized that this wasn’t true, that we could make a film with this kind of imagery and that people would get it. They’d know they’d seen things similar to this and were pleased to see a film that was brave enough to show it.

Dike Blair: Well, I’d suggest that 99% of the people leaving the Cineplex have never heard of Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney.

Michael Manson: Perhaps they may not know the reference, but they know when they’ve seen something spectacular and new.

What bothers me is how Manson goes from suggesting that audiences can think for themselves and pick up on intertextual references (“They’d know they’d seen things similar to this”) to condescendingly treating them as consumers dazzled by the novelty of spectacle (“they know when they’ve seen something spectacular and new”).

About eight or so years ago when I was an MFA student, I remember being bothered by a similar comment.  Yusef Komunyakaa had come to visit for a “master class” and the discussion had become particularly divided over issues concerning difficulty and the accessibility of poetry.  (Komunyakaa, by the way, is quite hostile to innovative art; in his introduction to Best American Poetry 2003, he fires from the hip, aiming at such diverse things as Miles Davis’ fusion period, what he calls “exploratory poetry,” and Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning.)   Laure-Anne Bosselaar chimed in saying that she wanted to write poetry that is accessible enough so that it could speak to a soldier in the Iraq War.  It occured to me at the time that she was making particular assumptions about what a soldier could and could not understand– in the same way that Blair assumes that movie-goers wanting to see J-Lo couldn’t possibly know the work of Barney or Hirst.  This is nothing other than condescension masquerading as decorum.

One of the best single pieces of advice that I got in my graduate workshop days was from Suzanne Gardinier.  She said to always assume that your reader is smarter than you are, and this strikes me as the most ethical and dignified attitude to take when writing.  It is at once a stance of humility and one that refuses to spoonfeed your audience.  And it is, I hope, a strong enough antidote to counter multiplex America.

29 thoughts on ““Multiplex America” & the Notion of Audience

  1. Michael Leong,
    Don’t you think that you should mention that John Yau blurbed your work before you praise his “slam dunk?” Or is that the way you roll your game?
    Either way. Fine with me.

    “Leong goes his own way: Open to trying out all kinds of modes and methods, he is beholden to no one.” -John Yau

    Jerry Saltz

    1. Jerry,

      I’m not hiding anything here. I met John because we both teach at Rutgers University and I’ve taught his writing before. So there: full disclosure.

      But I don’t think that changes any of the issues and I still stand by my words.

  2. The observation that museums might be betraying their mission by prizing (in the works they choose to display) palatability over excellence is a relevant one. And to associate this betrayal with ‘multiplex America’ is apt, insofar as the phrase evokes a sense of mall culture, and the sort of eager, goodhearted philistinism that might characterize America at large. But reading Mr. Yau’s critique in the Brooklyn Rail, I was distracted by his tone. Was it necessary that he ridicule Saltz’s prose in order to make his own point – that Koons is undeserving of Saltz’s praise?

    1. Hi Edward,

      I can see how Yau’s tone may rub people the wrong way– he uses a very performative, idiosyncratic style. And that you can either take or leave.

      I do think that whoever is willing to champion Koons needs to expect a certain amount of criticism…

      1. Hi Michael,

        point taken…it’s important to recognize how a critic builds an argument, but I see that Yau’s overall complaint is with what he considers a faulty characterization of America.

  3. I am really surprised that someone like Mr. Saltz takes the time to come to a blog and use expressions like “is this how you roll your game” and totally ignore the content of what he should have read to mainly focus on the lines that include his name, and then to shoot, eyes closed, at Leong’s comments without criticizing what Leong says nor adding anything new to the discussion. No, it is not fine with you, Mr. Saltz. There is no game in taking as a critical point someone’s comment, in this case, the very true assertions of Yau, and comment about trends in American art. I am utterly surprised too, that Mr. Saltz’s research didn’t go deep enough to know that Yau didn’t blurb Leong’s book but wrote a review of it which you already know if you read Leong’s work– nothing to hide there. Does this mean Leong will never be able to critically agree with Yau in fear of championing his work?
    After reading Mr. Saltz praising of Koon, I would have to ask to you and in no rhetorical fashion: Is that how you roll your game after Koon gave you a flower to set on Puppy. How very dickish of you, Mr. Saltz.

  4. I definitely agree that it’s foolish to underestimate audiences. Doing so just leads to dumb art, and even dumber artists. Hollywood has repeatedly demonstrated that.

    What’s wrong with referencing things people don’t know? Some people in the audience will go…look it up! The internet makes that easier than ever. And some people like a little mystery. Christ, when I was a kid, I adored things that gave me new things to go off and explore.

    Regarding Koons, I’m not a fan of his work (I maybe like one or two pieces OK), but the guy’s popularity and influence should not be overlooked. My mom, who knows next-to-nothing about contemporary fine art, knows who he is (thanks mainly to the TODAY SHOW). When Koons gave the commencement the School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few years back, it was a major event. (I didn’t go, but I can’t remember why.) Like Barney, he’s a contemporary artist that you’re basically required to know something about, for many reasons—because your art world peers expect you to, because the Culture Industry talks about him ad museum, because his work is everywhere…

    Which goes only so far. Popularity doesn’t equal quality, we should know by now. Nor is it any guarantee of continuing popularity. What do we actually think of the art?

  5. THE CELL, of course, references far more than Barney and Hirst; there aren’t really any original images in it. But that’s also the music video tradition:


    …oops, sorry, wrong one:


    Funny, I don’t remember R.E.M. sounding like that. But the images are what I remember: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by way of Tarkovsky and Caravaggio.

