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Comments (22) Posted 06.16.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Elliott Earls


The curious problem of the relationship between Sanjaya Malakar, Marc Newson and Marcel Duchamp.

“Vainglory,” an anachronistic term meaning an unjustified and excessive pride in one’s own achievements or abilities is one of the primary forces animating and shaping contemporary culture. The phenomena that is American Idol owes its considerable popularity both to its role in discovering legitimate, almost freakishly superhuman singing skill, but also as a window into contemporary culture’s vainglorious soul. From William Hung to Sanjaya Malakar, to the multitudes of nearly nameless aspiring Beyoncé imitators, American Idol draws a large measure of power from the vainglorious displays of the painfully talentless. A critical component of the show’s success resides in early rounds marked by limitless displays of stupefying arrogance by countless untrained, unskilled and unaware contestants. Like throwing Christians before lions, the deliciously evil pleasure of reveling in another’s misery may temporarily slake the thirst of the populace, but it’s also a horrifying look behind the veil at the monstrous face of Mediocrity itself.

Sid Vicious and Sanjaya Malakar

Vainglory is the symptom, mediocrity the disease.

Whereas historically, bravado has been the parasitic twin of bell curve-busting skill, American Idol provides a clear view of an historical value inversion. We now find ourselves living in a culture that has so thoroughly jettisoned any concern for craft (more accurately “Techné”) that the display of bravado comes before, and in spite of, the act of mastery. The issue is at best inconsequential if we’re concerned only with the condition of pop music in 2011. But we’re not. American Idol is an exceedingly easy target serving a rhetorical end, and as such it is a powerful display of our social mores.

The conversation becomes exponentially more difficult, but no less horrifying, when we broaden the cultural terrain to include the role of Techné in (nearly) all aspects of culture today. By drawing a line from Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades (1915) to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964), then Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Shoebox (1993) to Rachel Harrisons’ Huffy Howler (2004), we find what began as a radical counter-cultural concern for the conceptual (in opposition to the technical) has shifted over time from a vanguard oppositional position, into farcical status quo. We also find the institutionalization of critique supplant the real thing — genuine opposition. We could find a similar tectonic shift at work by tracing a line from Hugo Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire to the Sex Pistols, through Sum 41 and on to Sanjaya Malakar.
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Comments (22)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

This article feels like one of those important pieces where you get lost in the middle, but have to come back to fully get the entire idea. Either that, or the lack of cannibis in my morning routine. Anywho, beautiful writing.
06.16.11 at 12:12

excellent piece.
06.16.11 at 01:58

American Idol is actually a great example of Techne–all of the contestants are technically good singers. That's the ONLY thing they have, craft. The reason they suck is because they think that's ALL they need. Daughtry is a great singer. But he's a dumb shit.

Things have changed since Duchamp's readymades, most importantly, the default value of an art object is no longer craft and beauty. Donald Judd suggested that it's interest value. There's a wide variety of art production happening that runs the gamut from craft and beauty to work that's more akin to Rachel Harrison. Actually a stroll through Chelsea will indicate that indeed craft and beauty STILL dominate the art world. It's also not radical to compare these contemporary artists to Duchamp, why? Because the game is different. What is radical in 2011? Amazing craft? If that's the case, then Jeff Koons is the best artist.

One reason Orozco and Harrison stand out is because they ARE important. Their work addresses contemporary values brought on by the information age. To take their work out of context and and compare it to Sanjaya and Sum 41 is funny, but inaccurate.

You seem to call out all of these discrepancies yourself in the essay but you never get around to pinning down what it is your saying about craft. That it's not valued? Well I disagree, and American Idol might be the best example of America worshipping ONLY craft. Which means what? Bourgeois ideals are still riding high! Everyone wants a new, shiny, well-crafted car, a hard-body (well-crafted) wife, and an enormous well-crafted flatscreen to watch gifted singers belt out time-honored jams. Just because the art world is a tiny microcosm with a certain faction that doesn't have these ideals is no reason to shout that the sky is falling. I think it's safe to say craft and beauty still rule.

Ponyboy Curtis
06.16.11 at 03:30

I want to say one word for this post, it is really a master-piece.
shahid mewati
06.17.11 at 01:55

This is worth-mentioning that at least there is a reliable platform providing the youth with ample opportunities for their inborn talent. I opine that it's not the matter of blowing one's own triumph, rather television shows, like American Idol, prove in the long run a good source in bringing the hidden talent in front of a live camera.

Since, everybody is blessed with a lot of qualities, no one can deny anybody of such chances. One should be proud of his/her talent.
Muhammad Sanaullah Bhatti
06.17.11 at 02:07

Art is mostly about Money nowadays, good Design is as important as it ever was, Aesthetics change all the time, so i guess when you're in the eye of the 'shitstorm' trying to come up with a bigger picture Fecundity is a nice way to try to decide what potentially has some 'long term value'.

But watch out for dry scientific minds who will take this kind of argument and use it the wrong way - think Denis Dutton: modernist art is degenerate because it doesn't respect the 'artistic instincts' of homo sapiens... There's a TED talk video about this theory which of course completely focuses on 'presentation' instead of content ;)
Anton Coops
06.17.11 at 04:02

Right Ponyboy, but then what happens when you get James Franco and Praxis's new collaboration "The Museum of Non-Visible Art"*. Talk about the disintegration of craft; the self-imposed irreverence (in a bad/boring way) of context or history. Whatever, I know Franco is small beans, but if i understand correctly then it would have been "craft" that rendered this kind of stuff negligible. Not that that's the point. Franco's existence, insofar as it has invaded the art world, is merely symptomatic of what Earls is addressing. While the bell curve is still thick with "craft and beauty" as you've mentioned, in Chelsea or otherwise, it can be easily argued that things are skewing toward the vision Earls's last two essay's on this site have contended with (at least on the edges of such a curve). Franco is just an example…and not even the best one. By and large, I wouldn't use Chelsea as the measure of things a-coming.