    I don’t disapprove, mind you! I like Tarsem fine (even though I didn’t really go in for THE CELL—I liked some of the imagery, but thought overall it was pretty banal). I haven’t seen THE FALLyet, but am kicking myself for having missed it. It has Ota Benga as a character in it, I hear, and that makes me very, very curious.

    1. I actually thought THE FALL was a complete flop– pure eye candy and nothing else. I actually think THE CELL is a better, smarter movie even though, yeah, it’s pretty banal overall. I’d rather watch something like GHOST IN THE SHELL.

      I’d be interested to see what you think–I like your posts about film at BIG OTHER.

      1. Thanks, Michael. When I finally get around to watching THE FALL, I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it. I mean, it’s a Mark E. Smith concert film, correct? How can that not be most excellent?

        And as for eye candy, I adore eye candy! Very much so. Mark E. Smith has been part of some astonishing eye candy:


        So we’ll see. As is my wish with everything I read/watch/see/hear, I hope Tarsem blows my doors off.

        (Doors of perception, I of course mean.)

        But the question remains, when will I get around to watching it? There are still Howard Hawks films I haven’t seen… And I suspect that I will only ever like Tarsem’s work only so much. I remember being amused by THE CELL (except for its ickier bits, which I thought pretty icky).

        When that film came out, a painter friend told me he didn’t like it because all it did was rip of Hirst and Hans Bellmer and the Brothers Quay and so forth. And my response was, yes, yes, that’s precisely what I liked about it.

        But then, to be honest, I forgot all about it. I probably haven’t thought about it until now.

        Someday I will make a film starring both Vincent D’Onofrio and Brad Dourif.

        1. Yeah, I like eye candy too– and nice clip, by the way! I think it’s much cooler than the movie. I guess I forgot to mention that the storyline of THE FALL is just plain bad.

          And sure, the art citations are what makes THE CELL interesting and worth watching to begin with–I totally agree. I mean, having Vince Vaughn in the foreground of an Odd Nerdrum landscape is just too funny.

          Ha! D’Onofrio and Dourif– hasn’t that been a Law & Order episode?

  6. Well, after clicking around online, I found that Saltz has responded, at least in part, to Yau’s criticism:

    Here it is as a PDF:

    John Yao [sic], an art writer in New York, just spent like 2000 words trashing me for writing about a work of art he says he NEVER SAW! Hah! (I love it when people hate art they’ve never seen and hate the people who dared to like it.)

    I’d really love for Saltz to respond to the criticism of both Yau and Leong. I think a lot of people would enjoy seeing worthy thinkers directly engaging each other.

  7. I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize Komunyakaa as “quite hostile to innovative art.” That’s a pretty broad statement, and I didn’t read that intro that way, at least (that Komunyakaa was arguing against innovative art, or innovation in art).

    But it’s a been a while since I read that intro, also.

    1. Maybe so, maybe so. Certainly Komunyakaa is against what he calls “over-experimentation.”

      My issue lies in how he precisely defines that “over-.” His piece still strikes me as aesthetically narrow-minded.

      For reference, these are the particular passages that I had in mind when I was writing my post:

      “I believe it was Miles Davis who said, ‘The reason I stopped playing ballads is because I love them so much.’ Afraid on tonal narrative, the story the music could tell? Afraid of being uncool and growing old, or duped by the sexual bluster of rock ‘n’ roll? …how could Miles have recorded SKETCHES OF SPAIN and THE BIRTH OF THE COOL, and then betray himself playing on fusion pieces?”

      “But as poets, as artists, we do want meaning to remain in our words, and not have the essence of our lives and visions become like that moment when Robert Rauschenberg erases the de Kooning drawing and says that the erasure is his work of art.”

      Is this not an overly simplistic understanding of “meaning”?

        1. Looking forward to it…

          And, by the way, there’s a typo above: “Afraid OF tonal narrative” not “on.” : )

  8. This is very enjoyable Michael. Thank you for the post.

    One the issues seem to be press coverage and the disgusting hype machine – everybody is seeing it, everybody is loving, if you don’t you are worse than missing out, you are unequal. I think John Berger hit the nail on the head in 1972’s Ways of Seeing.

    This is the end of the Publicity chapter:

    Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it. The fact that publicity is eventless would be immediately obvious if it did not use a language which makes of tangibility an event in itself. Everything publicity shows is there awaiting acquisition. The act of acquiring has taken the place of all other actions, the sense of having has obliterated all other senses.

    Publicity exerts an enormous influence and is a political phenomenon of great importance. But its offer is as narrow as its references are wide. It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase. No other kind of hope or satisfaction or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism.

    Publicity is the life of this culture – in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive – and at the same time publicity is its dream.

    Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.


    1. Thanks, Greg. Yeah, the Berger quote is definitely relevant. But your phrase “everybody is seeing it, everybody is loving, if you don’t you are worse than missing out, you are unequal” is too good!

      1. Thanks, Michael. Another key point he makes is about envy selling things. His line is too good to butcher, I can’t. But I don’t have the book at hand.

  9. Michael,

    A colleague of mine just sent me a link to your posting above. I feel honored to be critiqued in such a manner — especially given how long ago we made THE CELL. I’m going to print a copy and hang it on my wall. LOL! Maybe even send it to my mom!

    I’m glad the film still holds so much passion for you. ;-)

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