It is as Ponyboy asks: "What is radical in 2011?" and is that even the point anymore? Floundering radicalism/vanguardism is a sign of the times? Well yeah, ok. Earls is delineating the structure in broad strokes. My problem is this. It seems to me that Earls's position is preconditioned by radicalism being a viable practice, inasmuch as it is the purpose. Every endgame I can think of that is techne-centric leads to one where "originality" takes primacy. And it isn't that "its too damn hard" but that such an endgame is unsustainable and at the turn of the century, fervently vanguarding into the wilds has become such a solipsistic exercise that the most of it becomes irrelevant anyway. We talk of "important" work, but that happens in tandem with the village, not in the woods. For instance, take the greyhat hacker group Lulzsec. Personal affiliations and values aside, they exist both inside and outside of the system and are made powerful for it. While complicity to social mores may be indicative of a cultural retreat from radicality, it also necessitates the need for real, true, meaningful radicalism that extends beyond form or insular frameworks; beyond design and art and into that exact blobby mess that happens to be the home of the disease Earls mentions.

If pointed Duchampian strategies were once radical and have waned to indifference, then Lulzsecian attitudes are the endgame. To misquote Lulzsec, "Keep your money, we do it for the lulz." And in the structure that Ponyboy suggests is still prevalent, this move is a natural transition/backlash (regression?); and perhaps the radicalism to answer his question (and a weird Joker to Earls's Batman).

Gen Ebel
06.17.11 at 10:53

For me, the question of Fecundity has always (and increasingly consciously) informed my criticism of Design.

All of the lasting thrills that I receive from Good Design have been due to designers radically altering our interactions with our physical manifestations in such a way that it is immediately clear that future works are just waiting to pour from the edifice they've created, and that the work, while rigorously and fully realized, is the start of something even better.

Experiencing that thrill is why I design. The idea that just maybe, someday, I could give it to someone else has never ceased to be romantic for me, even as almost everything else has.
06.17.11 at 02:54

Good to see that cranbrook continues its tradition of throwing about high falutin critical theory buzzwords without really understanding what they mean. I'd argue that subject positions are not "available" unless you come from a very privileged class
two bit matthews
06.18.11 at 03:36

Two Bit Matthews,
You missed the period on your last sentence. Oh and you should capitalize Cranbrook.

Lil Wayne
06.19.11 at 08:14

Nice one, there is actually some good points on this blog some of my readers may find this useful, I must send a link, many thanks....
name pendants
06.20.11 at 06:59

Thank you Elliott. Again, your insights are brilliant, and your ability to pen your ideas -- the techné of your word-smithing -- is outstanding.

I am particularly grateful that as an educator at a leading institution, you are engaged in the present.
David Cabianca
06.21.11 at 11:57

Well said.

I posted a link to the article on Facebook. Now only if I could Like it.
tj blanchflower
06.22.11 at 09:14

Really great one , I like this.......
Brochure Design
06.23.11 at 09:38

There are so many hidden pockets of talent in this country. American Idol and other performing shows are a great medium for the exposure of talent and fashion. Thanks.
design your own shoes
Andrew Design
06.24.11 at 04:04

Great article. Took me three times to really absorb the whole argument (and google all the references). Important piece, worthy of more discussion on DO.
06.26.11 at 06:02

It's a "good" article, but is it "important"?
Empty Howler
06.26.11 at 11:46

I do think it is "important" and relevant to graphic design more than ever when we are in the eye of the "everyone is a designer/design your life" storm. And have been for a while. American Idol is bowing to the "everyone can be a super star" golden calf. And while I do agree with Ponyboy Curtis in the sense that they have techne, they sure don't have the brains to actually pack a punch. The are living vicariously through another's words/lyrics.

Urban Outfitters-esque spoon-fed customization has removed techne from the picture and makes it ever the more difficult for a designer to legitimize their existence. It's a double-edged sword. More people than ever appreciate design now or have design knowledge based on the media/reality tv/the products we buy. However, with this comes people DIYing the hell out of everything, not wanting actual designers in the picture anymore.

This may seem like whining, but actually I think this calls for more techne and understanding of the fundamentals in design to stand out. This doesn't mean more re-hashing of the German, Dutch and Swiss (which I think speaks to American Idol-covers of songs and a re-hashing of design aesthetics from the old masters both show a love of "things you have already seen and know aka same as it ever was but I digress...), but a stronger hold on design knowledge and less on trend following. Intellectual techne? The etsy-genre of graphic design just doesn't cut it.

While this may be a tired conversation in the art-world with Un-monumental feeling so long ago already, it is something that I think is definitely worthy of a conversation on DO.
06.27.11 at 02:20

nice read.
07.07.11 at 11:54

Ponyboy, nothing is radical in 2011. Going about searching for the radical will lead to a life of disappointments.
07.08.11 at 03:31

Surprised there aren't more comments discussing this! Definitely going to have my students read in the fall.
07.13.11 at 10:04

Thank you Elliott.
07.14.11 at 06:02

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Elliott Earls is a designer, performance artist and musician. Earls’ hybrid multimedia work blurs distinctions between high and low, performance and object, design and art. Earls is currently Designer-In-Residence and head of the graduate graphic design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
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